After a good night’s sleep, it was time to hit the road again and head to the destination that I was looking forward to the most: The Khongor Sand Dunes, also known as The Singing Sands. Despite what most people believe, sand dunes only take up 3 % of the Gobi Desert and the ones at Khongor are the most popular to visit and to climb. But before getting there, we had a 190 km. drive ahead of us through bumpy terrain, passing by canyons, mountains and green hills, while watching wild horses and camels in the distance.
That day was our first day of real desert driving, which is not for the faint-hearted. I put my pen to paper during 5 minutes of driving and even while pressing the pen down hard, this is how crazy it was:
All of a sudden, a small village appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the flat and dusty desert. Bayan Dala, as it’s called, had a real Soviet feel to it and reminded me of Barentsburg on Svalbard, minus the snow. It’s strange to suddenly see a village in the middle of the desert and I wondered to myself how they had chosen this remote in-the-middle-of-nowhere location to build a village in the first place.
Still, it was a blessing to us all to have a small stop there, to get away from the bumpy dirt roads for a few minutes.
After several hours of driving, all of us were getting fed up with the constant bumps, so we were relieved to finally see the sand dunes in the near distance. What I didn’t realize was that the sand dunes extend for 185 km., so getting to the point where we would climb up took another hour or so. It was really cool seeing the sand dunes with wild camels in the foreground and mountains in the background.
When we finally got to our destination, it was time for lunch, before heading up the sand dunes. The cold weather challenged my way of thinking of a desert, as the Gobi had been a chilly experience so far and that wasn’t about to change with the dunes.
Climbing the sand dunes was the hardest thing I’ve ever done – but also the biggest achievement when I finally got to the top and was rewarded with the most breathtaking view with a visibility of over 100 km. I swear that even climbing Mount Kinabalu at 4.095 m. was easier than this, and the sand dune was only about 250 m. tall! It was very physically demanding and frustrating at the same time, as every time I would take a step, the sand would part and my foot would slip further down. One step forward and two steps backwards, all the way to the top. It was a miracle that I actually got there in the end. Little by little, I climbed each section until I was maybe 50 steps from the top and then my body decided to give up. But just for a little while, because I was determined to continue and make it to the top. For every five steps, my body would collapse on the loose sand beneath me. The summit was so close and yet I just couldn’t get my body to do what I wanted it to do. The struggle was endless and never in my life have I had to push myself so hard before. In the end, I got there and joined the others who had undoubtedly been having a laugh as they watched my struggle to the top.
Despite the strenuous climb, it was all worth it. The sun was casting shadows on the dunes, while the wind was creating minor sand storms. It was a beautiful sight and if it wasn’t for the constant sand blowing in my face, I could’ve stayed up there forever.
Climbing the sand dunes was without a doubt my favourite experience in the Gobi! Climbing down was especially fun and a completely different experience! While climbing up took maybe an hour, it took only two minutes to reach the bottom. It was more like running than climbing and it was a blast! It was while running down the dunes that I experienced the “singing” from the dunes that gave them their nickname of “The Singing Sands”. The dunes gave some crazy vibrations and it felt like I was creating an avalanche!
We had a local dog following us the entire way and he had no trouble climbing up or down the dunes! He got down before me and ran to me as I joined him and the others at the bottom of the dunes. He even jumped in our van, when we were about to leave, but unfortunately, we couldn’t take him with us.
We were staying with a nomadic family just 10 km. from the sand dunes and it turned out to be my favourite family on the entire trip! The family consists of an elderly couple, Yondon and Naraa, their daughter Bat Tsetseg and their adorable 5-year-old granddaughter Buyan Khishig. Unlike most Mongolian children that I met, she was very talkative and full of energy. It was clear that she was used to spending time with foreigners and despite the language barrier, her and I soon became friends; chasing goats together, saying funny words in Danish and pulling funny faces. Whenever I would pull a funny face, she would copy it, and she even taught me some good ones herself! I also taught her to say “Rødgrød med fløde”, which is a Danish dish and something that no other nationality can pronounce properly (you may try, if you dare). She was pretty good at it though and started shouting it constantly! She was a real gem.
Byamba told us that the reason for Buyan Khishig’s short hair is that when children are around the age of 4, it’s tradition in Mongolian to shave their heads, which is supposed to bring good fortune for the rest of the child’s life. I hope it comes true for her.
The family also had a ton of animals, including a cat, which was the first cat that I saw in Mongolia! I definitely didn’t expect there to be any cats in the Gobi, so I was pleasantly surprised when I saw her chilling on top of a ger!
An hour after we had arrived at the gers, it was time for a ride on the family’s camels. It was an hour-long ride through the desert, where we could see the sand dunes in the distance, mountains on either side and long stretches of steppe for as far as the eye could reach.
Despite a butt pain due to the camel’s hump and a strong wind on the way back, it was an enjoyable ride and a definite must-do on a trip to the Gobi, since camels are the main means of transport for the nomads in Mongolia.
The evening was spent playing with Buyan Khishig, the cat and the baby goats. Seeing her running around the yard, climbing gers, interacting with the animals and being completely in tune with nature, made me think of what a beautiful life she has in all its simplicity.
We had dinner with the family, listened to Buyan Khishig playing the piano and she then taught us how to play a Mongolian song. Before going to bed, Luke and I went on a small hike to find the perfect spot to watch a beautiful sunset over the desert. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.
The time spent with the family was very enjoyable and I didn’t want it to end. Below are two of my favourite pictures from the Gobi tour, taken just before we left the family the following day. Notice how perfect the first one is and how everything got messy just seconds later on the next one!
Stay tuned for part four of Stories from the Gobi Desert: The Homeland of the Dinosaurs.