We spend a while driving around trying to find them.
They are nomads after all, so even if we knew their address, or if deserts had addresses, there was a fair chance they would have moved on to a new place by now. We stop a passing car to ask if they have seen the nomads. It’s only one we’ve seen for at least an hour so we guess they must be going to or from somewhere just as remote as us. They gesture into the distance so we drive on.
The landscape around here is desert, but not the kind of desert that has fine white sand and flowing dunes. It’s much harsher and far harder to romanticize. A wide open expanse of rocks on dirt and occasional patches of tough, dry grass pushing their way through the rubble. In the distance, skirting the horizon, are mountains that look just as dry but somehow more inviting or at least shapelier. Then, breaking the rocky plain we see a small group of tents. Who else would set up home here in the middle of such a Spartan scene than people who know no other way of life?
Two things strike me as we drive up to the camp. One is the lack of grass or anything visible to my non nomad eye for their small herd of goats to graze on. I can’t figure out why they would set up camp here? Do nomad sheep and goats eat rocks and pebbles? The second is one of the family members who comes out to greet us. She’s young, although her age is hard to guess as her skin is weathered and wrinkled from squinting against the desert glare and winds. Her eyes are captivating, defiant of the humble setting and full of immense spirit. She scans the unannounced guests as if assessing how she can make the most of this unique opportunity. Her eyes, vivid green in a dust tanned face lock onto mine. She’s chosen me.
For the rest of the evening and into the next day, I am hers. The formal introductions complete, she grabs my hand and pulls me running into the desert. She is swift and light as she sprints across the stones in her broken flip flops, I stumble and fear spraining an ankle as I’m pulled along with her. She shows me her sheep, hardly hiding her pride. They eat sticks and twigs caught among the rocks. She sings a song in a language I don’t understand but want to. She draws in the dirt with a stick and uses her fingers to ask my name, how old I am, am I married? I ask her the same questions and she is elusive, instead handing me a baby goat. She pulls off my headscarf to see my hair, tries on my sunglasses and my shoes. I’m not sure how a desert nomad girl learned the seductive poses that she makes when she asks me to take her picture.
We round up the goats and bring them back to camp. Her chores are now my chores. We scuttle after chickens, catching them and putting them in a big sack for the night so wild dogs don’t get them. We then choose, pluck and boil one of the chickens for dinner. I’m not allowed to leave her side and she’s not going to let me go until she has to. When I gesture I need to go to the toilet, she is only too happy to join me as we walk out into the dusk filled desert and squat amongst the rubble.
Friends of the family join us for dinner. Who knows where they have come from or how they knew we were here. After we scoop up chicken stew with paper thin bread, someone pulls out a tape player and sticks in a cassette. My new friend disappears and comes back into the tent wearing a worn but clearly treasured outfit, covered with multi-colored spangles. She starts to dance, moving her arms in an intricate way that I can’t follow but have no choice but to attempt to anyway.
I feel awkward, urban, disconnected from the earth, a culture and a life like hers. Tomorrow I’ll move on by bus, train, plane to another city, country, culture. She’ll soon move too, but it won’t be as far away in distance or in destination. It is my freedom to travel the world that has brought me here but it is her ages old, unchanged existence that keeps her so firmly attached to a way of life and yet somehow still so free.
Wherever I go, there I am. I’m the kind of person who can feel as at home alone in a buzzing big city like Beijing where I currently live or staying with a family of nomads on the steppes of Mongolia miles from the nearest fence. I’ve spent weeks of my life travelling on trains across Russia and days in anticipation of departure or arrival at my next destination. In each place I stop, live or just pass through there are always places, moments and faces that I want to capture in writing, in a photo or just in my memory. This is what I want to share with you all here.
I’m Tara, turning 30, Australian, former gymnast, current yoga student and run a travel company in Beijing called Intrepid Travel that aims to give people Real Life Experiences through Responsible & Sustainable Travel.