Rediscovering the Gobi Desert as a Local

By Marinel de Jesus

When people think of Gobi, they think dry desert and nothingness. The experience of being there, however, can be quite the opposite. Those who wander in Gobi get lost in the vastness of it only to find a greater sense of adventuring that they rarely experience. 

It was late August when I decided to explore a less touristy part of Gobi. I’ve been in Mongolia since late February, 2020 and have made Ulaanbaatar my home base.  From there, it’s a six hour ride to Dalanzagad where I planned to meet locals who had organized a short three-day trip in South Gobi as a way to explore new routes and ideas for tourism.

Years ago, I visited the touristy part of Gobi. This latest adventure was going to be different. There were no vast sand dunes to be seen.  It was more of a dry desert characterized by the flatness that extended beyond what the eyes can see.  Here and there, one can observe low bushes and short rolling hills.  And yet, camels and herds of sheep and goats wander the area as one expects from the classic scenery that’s deemed as Gobi. 

Our group ventured out in land cruisers that were suited for off-roading. We drove for hours during the day but stopped to visit a family that continues to run a fruit and vegetable farm in the dry region of Gobi.  Here, we tasted the local version of apples – one that was smaller in size.  We also visited a fruit farm that produces a supply of the local fruit – sea buckthorn. These farms, if anything, defied the idea that no life thrives in Gobi especially after learning that these farms have been in operation for decades; many of these fruits have proven themselves adaptable to the natural elements that are unique only to Gobi.

That night we reached a vast flat dry area where we camped.  The trip organizers experimented with their new idea for Gobi tours – staging an outdoor cinema in Gobi by using a projector and a screen. I must say technically speaking, the idea was a success.  Although I prefer silence and stillness in the outdoors, this cinema idea would certainly appeal to those who wish to have entertainment as part of their adventure.

We experienced perfect desert weather that night – warm with a slight cool breeze. I woke up the next morning enthralled in the stillness of the place with the sun rising accompanied by a soft breeze. I woke up earlier than my companions, so I managed to set up a camp chair a few meters away from our camp to stare out towards the vastness of the landscape before me and drift mentally away from my physical reality. Without really knowing it, I was in a meditative state.  This is how Gobi sneaks up on you.  I welcome it every time.

A film crew happened to join us to create footage of our adventures as part of producing a short tourism-focused promo video. Hence, the second day of our trip was dedicated to getting most of the filming done. I was even invited to join a yoga session in the middle of Gobi as part of the video. The shooting that day also involved local musicians and participants wearing traditional clothing to promote Mongolian culture. 

That night, we unexpectedly experienced a downpour of rain. So, the group swiftly decided to cut the driving short and stay in an empty government building next to a family that raises camels and herds.  The next morning, the film crew took videos of the camels and the herds before our drive back to Dalanzagad. It was three days full of new adventures that I never experienced in Gobi in the past. Traveling with the locals added a certain level of uniqueness to the experience that one can never have by joining a tour via the standard routes. All this was made possible by the fact that I was still “stuck” in Mongolia due to the pandemic. The crisis afforded me an opportunity to see a lesser known side to Gobi – a place that’s truly full of life.