It was near midnight, in a storm, on a dirt road in the middle of Mongolia. Still, the river seemed manageable.
My cousin Cole Paullin and I were searching for a place to camp, and I was exhausted from a long day of fording streams in our rented four-by-four truck.
“Seems fine,” I said. “Go for it.”
Cole accelerated and the front tires plunged off an unseen embankment, slamming onto the rocks below. We were perched at a precarious angle, and the front half of the truck was submerged. Water intruded through a crack in the door, lapping onto my feet. I imagined our rental deposit draining downstream.
Drawn by the noise, two young men came over from a nearby tent camp. One waded toward the car into the waist-deep water with a message typed on Google Translate: “This is dangerous.” I was too embarrassed to be scared.
I lent him my rain jacket as he made some calls. Thankfully, there was cellular service. Within an hour, a man with a truck and a tow strap arrived. We reversed at full speed while he accelerated, extricating us from the river.
“That was Disneyland, dude,” said Cole, 27, channeling the slang of his native Los Angeles. “What a ride.”
Cole and I live on different continents — he’s in Philadelphia and I’m in London — but once a year, we convene somewhere new for an outdoors trip. This year, we decided to take a weeklong drive across Mongolia.
Over the past decade, millennials like me — those born between roughly 1981 and 1996 — have been seeking out remote places like Mongolia, while other tourists crowd Santorini, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. It may be a reaction to a world that’s increasingly condensed into our phones, where the same few destinations pop up again and again on Instagram grids and travel blogs. What we have gained in accessibility, we have lost in serendipity.
The Mongolian government has been trying to capitalize on this desire for less curated travel. It has invested in a digital marketing campaign targeting people ages 23 to 40. It has also invited social media influencers to come to Mongolia and post videos of the country’s verdant valleys, Caribbean-blue lakes and orange sand dunes. According to a 2019 survey cited by Mongolia’s tourism ministry, 49 percent of visitors to the country were under 40.
Tour operators are catering to this growing interest, helping young people see the Golden Eagle Festival, an annual gathering of nomadic hunters — male and female — and their eagles; join the…