We’d managed to arrange an early morning visit back to the Flaming Cliffs to watch the sunrise, so at about 30-minutes before sun up, we had a knock on our door from Bagi, our driver. It was only 5:30, but we were in a daze and it took a little while to get up and into the car.
We were a little late to catch the actual sunrise (which was hidden behind some clouds on the horizon anyway), but the golden horizontally cast light lit up the cliffs perfectly, really showing the beauty and rewarding us for the early start. Bagi’s reward was our eternal thanks, plus the look of happiness on our faces.
I thought that we were going to have an early breakfast and then make our way to Khongoryn Els. But, we were told to sit put and ‘rest’ for another hour or so before breakfast. I thought this meant that we were going to be fed a gourmet treat, but instead we were greeted with some bread and some margarine (and hot water and tea bags). Luckily I had some Vegemite on hand to liven up the bread (and to educate our Mongolian friends).
It was just after 9AM when we finally rolled out of the Gobi Oasis (2) camp. We made a quick stop in a blip on the map of a town, stocking up on water (we were going to a desert for two days) and some instant noodles. The next three hours of driving was pretty un-remarkable – endless dry steppe/desert. I was once again glad I decided against driving myself, as there really was no indication about where to go, it was just a series of tyre marks on the ground. The occasional (dry) creek crossing provided enough excitement to rouse us for a couple of minutes. It’s not to say that it isn’t beautiful, because it really was, but after several hours of the same, the beauty tarnishes a little.
We eventually stopped following the tyre tracks and started driving up a creek bed towards a canyon – further reminding me why it was worth hiring a driver. The view in here was spectacular, dark jagged hills on either side of this narrow valley. We followed the creek bed to the other side, passing a few nomadic herders who had camps set up on the rocky sides of the canyon. It still amazes me where people can (and do) live. It felt like a scene from Star Wars, and this wasn’t the first occasion.
Exiting from the other side of the canyon we scored our first glimpse of the sand dunes. They were impressively long. The haze that hung over the area wasn’t expected, but I guess its just dust from this massive amount of sand.
We passed several tourist camps as we drove closer to the dunes. It was impossible to judge distance, from afar some of the camps looked like they were at the base of the dunes, but we passed them and the dunes still looked just as far away. They kept getting taller and taller as we got closer and closer. We finally stopped at a smaller herder’s camp right at the foothills of the dunes.
The dunes were amazing, seemingly starting out of nowhere like a great sandy wall. Behind the dunes was an equally beautiful black jagged mountain range, offering a perfect accompaniment to the light and smooth dunes.
There were a few ger, as well as a couple of ramshackle buildings. We were shown to a nice ger that we were going to be occupying for the next two nights, then shuffled inside a small living room beside a kitchen in one of those neglected buildings.
We were offered some goat’s milk tea and some of those Mongolian biscuits we’d had with that herder family yesterday morning. The biscuits today were much nicer, coming close to a churro in flavour and texture. We waited here for a while, finishing a couple of bowls of tea (and many, many biscuits) while our lunch was prepared. It was similar to what we had last night, but this time with fresh mutton, instead of dried. It was tasty, but I was starting to understand why people say that after a week or two eating traditional Mongolian food in the countryside you get sick of the smell of mutton – we weren’t there just yet.
We could hear the baby camels that were outside calling to their mothers (who were off feeding). It was the first time I’d seen a baby camel, and they were as awkward and cute as any other baby I’d seen.
After lunch we were told to rest, so, that’s what we did. We made plans to hike up the sand dunes later in the afternoon. Around 4PM is the hottest time of day, and we set off on our hike about 5PM. We were once again fooled by the distance – it looked like we were nearly at the base of the dunes, but in reality it was a 30-minute plus walk. The friendly dog (who we named Mr. Dangles, after all the bits of poop dangling from the rear of him) followed us as we left the camp. I was convinced that he’d get sick of it and turn around before we got half way. But, apart from a few times that he ran off chasing tiny lizards, he didn’t leave our side during the whole journey.
We noticed it from the camp, but it was really surprising to see a lush oasis at the foothill of this enormous sand dune. I didn’t realise how green it was until we were standing in the mud surrounding the banks of the large pools of water. I now understand why this herder family were located here – more for the access to water and green grass, less for the tourist access to the sand dunes.
The climb started OK, but the sand became increasingly soft. Each step forward would slide back almost to the point that it started. It was incredibly slow going, and it only got slower as it got steeper. I like to think that I’m fairly fit, and that I don’t have any problems climbing mountains, but this nearly broke me – mentally and physically. In sections it would have approached 45˚ inclination, and the sand was as soft as dust. We were scrambling up on all fours and I had to stop after every few minutes of exertion. I must have been struggling due to my cold, at least I hope so, because Risa seemed to be ascending without too much effort.
But, nearly an hour after we started the ascent, we were standing on the top of a 250m high sand dune (I know the height based on GPS readings from my camera). I was giddy from the exhaustion, so balancing as we walked along the crest was a challenge. Annoyingly, Mr. Dangles (the dog) showed no such signs of fatigue.
The view from the top was amazing. We were standing on some of the highest dunes as for as far as we could see. It is said that the dunes stretch northwards for 130km, and in places they are 20km wide – who am I to argue.
The wind at the top of the dunes was blowing sand everywhere. Sand is probably a camera’s worst enemy, so I was keen to put it away as soon as possible – I didn’t risk changing lenses to get a better view of the vastness of dunes.
All that was left now was to run like idiots to the base of the dunes. It sounds like it should be easy, but taking giant strides took the last bit of remaining energy from me. I had to stop for a rest break halfway down. It was fun though, and I am happy I didn’t lose control and cartwheel head over feet to the bottom. When we did stop though, we managed to hear the ‘singing’ that the dunes are named after. As it slid down like liquid sand, it made a low frequency hum, like an old plane in the distance. You could also feel the vibrations, which was a little eerie.
So, even though we’d made it up and back down, we still had the walk back to the camp. My shoes were full of sand (after emptying I estimated about 1 metric cup per shoe, or 500cc in total). It was an odd experience having my shoes constrict around my feet like that. It felt like my feet had suddenly grown (or the shoes suddenly shrank).
The sheep and the goats were making their migration back to camp at the same time as us. Mums were greeted by hungry babies. The way the babies were getting the milk looked incredibly aggressive, and if I were the mother being head butted in the tit, I’d have given them a kick and walked away.
We saw a couple of runt goats, and noticed that they were having a hard time finding their mothers to get a feed. Eventually though, they found a nipple to suckle on and managed a feed. Goats are pretty cool, always making us laugh at the weird things they do.
We were completely drained, and went to bed shortly after dinner (which isn’t as early as it is in most Western countries).