I’ve followed the work of Yulia Denisyuk for a few years now. Her colourful, intimate images immediately captivated me, and I have watched her work grow through her Instagram account, and been thrilled to see her work published in places like Lonely Planet and Afar. Her most recent venture is into the world of running travel tours, with her new company NOMⴷD + JULES. Having just run their first trip to Jordan, I loved seeing the images from the trip and the experiences of the travellers who followed her through this country she loves so much.
I have noticed that Yulia is often attracted to travelling in countries others might not think to go to. Jordan, Morocco, Mongolia and Turkey are just a few she has created beautiful work from. With her company, she now hopes to lead other people to these countries, to share her passion for the less well-trodden parts of the world. In this interview, I chat to her about her background in travel, how she put her dreams of setting up a travel company into action, and what she hopes the future will hold for NOMⴷD + JULES.
Tell us your travel story? When did you start travelling and how has your upbringing around the world influenced the way you travel?
My first solo trip took place when I was five. Our family moved to Estonia and I traveled frequently from there to my birthplace, Kazakhstan. This peripatetic childhood and later, another move of our family across the ocean to the United States have put me on the course to never stop traveling. Through my twenties, I’ve traveled frequently and spent long periods of time in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was a trip to India that particularly affected me. On that trip, I’ve stayed with a family in Northern India. The kindness, warmth, and humility I’ve encountered there has transformed me and made me think about the way I want to live in this world. At the time, I was about to graduate from a prestigious business school in the US. I went on to work as a brand manager for a few more years, but the call to have more transformative travel experiences was becoming stronger.
When did you start to combine creativity and travel? How did this journey lead you to become a travel writer and photographer?
I received my first point-and-shoot Kodak film camera at ten years of age and was instantly hooked on the power of telling stories but my road to becoming a professional photographer and writer was not straightforward. I followed certain steps — from an immigrant and a naval analyst to an MBA grad and a corporate manager — but I had little joy, passion, or freedom at the end of this path. Corporate work in the US is often associated with stress; it was certainly true in my case. A few years ago, I’ve reached a point of extreme burnout and had a choice to make: continue down the current path or attempt to design my life around frequent travel, creativity, and freedom. I chose the latter. Since then, travel has become my way of life and my work has been published in Lonely Planet, AFAR, Turkish Airline Skylife, and others.
What inspired you to set up NOMⴷD + JULES? How did you go about putting your dream of running tours into action?
In the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to explore parts of the Middle East region. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time working in Jordan and traveled to Bethlehem, Palestine. As a solo traveler, I’ve always received many questions from friends, family, and my social media community about these places: are they safe? how do you go there alone? are you not afraid? I’ve always answered positively to these questions because the reality I’ve encountered on the ground has consistently been far from what the media portrays.
Spending time with people that live and work in these places has taught me that the situation on the ground is often less extreme and sensationalized than what we may read in our newsfeeds. The Middle East and a lot of other “unstable” regions have so much to offer to us in terms of history, natural beauty, culture, and of course, real person-to-person interactions. Unfortunately, many miss out on the opportunity to get exposed to all this rich human experience due to various misconceptions associated with these places. This realization has made me think about what I can do beyond my editorial work to spread this message. Naturally, I’ve come to a conclusion that experiences are the most powerful way to learn about a destination.
Once the idea was conceived, I approached this project like a brand manager launching a new product. Stages such as design, identity, branding, and strategy took several weeks. I then reached out to my extensive network of fellow travelers for feedback and secured an initial partner who ended up supporting NOMⴷD + JULES’ inaugural trips to Jordan.
What is different about travelling on a NOMⴷD + JULES tour? What can travellers expect from one of your adventures?
First, we place local interactions at the heart of everything we do. This comes from my conviction that people are what makes travel a transformative force. A NOMⴷD + JULES traveler will have an opportunity to spend a lot of time with the people who live and work in the destinations we go to. The goal is to show a human side of a place to encourage people to think differently about it.
Second, our Journeys are authentic and experiential in nature. We go to places that are not typical tourist attractions. Or, if we do, we visit them in our own way. For example, we recently took the first NOMⴷD + JULES trip to Petra in Jordan, which is an incredibly crowded tourist site. But instead of visiting Petra the usual way, we hiked 10 miles from Little Petra (where Bedouin tribes still live) to Petra’s Monastery complex. We met few other travelers along the way and interacted with locals freely while we hiked.
