This may have been the most difficult entry for me to write, not because of the subject, but because of the environment I’m writing in. I am back home in Washington state, my travels (for now) ceased. There’s something about being back home that seems to suck the inspiration away, the desire to reminisce about past adventures in a foreign land. I don’t know if I’d ever forgive myself if I didn’t finish this thing, however, so here we go!
When I first decided to come to Mongolia, the number one thing on my to-do list was to see Khongoryn Els, also known as the Singing Sands. Rising to heights of around 300 meters, they make the Mui Ne sand dunes I visited in Vietnam seem like anthills by comparison. Unfortunately for me, I chose to come to Mongolia in the spring, when most of the tourist camps are closed and getting to the Gobi is an adventure unto itself. I tried numerous times to set up a tour or to join an existing one, but was never really able to make it work. That is, not until I talked to the awesome staff at Sun’s Path Guesthouse in UB.
After a couple failed attempts at finding the right tour for me, the manager contacted me on the evening of May 4th (a most auspicious day in some circles). She had a group of four leaving the next morning, and should I like to stop by, compare ideal itineraries, and desire to join, well, that would work great for everyone. The next day, Sunday, was the last possible day for me to go to the Gobi, spend the amount of time there I wanted, and make it back with a comfortable amount of time before my flight. Since it was Saturday night, I’d all but given up hope. After she called, I kicked it around for a few seconds, then made one of the best decisions of my trip. I walked over to the Sun’s Path Guesthouse and met the other group members.
There were two guys from Germany (Simon and Florian) who were just starting out on an epic round-the-world trip that makes mine look timid, a girl from the Czech Republic (Petra) getting a little bit of R&R before returning to Irkutsk to finish her studies, and a girl from Sri Lanka (Thanuja) doing the same before returning to her job in Japan. An eclectic group, but after talking with them for a few minutes I knew it was going to be an awesome dynamic. As we talked over the itinerary, it became apparent we had the same desires in regard to what we wanted to see. Some time later, I was walking back to the Lotus Guesthouse in a daze; visions of sand dunes swirling through my thoughts. I was actually going to get to go to the Gobi!
I spent the rest of the night hanging out with a good friend of mine and making some delicious oatmeal.
The next morning, I woke up bright and early to meet the tour group. We got all our gear stowed in the back of the antiquated, yet meticulously clean, Russian van and headed off. As we headed out of the city, we got to know our Mogi and Jaga, our guide and driver, respectively. They were both very friendly and, thankfully, Mogi’s English was nothing short of impressive. Since we’d signed on for a six day tour, we were all relieved about that.
The first day wasn’t all that amazing. We started driving early in the morning and drove until after sunset. We covered hundreds of kilometers along the way from UB to a ger camp a short distance away from Bayanzag, or the Flaming Cliffs. We supped with our host family and were shown shortly thereafter to our sleeping quarters for the night. During the meal, I immediately noticed the change in dynamic from when I went on a solo trip into Gorkhi Terelj National Park. It was more comfortable for me as an outsider, as there were other people who spoke my language at the table, but a little more difficult to initiate communication with our hosts.
Our creative solution to have the window open but not banging down all the time.
The next day, we woke up to start taking in the magnificent sights of the Gobi. First up? A small cluster of red rock formations that looked amazing to climb on. On closer inspection, they turned out to be little more than crumbly, clay-like rock that was quite possibly one of the worst climbing surfaces I’ve ever seen. Not feeling like spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair, I decided to stay in contact with the ground… mostly. There was a nice little drop-off that I decided to slide off of. It turns out even that soft, crumbly clay isn’t so squishy when you crash into it from ten feet up.
We scampered around for a bit, then made a short detour to a nice little surprise our driver had in store for us. Under a pile of rocks was a rock with pieces of a chalky, white, material which our guide informed us was a dinosaur bone. The best way to tell? Lick it. If it’s a real dinosaur bone, it will stick to your tongue. We all laughed at the joke, but soon realized he was serious. Assuming we weren’t being taken for a ride, I can now say I’ve licked part of a dinosaur. Talk about a great addition to my resume!
After our lick-fest with Barney’s remains, we all piled in the van again for the next stop on our trek: Bayanzag or The Flaming Cliffs. Bayanzag is a Mongolian term that translates literally into ‘rich in saxual’. Naturally, we all snickered at the obvious typo, but it turns out the name is referencing a type of plant known as a saxual shrub. We were a little disappointed.
