Touring South Gobi, Mongolia

Khongoriin Els sand dune, south Gobi desert

With only about five hours sleep, we flew to Dalanzadgad airport, it was about the size of a house. We were greeted by a tall Mongolian woman in her early twenties with porcelain skin, adorning exercise tights, sparkly pink top and Gucci sunglasses. Her name was Zaya and she was to be our guide for the next week.

She walked us to our transport, a pale baby blue Russian combi van. I had earlier read the tour reviews so I wasn’t surprised to see our vehicle, although I can definitely understand other people’s disappointment upon first sight. It looked like the Scooby Doo van, minus the peace and love of the 1970s.

The driver got out of the car, proceeded to shake our hands and stated “Choka”. We later learned that that was his name and not a Mongolian greeting. He was a stocky man with tanned skin and he wore Ferrari branded hat and matching jacket. Around his neck was a silver necklace. He reminded me of a Mongolian version of a Russian gangster.

Zaya told us about the durability of the vehicle and how it was no match against modern 4WDs/Jeeps. She was right – later in the trip we encountered a land cruiser stuck in a mud ditch and the Russian van helped tow it out.

After initial introductions, Zaya told us to get some rest as the road would soon be too bumpy to sleep. I closed my eyes and within 10mins I was disturbed by the jolts and shakes of the vehicle as we entered unpaved roads. Being raised in the city, this was definitely new territory for me. It was one of the most difficult driving conditions I have experienced. All roads were unpaved and we would often have to hold on for dear life.

Choka always seemed to have a handle on it though, he had been a tour driver for over ten years and he knew all the roads and short cuts. In the Mongolian countryside, there is no signage, yet Choka was always able to get us from A to B in the most efficient way. He was better than a GPS – there would be three different routes pointing in the same direction and he always seemed to know the correct course.

Our trip first began in South Gobi where we drove through Vulture Canyon, hiked to glacier valleys and sand dunes.  On one of the days we climbed the Khongoriin Els sand dune. It was steep and had an incline of about 45 degrees. To say that it was difficult would be an understatement. I had to climb up on all fours and as I clambered up the dune, the sand would sink and drag me back down a few feet. As I ascended and shifted the sand with my hands and feet, little black beetles would surface and start biting me.

As though that wasn’t enough, the most treacherous was the wind. Dark clouds covered the sky and we could see storm clouds pouring rain in the distance. As we reached the top of the dune, Mother Nature showed her true force. The wind was so violent that we had to cover our face and eyes as sand pelted our exposed skin.  My hat flew off and it was a mission to recover it. After the madness subsided, we finally saw the amazing view on the other side of the dune – continuous rolling hills of sand that seemed to reach out all the way to the horizon.

The fun part was going down. We would run and slide and as we did, the sand dune would make a whooping nose which is why Khongoriin Els gets its nickname “Singing Sand”.

On the same day we also went camel riding. I first rode a camel in Morocco and to be honest it isn’t my favourite activity (it just doesn’t compare to horse riding!). We waited at our ger after a few moments, a local man arrived with the camels. He must have been in his early twenties, wore a cap, black leather jacket and chain smoked cigarettes every 15 minutes.

We hopped onto our camels and headed towards the desert. My camel kept sneezing and clearing its nostrils, so when the wind picked up, I would cop all of the camel’s snot on my face. Not the most pleasant experience.

As we continued north, oftentimes we would make pit stops to stretch our legs and go to the bathroom. I remember getting out of the van and looking at our surroundings. It was completely flat and you could see the horizon in every direction. The remoteness and isolation of Gobi is beautiful in a way. Sometimes I say it feels like we’re the only ones here, but in reality we were.

Here are some photos from South Gobi:

Vulture Canyon

Passing some cows resting as we trekked through Vulture Canyon.

mongolian ger

Our six bedder ger for only two people.

van driving between canyon

A really tight squeeze but no challenge for Choka.

growing crops in a desert

We learnt about farming in the middle of the desert.

view at the top of Khongoriin Els sand dune

The view as we reached the top of Khongoriin Els, photo doesn’t really do it justice.

camel riding in Gobi desert

livestock

At each ger we visited, the families would have livestock as a source of food and income. At one particular ger, baby goats surrounded us and seemed to be fascinated with our hiking boots.

Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag)

Jackson taking a photo at Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag), a dinosaur cemetery. Unfortunately we didn’t uncover any dinosaur remains.

gers in Mongolia

gobi desert

Read the next post, as we continue travelling north to Orkhon Valley.

Read more travel stories in Asia.

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