Finally, our Journeys are designed to be intimate (our average group size is 5-6 people). We have our own transportation and travel at our own pace to ensure that each group gets the most out of the experience.
Why Jordan for your first tour? What about this country do you love and what inspires you to return?
During my first visit to Jordan, I went through the type of a transformation that I now hope to provide for our travelers. Even as a seasoned traveler, I knew little about the region beyond the headlines. I discovered in Jordan a thousand-years-old knowledge and history, rich heritage of the Levant culture (a geographical area that includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey), and above all, generous, welcoming people. The experience has truly stirred me.
With that said, living in Jordan is not easy. The economic situation is quite perilous and tourism is often a primary means of income for many families. It felt right to start NOMⴷD + JULES here.
Jordan and many of the other countries you are planning trips to are often misunderstood as being unsafe or difficult countries to travel in. What is your experience of travelling in these countries, and how do you hope to show travellers a different side of the country that is often perceived?
I get this question often; someone has recently asked me if I was afraid to travel to Mongolia (my most recent trip). Throughout my travels, I have been fortunate to meet people who’ve left an indelible mark on me. These experiences have encouraged me to keep viewing the world openly, fearlessly, with compassion. That’s why NOMⴷD + JULES Journeys place emphasis on local interactions. We believe that spending a considerable amount of time person-to-person is the best way to combat fear and misconceptions.
In addition, we work with local organizations and destination management companies to ensure that we have the best on the ground, local knowledge when designing our itineraries. And we exercise precaution to travel safely, which should be done no matter where in the world you go.
‘…we place local interactions at the heart of everything we do. This comes from my conviction that people are what makes travel a transformative force.’
One of the really nice things I have read about NOMⴷD + JULES is your incentive to ‘Give Back’. Can you tell us a little about how you do this and how you incorporate this into the tours?
The goal of the Give Back initiative is to utilize the incredible power of tourism and travel to lift up the communities we work with on the ground. This is currently in development but, eventually, the hope is that our trips will have an increased impact on both the participants and the communities we visit through tangible contributions such as volunteering and empowering of local artisans. I’ve learned through the process of starting NOMⴷD + JULES and listening to our partners on the ground that often, communities and individuals that struggle do not want monetary donations (which is how the West sometimes views these types of arrangements). Instead, they want to maintain their dignity, make a fair living, and have a decent life. We are currently working on figuring out what exactly that means for each NOMⴷD + JULES Journey.
What does a day in the life of a traveller on a NOMⴷD + JULES trip look like?
Each NOMⴷD + JULES Journey has an itinerary designed around visual components. This means that we often visit places at sunrise or sunset to enjoy (and capture, if desired) the best light. Guided by local knowledge, we seek out the best spots to eat and visit and generally have fun, all while interacting with our guides and everyone we meet along the way.
Traveling at our own pace means we stop at a side of the road if we see something interesting — we always choose real, spontaneous experiences over manufactured ones. This kind of openness and embracing the unknown gifts us with wonderful experiences we wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. For example, on our last NOMⴷD + JULES trip to Jordan, we were running behind schedule to arrive at a certain viewpoint for sunset. I made an executive decision to pull over at the side of the road because I spotted a herd of camels nearby. We ended up watching the sun roll beyond the horizon right there — it was an incredible moment that one of our travelers captured perfectly.
What does the future look like for NOMⴷD + JULES? Where are you hoping to travel to next and why?
I want NOMⴷD + JULES to help people who are curious about these lesser-known destinations but are perhaps hesitant to go on their own, to fulfil that curiosity. We have recently completed our inaugural trip to Jordan, which was an incredible experience. For the rest of this year, we’re focused on growing our brand and offering a total of three or four new Journeys, including a fall trip to Jordan with a different itinerary (now open!) and trips to Morocco and Mongolia (opening soon). On the horizon, we have plans to offer Journeys to Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, and more — we cannot wait to show these places to our fellow travelers!
You can find NOMⴷD + JULES on their website, Instagram and Facebook. They have upcoming trips to Morocco, Mongolia and Jordan. Additionally, you can follow Yulia on her Instagram and find her work on her portfolio.
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