Gobi, Mongolia—with its green-blue ombré steppe and hazy golden desert—begs to be explored. It’s no wonder the area’s most famous inhabitants are nomads. For writer and photographer Mariana Jamadi, whose popular blog Nomadic Habit has been inspiring travelers for years, Mongolia had been a dream destination since 2009. That year, she’d watched the documentary The Horse Boy about a family that travels to Mongolia, and it sparked some serious wanderlust. But when she finally got a chance to experience the country, it wasn’t on the back of a horse—it was in the back of a rickety old military van. We sat down with the wanderer to hear about what it’s really like to drive straight into the heart of this truly nomadic world.
“Mongolia is a land of contrasts,” says Jamadi. “Outside Ulaanbaatar, it’s vast, but once you get into the capital, it’s very dense. Most of the country’s population lives in that city. A lot of the buildings you see are post-communist, but then you also see places like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. There was a place called Los Angeles and another bar called Brooklyn. There was even this place that had the Whole Foods logo but was called Natural Foods, so there’s definitely some very Westernized and commercial areas too.”
But she wasn’t interested in simply exploring the city. Jamadi had traveled to Mongolia to see the wilder parts. “The thing about Mongolia,” she says, “is it’s one of those places where you’re not totally free to roam the country like you want, so to get into the countryside your best bet is to do a tour.”
During her six-week stay, Jamadi embarked on an eight-day excurison down to the Gobi Desert and back with Idre Tours. “There were six of us with a driver and a guide,” she explains, noting that it’s crucial to do your research beforehand and find a company and a driver you can trust. “The vans are typically these old Russian military vans. We broke down and overheated a few times during the trip, but our driver was great because he really knows how to fix whatever goes wrong with these vans. In those eight days we only came across another tour group maybe two or three times; it’s really you and the landscape.”
There are campsites for tourists in the Mongolian wilderness, but most organized tours give travelers the opportunity to stay with locals. Of course, it’s not always easy to synchronize with a family on the move. “The tour companies don’t have set plans with the families—they can’t really—but they know generally where different families are so you show up and hope they have a spot,” Jamadi says. “It’s all kind of a race to get lodging before the sun sets.”
And it’s not always smooth sailing. “One night we stopped at three different places and none of the families had space for us, and then a sandstorm came along so we just had to stay tight.” While they did eventually make it through to find a place to stay, the experience stuck with Jamadi. “It was very humbling to realize we were really at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
It became almost a theme of the trip. “In certain places,” she remembers, “Mongolia is so open and vast. You feel really minor and major at the same time.”
The Flaming Cliffs, also known as Bayanzag or Bain-Dzak, are almost 700 miles southwest of Ulaanbaatar, right on the edge of the Gobi Desert. “This painted desert is incredible,” says Jamadi, “and it kind of comes out of nowhere. We were driving through this vast desert landscape, and all of the sudden there was this.
“It’s one of those places where your eyes can’t take it in. We hit this spot when the light was just glowing, which is how I was able to capture these colors.” In Mongolia, a golden hour photo doesn’t come without the reminder of impending night: “We were only there for about 30 minutes to an hour because we had to race to get to where we were going to sleep that night.”
“The terrain changes a lot in Mongolia,” Jamadi says. “One day you’ll be in a desert and then four days later, you’re in these incredible green valleys. Yolin Am felt like ‘the land before time,’ and there were amazing yaks roaming everywhere. Our guide told us that in the wintertime, Yolin Am freezes over, so we were lucky we got to see it this green.”
By the time Jamadi and her group reached the Khongor Sand Dunes, or Khongoryn Els, in the extreme south of the Gobi Desert, it was time for a break. They gave the old van a rest and spent a full day exploring with a different mode of transportation. “The family we were staying with had horses and camels, so we all got on camels and rode along the dunes. It was too steep to go up with the camels, but we later trekked up on foot, which took an hour. It’s sand so it’s hard to deal with on its own, but you’re also at altitude, which makes it more even more difficult.” (A high desert, the Gobi sits on a plateau; the base of the dunes is approximately 4,600 feet above sea level.)
“They call these dunes the Singing Dunes because the wind is so powerful at the top that it creates this whistling, chiming noise. You can even hear it at the base. They’re like little wind songs. You can really feel the power of it.”
The dunes weren’t entirely magical. “Our guide said that there was a lake nearby and we were eager for a shower, since this was the end of the trip. It turned out to be a still lake.” Probably used as a watering hole for animals, it wasn’t exactly crystal clean. She laughs and says, “But we were desperate at this point, so hot and sweaty, we just wanted some relief.” So they took a dip.
“There’s really no in-between in Mongolia,” she says wistfully, thinking back on the group’s return to the city. “When it comes to accommodation, it’s either very either backpackery or expensive. But we did manage to find a good hostel called Zaya with a warm shower and decent internet. It was a bit of a refuge. Sometimes I think it is really important to come back to a place that’s really comfortable after a long trip.”
“It’s one of those places where you can feel like you’re on a completely different planet,” she says. “I still dream about it.”
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Maggie Fuller Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.