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Wild Luxury: A Safari in the Sands of the Gobi Desert

Nomads Wild Founder Shane Benes dishes details on their three-day getaway
2021-08-18 14:00:00
Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not.

‘Nomads Wild’ is a three-day retreat in safari tents out in the Gobi Desert.

…Which seems… reductive.

Better to let the photos show what this thing is all about.

Whoa, eh! Under a canopy of stars, in an ocean of sand, Nomads Wild is serving up baller Bedouin chic out of the Silk Road, with a three-day itinerary that includes helicopter, hot air balloon, and camel rides, meditation sessions, natural wine tastings, and astronomy and history lectures.

It looks. Well, hey, it looks pretty nice! Here’s some more pictures:

If you’ve been in Shanghai for a minute you’ll be familiar with one of the founders of Nomads Wild, Shane Benes, formerly one of the organizers of black tie boxing event Brawl On The Bund. A “Shanghai Famous” kinda dude if there ever was one. SmartShanghai caught up with Shane to get more details on this Nomads Wild sexy-looking tents thing out in the desert.


SmSh: Maybe to start you could introduce yourself and tell us about your own background, and introduce the team behind the project. 

Shane Benes: I’ve been in Shanghai since 2006. I'm a creative director, an event producer, and a boxing coach. For 12 years I ran the company that produced the black tie boxing event Brawl On The Bund, and for a number of years we were trying to keep upright what was Golden Gloves. 2020 was doozy for most people, and after closing the gym and deciding to put a pause on any boxing events, it was time for the next chapter. 

I guess similar to many business owners, we've always got new business ideas. The problem though, is that most of these ideas end up taking a back seat because we don't have the time to really focus on and nurture them.

For years I wanted to open a safari agency organising tours of Africa for Asian customers, (I grew up in Uganda and safaris have always been an important part of my life), but obviously 2020 wasn't the ideal moment to open an international travel agency. A friend invited me to organise a wellness retreat at her country home in a sleepy village in Yunnan, and I used the opportunity to get on the road and visit wild places. As things got worse around the world, I really was thankful to be based in Shanghai and it reinforced what I already knew; I love living here. There are so many gorgeous not-so-well-known places to see. People in rural areas are generally kind, inquisitive, and welcoming. I felt like I was re-discovering China. I organised several more retreats within China and enjoyed it so much I opened Nomads Wild together with one of my closest friends James.
We've set out to create special experience and this can only be accomplished with a solid team. As we are essentially a pop-up event company on the road, we're able to pull in some extremely talented personalities from the hospitality industry to join and support each retreat. From our head of marketing to our meditation instructors, our team members are chosen because they are 1) very good at what they do and 2) have a desire to create special experiences for other people. Some readers within China may recognise the photos taken by Mathias Guilin, or some of the dishes by Ramon Verano. Our entire team is made up of warm and kind people, and each brings their own unique qualities to our retreats.

SmSh: What’s the idea behind the three-day retreat?  Seems to combine a lot of different elements. Some silk road history, some meditation and mindfulness, some gin…

SB: Our retreats are pop-up events in the wilderness. We set up in wild locations, and when we depart we leave no trace we were ever there. Our events are about discovering beautiful and secluded locations, being present, connecting on a deeper level, feeling recharged, learning something new and enjoying yourself. Looking at the itinerary it might seem like a wide range of activities, but with each location we curate programming which is relevant to the location. We practice meditation and mindfulness so each day starts with a sunrise meditation, and sunrises in the desert can be epic. 

We try to avoid touristy hot spots, but with this retreat situated in such a historically significant place, we knew we had to incorporate something special into the programming. We invited a professor who's a former lecturer of the British Museum, to join our team and to give our guests an informal fireside history of the silk road. To really create a special experience you need to go above and beyond in what you try to provide guests, and I think we've done that with each element of the weekend.

SmSh: Can you tell us about the safari tents?  They look pretty swank. What’s the layout like?  