The Flaming Cliffs were ‘discovered’ and named by adventurer, paleontologist, Indiana Jones ancestor, and notorious tall tale teller Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s. Their claim to fame? Being the first site where fossilized dinosaur eggs were found. Pretty cool, eh? Nowadays they still yield some prehistoric goodies, but are also one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Gobi. They’re a magnificent sight to see, so their popularity is no surprise.
The Gobi, like many deserts, seems very featureless and boring at first glance. If you were to randomly take a snapshot from a random part of the Gobi, it would probably be featureless, flat, and desolate. Hidden away in its depths, however, are hidden geological wonders. The Flaming Cliffs are one of these. They rise up off the desert floor to create the furthermost edge of a plateau that is as flat as the ground below. The cliffs, true to their name, are a fiery reddish orange. We climbed around them for a while, taking in a view that takes the word ‘expanse’ and renders it completely inadequate.
We also took some goofy pictures. A few days prior had been the fourth of May which, as all cool people know, is a very important holiday. These pictures were a belated celebration of all things Force.
After we had explored the Cliffs to our satisfaction, we continued onward to a small town for lunch. While we waited for our grub to slide its greasy way over, I decided to scrounge up some medicine for my notorious digestive issues at the local pharmacy. It turned out to be more of an adventure than I planned. The shop was locked up, so I walked over to the hospital to see if someone inside could come over. After wandering aimlessly through the halls, I found someone to come unlock the pharmacy for me. Once inside, I explained with my limited Mongolian vocabulary that I needed medicine for constipation. The clerk and I went back and forth a few times before she understood, then grabbed a box of medicine off the shelf. Since I like to be thorough when it comes to medications, I tried to clarify that what she had grabbed would fix my issues. Mistake.
She ran back and grabbed another box, which she set alongside the first. She then rattled off a stream of Mongolian and looked at me expectantly. Not having learned my lesson, I tried to clarify again; resulting in two more boxes being placed in front of me. I now had four options and no idea what any of them would do. Not wanting to have any more boxes placed in front of me, I randomly selected two of the boxes. 50/50 chance of success. I can live with that.
Medication secured, I made it back to the group, popped some mystery pills, and enjoyed a tasty lunch with my new friends. After we’d scarfed our food, we went on a looooong ride through the desert to our next destination.
After outrunning a rain storm brought on by our rain-summoning friend, Thanuja, we made it to our next destination, a small ger camp at the base of Khongoryn Els or The Singing Sands.
Sometimes reaching around 300 m. in height, the Khongoryn Els were the whole reason I wanted to come to the Gobi. The reason I’d turned down several tours prior to this were because they omitted a visit to these massive dunes. As we drove within sight of them, they seemed almost underwhelming. Gradually, however, the distance between us and them became apparent. Underwhelming became jaw-dropping. These things were huge!
We were all so taken up with staring at the towering sand dunes that we nearly missed the awesome surprise waiting for us at the ger camp. Camels! Tons of woolley, awkward, stanky camels. And what were those camels there for? For us to ride on. Bam. This day was a legend in the making.
We all got assigned mounts. I was first up, throwing my leg over the dip between my kneeling camel’s humps and taking hold of its wool. At a signal from the camel herder, my camel lurched to its feet. After a few awkward moments caused by one awkward creature atop another, my camel and I came to an understanding of sorts. As the herder got the rest of the group mounted, I realized that camels are so much more awesome than horses. My camel-sync abilities must have shown a little, because my guide complimented me (I think) on riding like a Mongolian.
As we rode (how do you describe a camel’s walk? Strode? Cantered? Lumbered? Sashayed?) the camel herder firmly warned us not to take pictures. The clicking of camera shutters had the ability to startle our mounts, which would inevitably lead to a horrible camel stampede. We all nodded solemnly, but as soon as our host turned his back the cameras came out. Always being a detail oriented person, I was careful to obey the letter of his law. I only used my camera to take videos… I didn’t take a single picture. To be fair, the only reason I didn’t was because my camera has an audible shutter noise and I didn’t want to brazenly disobey… I go for sneaky disobedience. Luckily, my companions had sneaky cameras and were able to sneakily disobey.
