We have been driving just north of a mountain range on which we see fresh snow, under skies of wild clouds, and with herds of horses and Bactrian camels, through a canyon, when our driver stops on top of a hill. Ahead of us, in the distance, we see a long line of sand dunes: the desert in its most classical form. We wait a little while for the sun to go down, and set off to walk to the base of the highest dunes. A strong wind is blowing sand off the dunes, and after struggling up for a while, the wind only becomes much stronger. Clouds of sand are hurled into the air from the crest the sand dunes: the higher we get, the harder the circumstances. When I finally reach the top, I just sit on the sand, because I feel the wind is strong enough to blow me off the dunes. It seems it does not want me there. It is the first time I see the sea of sand dunes, lower than the highest ones I am on. We head down, to a lower part of the long range of dunes, where the wind on top is a little more bearable. The wind continues to blow hard; the lines of the dunes are fuzzy, the sand always in motion, making a whistling sound. So this is why they are called duut mankhan, the singing dunes. When the sun disappears in a thick cloud hanging over the horizon, I make my way down, meandering through the pools at the base of the Khongoryn Els sand dunes. Well before I reach camp, I can hear the weeping of the herd of camels.
The next morning, the wind has disappeared, the sky is clear, so we go off to the base of the highest dunes can be found. There is no one around yet, and the wind has erased any traces of footsteps. We walk straight up; the last bit is quite hard because the dune is so steep, you slide down every step you take. But then the views - they totally make up for the effort. Now that the atmosphere is quiet, the view is stunning. But I am not happy: I want to climb what seems to be the highest dune of all. It does not seem far, and after I discover that walking the crest is not easy, I go up and down the dunes. Your sense of distance apparently gets fooled by the sand, because it takes me much longer than anticipated to reach the summit. In the distance, I see a range of snow-capped mountains. There is the valley below, with water, patches of green, herds of horses and camels, and on the other side, the sea of Gobi desert dunes. More people are making their way up. I walk back, and have some photoshoots on the crest before we make our way down again. A Korean guy who tries to slide down on an inflatable devide actually has to struggle to get down: even though the incline is steep, the sand apparently is not willing to cooperate.
Back to ger camp, the owner has already prepared a couple of camels, and guides us on their soft backs for a different tour of the desert. The going is surprisingly easy with our backs against the second hump, and putting my hands in the furry wool of the camel ensures they keep warm. Later in the afternoon, I go back to the dunes again, and the cute small black dog that has followed us most of the time, follows me again. We walk alongside the endless row of sand dunes of Khongoryn Els, and discover some patches of water at the lowest sand dunes. When I finally walk up the steep and high sand dunes, the dog surprises me by following me all the way to the top. We lie down, the dog curled up against me, on the crest of the Gobi desert dune, waiting for the sun to sink. This time around, it is calm, and pleasant to be in the sun, and see the colours of the sand change from light brown to dark orange before the sun really sets. We then have to make our way back fast to reach camp before darkness. Inevitably, the dog sneaks into our ger and curls up beside our bed for the night. The next morning, I am up early to see sunrise over the sand dunes, but when I stick my head out of the painted ger door, see that a thick layer of clouds lies low over the dunes. I consider running up, calculate this is not possible. Fortunately, the driver is willing to stop at one of the highest dunes again, and I make my way up anyway, but the sky does not have the exciting patterns of before, so I run down, and we leave just when a light drizzle starts to come down. Soon enough, it turns into snow, and somehow, my heart tells me to go back and stay - snow on the Gobi desert dunes? But we have more places to explore, and continue driving east - with mixed feelings.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Khongoryn Els (Mongolia). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Khongoryn Els.
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