SB: In DunHuang we're using safari tents designed for the French military, but customized for civilian use.  Each tent fits two adults and is set up for couples with one bed or for friends with two beds. I designed the interiors of the tents and a superstar called Ciga helped make it a reality. Everything in the tent is functional for prolonged stays in the wild. Generally we don't like using the word luxury, because this word really means different things to different people. To me, this camp is wild luxury. We have hot showers, en-suite toilets, 50 year old Iranian carpets, imported Morrocan tables, and comfortable beds. I've been to some of the best safari camps in Africa and I'm very happy with how the tents feel and work.

SmSh: What exactly are the accommodations options?

SB: We have one tent style, eight tents available for each retreat, and each tent fits 2 people.

SmSh: What sorts of guests are showing interest?

SB: There's space for up to 16 guests on each retreat. There's been a lot more interest from women than men in the retreats, not surprisingly. Retreats are a fantastic way to get to know your friends on a deeper level by doing something fun and  adventurous together. We've got reservations from couples, friends coming as pairs, business owners, corporate heads, fund managers and a couple of celebrities.

SmSh: Tell us about the location. Dunhuang, the Gobi Desert, the Crescent Moon Lake, and the Mogao Grottoes.

SB: The site is located 40kms outside of DunHuang city. The Gobi (from Mongolian gobi, pronounced "ge-bi" meaning “waterless place”) stretches across huge portions of both Mongolia and China. Contrary to the perhaps romantic image long associated with what—at least to the Western mind—was a remote and unexplored region, much of the Gobi is not sandy desert but bare rock. Our camp is located amongst sand dunes, facing the Kunlun mountain range. We are out of the city and away from the crowds. If you like crowds, then The Crescent Moon Lake is somewhere to check out! The Mogao Grottoes shouldn't be missed if visiting DunHuang - some of the paintings are 2,000 years old. We've arranged for completely private cave viewings.

SmSh: Picking out a few highlights from the itinerary, maybe you could go into a bit more detail:
 Tell me about the helicopter shuttle.

SB: The chopper shuttle is an optional add-on (that we recommend). Upon arrival at the airport, our shuttle car drops you off to the helipad and off you go. Our route takes us directly over the crescent moon lake and the view of the desert from the air is spectacular.

SmSh: The session with the astronomer.

SB: The night sky in the desert is one of the clearest in China, so we used the opportunity to do a little star gazing. We have an astronomer on hand with telescopes and maps of the night sky so that when you look up, you know exactly what constellations you're looking at for the next couple of nights. Last time we were there we lost count of the shooting stars.

SmSh: The session with the historian. 

SB: Professor Mao is a character. While she was teaching the course on "Forgotten Silk Road: Five Central Asian States" at the British Museum, she was also the editor of the Journal of Inner Asian Art & Archaeology at the University of London. She is currently both a research professor at the National Center for Cultural Soft Power Research in Beijing University and a research professor at the Dunhuang Academy. Her fireside history of the silk road is an intimate and informative conversation about DunHuang's significance in world trade and history.

SmSh: The wine tasting and dinner. 

SB: I asked Mat from Magnum Wines to be involved - well because I think he's the best in China. He provides wine to the best restaurants in the country including my favorite restaurant in the world UltraViolet. It's easy to forget; the best wines are not necessarily the most expensive, choose the right wine for the right occasion. We asked for a quality and a natural selection of wine, and boy did he deliver. Some people hear 'natural wine' and turn up their noses, I tell people to come with an open mind. I love his entire selection for the retreat.

Our menu was put together by the cheeky Spaniard Ramon Verano of Mikkeller, but formerly Tomatito which is where we met! The team at Tomatito was kind enough to let us set up our tent on their roof while we were testing interior designs earlier this year. Ramon brings such warmth and positive energy to the dishes that are served. He's someone who really cares about the experience of each meal. We're really lucky to have both of these boys involved in this.

SmSh: So it’s running in September and October? What's the pricing like? Is it all-inclusive?

SB: We are running this September and October and then we close this site for the winter. It's 20,888RMB per person and everything from arrival to departure is taken care of. All you need to do is get to DunHuang and our team does the rest.

Helicopters and hot air balloons are not for everyone, so these are optional add-ons.


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