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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.)
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.
“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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