This morning, after breakfast, we grabbed a small bag for one night at the Khongoryn Els sand dunes. It was about a three hour drive, so our caravan set off again, across the desert. We finally arrived at the Gobi Erdene, the only ger camp near the sand dunes and the place everyone stays (see review on it). We were here to see the Khongoryn Els, some of the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia. These sand dunes are also called the Singing Dunes (Duut Mankhan) because when the wind blows or collapses in small avalanches, it sounds like the dunes are singing.
We first got to ride Bactrian camels. At the foot of the sand dunes lives a nomad family that owns hundreds of camels and they rent them out to tourists like us. Now, we rode camels in Egypt, around the pyramids. And we rode camels up and down the sand dunes in Morocco. But here, we rode the camels for about 15 minutes away from the nomad’s ger, and 15 minutes back. It felt like a Disneyland ride. We broke into two groups, and while one rode the other visited the family. And then we switched. And while we did all this, our drivers used the time to take naps.
The family, like all nomads as far as I can tell, were very generous. We were offered us some aaruul, (this is a Mongolian delicacy made of curdled milk that is dehydrated and thoroughly dried in the air and sun). The grandmother sat and talked with us (via our guide translating) about the nomadic life. Much of their income comes from their camels, but of course they have sheep and goats and horses as well. Two of her grandchildren were there, but they mostly wanted to run outside, ride their bikes and play as all little children would do. Her son was a former wrestling champion and his medal hung in the ger.
That evening we came back to photograph the sunset on the dunes. We took off our shoes and started climbing. The sand was like silk between our toes. And it was hard which made it easier to climb. Until we got close to the top at which point the sand became soft and slippery and stopped me in my tracks. We didn't make it to the top. And the top is high! The sand dunes are up to 984 feet high, 7.5 miles wide and 62 miles long.
And the shapes and the colors – oh my. The dunes have curves which end in a sharp edge, making them look like ocean waves. Or in this case, a ying yang. And as the sun set, the colors changed from white to pink to orange. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We stood there a long time watching the colors. Watching the shapes change. Playing with our shadows. Until it was getting hard to see and we had to head back.
The next morning some of us again got up before the crack of dawn and raced the sun to make it back to the sand dunes. We drove through gulleys and over dirt mounds covered in green and looking like small gers. Good thing we had 4 wheel-drive. We came to a river and drove through it. Basically it was like getting a morning massage.
Our guide had arranged for our nomad family to bring some of the camels this morning so we could stage them on the sand dunes. Tripods were set up, people chose their spots, and the camels began their trek up the sand dunes. And then down again. And then up again. This continued over and over again until the sun had risen and we all felt we had gotten our best shots.
Standing there in the quiet, watching the camels and the colors and the shapes was magical, even if you weren’t a photographer. It didn’t matter that we staged the camels. Camels and desert and sand dunes all go together and it felt very natural. We could see the sand being thrown into the air by the camels’ feet. We watched their shadows on the sand as the sun moved higher and higher into the sky. And the grass and flowers glistened like raindrops. Magical.
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