Conor MacNeill on visiting a unique Mongolian landscape, where giant dunes roll up against fertile marshes
MY AIM WAS TO REACH KHONGORYN ELS, an immense field of dunes. The name means “singing sands,” due to the sounds the wind makes as it whistles through them. After stocking up on supplies in Dalanzadgad – the closest there is to a major city near the Gobi Desert – my driver and I headed through the steppe towards a valley between mountains. We discovered that torrential rain in recent days had caused flooding and destroyed much of the track to the Gobi. Finally, we found some mud that seemed passable and after accelerating towards it and getting through sideways, my driver screamed with delight.
The desert started to appear on one side, with green grass on the other – the mountains fell away and we were left with rocky desert to the feet of the gigantic dunes emerging in the distance.
The slopes of the mountains guide water into a subterranean river here, which feeds an oasis. It’s mind-blowing to have barren desert behind you, seemingly endless sand dunes ahead, and yet a watery marsh appearing in between. The colour contrast was remarkable – the greenery leapt out against the yellowy-beige of the dunes.
We stayed with Baasanhuu (pictured above and below), who runs a ger camp in this remote place. He and his family spend the summer there, then head back to Ulaanbaatar so the children can go to school. He leads camel rides to the dunes, half an hour away – you can try to climb them to watch the sunset.
Camels are pretty much the only way to get around this area – they’re capable of walking over the soft ground of the marshes where vehicles would get stuck. I had only ever been on one-humped dromedary camels before and I found them to be super-uncomfortable, so I was hoping that two-humped Bactrian camels would be easier on the buttocks. They were not.