We rode towards the dunes at a leisurely pace. Each and every one of us were grinning giddily as we neared the dunes. We reached them shortly enough, at which point our host dismounted and collected our cameras to take some group pictures for us. We sheepishly handed them over and snapped some sweet pictures. Hopefully he didn’t look at the ones we had previously took…
Now bactrian camels are awesome to ride, but it wasn’t all sunshine and flowers. First off, those things have a chemical cocktail in their digestive system that would make a meth-head’s eyes sting. Combine that with a tendency to burp and to burp often, well, let’s just say my nasal passage felt raw afterwards. Also, I think my camel was drunk. He tended to walk in a zigzaggy line, and was fond of leaning on his fellow camels. Silly drunk camel.
Once we made it back to the camp, we waited around for dinner. It ended up taking a little while, so a few of us went back towards the dunes to take a few pictures. We were a little late getting back for dinner, so I inhaled my food and rushed out so we could climb the dunes to see the sunset.
That phrase, ‘climb the dunes’, sounds pretty innocuous, right? We thought so too.
We didn’t have long until sunset, so our driver got us all to the base of the dunes, at which point we got out and set out briskly for the top. For a good portion of the climb, it was very steep, but we were able to find pretty solid paths of sand to walk on. It was nearly impossible to tell what was solid and what wasn’t, so sometimes your feet would sink into the shifting sand and you would begin to slide backwards. A few steps sideways and you were back on the ‘solid’ path. Maybe two thirds of the way up, however, the pitch of the slope got even steeper and the solid sand disappeared all together.
With each step our feet sank deep into the sand, causing us to slide backwards. The wind blasted us relentlessly, whipping stinging bullets of sand into every exposed millimeter of skin. Overhead, the sky became increasingly more colorful as the sun neared the distant horizon. It was a race against time, one we nearly didn’t win.
Flo and I set the pace, trading off leading as each of us struggled to push ourselves to keep going. I honestly don’t know if I would’ve made it up in time if I hadn’t been able to ‘compete’. We literally crawled up the last 50 meters or so, towards that blurred line above us where the sand touched the sky.
With a last surge of effort, I made it to the top. A hoarse cry of victory and unfettered awe burst from my lungs as I made the summit and beheld the most memorable view I have ever seen. The sun hung like a swollen fruit in a sky dripping with color. It arched like a painted ceiling over a rolling sea of dunes subtly dyed by the sun’s fading light. I have never, in my life, seen a more breathtaking view. Seconds after my cry echoed into silence, I heard a similar cry burst from Flo as he made the summit next to me.
Flo after reaching the top.
Thanuja as she made the summit.
Little did we know, the Khongoryn Els had another magical surprise in store for us. As the last of the sunlight dissipated, we heard the calls of our guide echoing faintly up from the base of the dune. He was calling us to come back and, since it was rapidly getting dark, that seemed like a good idea. Ever prone to the ridiculous, I leaped off the peak of the dune and landed on my rump on the steep incline. I frantically scooted down like a puppy with an itchy backside, only to feel the earth literally groaning under me. As a mini avalanche of sand descended before me, the countless tiny grains of sand that comprised the massive dune rubbed against each other. The sounds of all those grinding liaisons built and rose to a muted, droning roar. The Khongoryn Els, the Singing Sands… they were singing for us!
Needless to say, our progress was… pitiful for a little while. Once we headed down again, someone got the idea to sprint headlong down the steep surface of the dune in the darkness. Folly? Nay. Awesomeness.
It was one of the most exhilarating running experiences of my life. Well, maybe except for the time we played capture the flag at Barnabas that time in Canada and I ran into a barbed wire fence… but other than that! Not being able to see where my next step would fall, the sand sinking beneath my feet, the wind racing past my face as I ran faster than I’ve ever run before… Breathtaking. Eventually, we all made it to the bottom alive.
As I was draining the desert sand out the sides of my shoes… (remember this picture?)
This was before I went to the Gobi…
We figured (hoped) that she had gotten bored and walked back to the camp, so we piled in and returned. When she wasn’t in the ger, we really got nervous. Minutes later, a grinning Mogi walked in with Petra in tow. Turns out he knew she’d gone back to walk around camp and let the rest of us freak out for a bit. Punk.
We spent a while gushing about the amazing sunset and experience we had atop the dunes, then settled down into our cots for a well-deserved night’s sleep. After exploring Bayanzag and Khongoryn Els in a single day, we were out cold. The next day would bring yet another adventure… but that’s next!