Mongolia – The Gobi Desert – Part 4

September 2015

The dark clouds were beginning to clear the next morning as we left our campsite and set out for our journey to the Khongoryn Els or Singing Sands, the largest dunes in the Gobi. Usually when someone thinks of the Gobi Desert they envision rolling sand dunes like the Sahara, but this is a fallacious assumption. The vast majority of the Gobi is gravel, with numerous exotic rock formations as I have already shown. But there is one area of the Gobi which exhibits this archetype…The Khongoryn Els. This is what Lonely Planet says:

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“Khongoryn Els are some of the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia. Also known as the Duut Mankhan (Singing Dunes – from the sound they make when the sand is moved by the wind or as it collapses in small avalanches), they are up to 300m high, 12km wide and about 100km long. The largest dunes are at the northwestern corner of the range. Getting to the top (45 minutes to one hour) is exhausting; every step forward is followed by a significant backslide, but the views of the desert from the sandy summit are wonderful.

The sand dunes are also a popular place for organising camel rides, and locals seem to appear from nowhere when a jeep full of tourists arrives.

The dunes are about 180km from Dalanzadgad. There is no way to get here unless you charter a jeep or are part of a tour.”

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It was a long hot days drive through a flat, gravely plain. We stopped at one small town to buy supplies. While there I noticed an an interesting stupa in the middle of town so I wandered over to have a closer look.

Much of the time there were no roads per se, just tracks where other vehicles had passed. Occasionally we would come upon an elaborate, exclusive ger Camp set up for high-end Abercrombie & Fitch-type tourists, the ones who want to see the Gobi, but like to have hot showers and flush toilets as well.

By late afternoon we rolled up to the base of the Khongoryn Els. Though we knew of several other jeep treks following a similar itinerary, when we got there it was empty. There are a number of routes to the top of the dunes, but none looked especially easy. I chose one at random and started up. What began as a stroll, soon turned into a slog as the dunes rose precipitously. They then turned into a scramble, and finally a slow crawl, as I made my way up the last, almost vertical wall of loose sand using my hands and feet. Beside the slipping backwards with every step, I also had to virtually cut steps into the wall of sand, just like climbing a steep snow field. Though quite exhausted when I finally reached the top, the view from up there was worth it. Just before I made it to the summit, Hishka and Abbo came strolling over a dune and stood calling encouragement. They had taken an alternate route and reached the top shortly before me. Of course, I was nearly 40 years older than them so I didn’t feel bad about it.

While we explored the top of the world, several other jeeps arrived and more tourists began the ascent, so it was time to slide down and find a campsite for the night before it became too crowded to enjoy the view. When we reached the bottom the camels seemed to have appeared by magic. Bactrian, two-humped camels with saddle carpets and spikes through their noses. A ride on a camel, though almost a requirement of any Gobi adventure, was something I thought to forego. You don’t get to really ‘ride’ the camels, just sit on their backs and be lead around by the owner, sort of like a child’s pony ride. If I couldn’t actually control my beast, then I wasn’t interested. I found the same problem in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh. They have sand dunes and camels there as well, but the rides are the same, sit on the back of a camel like a little baby and let someone pull you around. A sucker’s game for superficial tourists.

Since our next goal was to be a search for petroglyphs in the nearby hills, we camped  for the night in a secluded valley and had an amazing sunset to finish the day.

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