Photo: Yang Shuo
Across two countries sits Asia’s largest desert, where a sandstorm of unbridled adventure awaits.
THINK DESERT and you invariably conjure up a desolate picture of parched earth, barren terrain and vast swathes of monolithic sand dunes – not a soul in sight as far as the eye can see. Mongolia’s Gobi Desert proves an unexpectedly refreshing anomaly to this dreary conjecture.
From lush saxual forests and rocky mountains to frigid glaciers and tranquil canyons, its plethora of distinctive topography makes for a most rewarding expedition for the offbeat traveller.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Versatile clothing, from summer attire to fleece jackets, for the climate of extremes
- A bandana to protect your orifices from the dust
- Wet wipes, for the lack of showers, and toilet paper
- Insect repellant against relentless desert flies
- Get a local driver from Ulaanbaatar city – a cheaper and safer alternative to booking online
- Ask to meet the driver before embarking on your trip to check English proficiency and experience
- Check the sturdiness of their vehicle upfront as well as spare tires and shocks
- Ensure the driver has and is capable of using a map and a GPS unit
- Buy a prepaid card with free data from the city to stay connected in the wilderness
- Prepare for hours-long van rides with music, cards, carsick medication and pillows.
A journey off the beaten path lies ahead as your off-road Russian jeep trundles bumpily along. Fresh out of Ulaanbaatar with your trusty driver at the wheel, rolling green plains peppered with grazing livestock come into view – a welcome change from the thronging congestion of the city.
This empty alien landscape comes to life in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan ‘Three Beauties’ National Park, the largest in Mongolia, where city-dwellers are grateful for the unparalleled serenity presented.
The park’s beautiful Yolyn Am Gorge, typically a hallmark of lusher settings, is a peculiar find out here in the desert. Along the 2km walk from the parking lot to the gorge, catch a glimpse of the diverse wildlife that make this area their home – from grazing herds of shaggy yak to Argali sheep.
Catch the solitary bearded vulture or the Mongolian Yol swooping above its eponymous valley, which you can navigate either on foot or on horseback. The white scrapes on the ravine’s craggy rock faces are the only hint of the area’s wild ibex which are as elusive as quicksilver and a rare sight.
Icy water runs through this narrow cleft in the Zuun Saikhan mountains in a steady trickle. During the rainy season, the sluice of rainwater down the precipice creates a cascading waterfall that feeds the stream within the gorge. Flanked by pebble beds and sheer towering cliffs up to 200 metres high, the stunning valleyed Yolyn ice field is a picturesque sight to behold. Who knew a desert could house a glacier?
Metres-thick sheets of ice span the shadowy pockets of the deep canyon where sunshine cannot reach, making for a chilly but fulfilling hike. Wind your way through the 8km-long valley, exploring its clandestine ice tunnels carved in melted glacier, to the other end of the gorge from where your driver can pick you up en route to the park’s next wonder.
What greater music than the songs of the sand? As the dry winds send the fine grains shuffling, the melodic reverberation of the famed Khongoryn Els Singing Dunes is the resounding theme song of the national park. These massive slates of sand measure about 12 kilometres wide and more than a 100 kilometres long, reaching up to an impressive height of 800 meters.
Even for avid hikers, hiking up one of the most spectacular dunes in the world is a feat unlike no other. The loose powder is a literal ‘two steps forward, one step back’ affair as you sink into the mounds with every footfall. From the sandy summit, the vista before you is incredible, profoundly peaceful and more than worth the uphill effort. A sea of smooth sand spreads out in every direction, its unblemished golden surface tousled in ripples from the wind’s caress.
Nothing prepares you for the arrestingly beautiful panorama of the smooth dunes yonder melting into the yellows and pinks of the glorious desert sunset.
Notable flag carriers like Air China, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific offer connecting flights to Chinggis Khaan International Airport of Mongolian capital city Ulaanbaatar. From the city, you can hire a private local driver to bring you into Gobi via four-wheel drive.
Nearby sits the White Pearl of Gobi, the traditional Mongolian ger, from which a muffled din emanates: the bleating of sheep, the grunting of yaks and the busy commotion of colourful family life.
Amid these vast flatlands, the quaint cluster of tents is an extraordinary sight, lined with crates of peculiar yellowish globs of drying aaruul (traditional dried curd cheese), a strong-tasting medley of sweet and sour for cast iron stomachs.
The Mongolian nomad families of the Gobi are one of the friendliest and most hospitable people, especially to passing sojourners. They readily provide rich meaty fare and comfortable lodging. In return, it is customary to come bearing small gifts like pocket knives or flashlights and sweets or toys for the children.
A rosy-cheeked nomadic family emerges, all smiles, in a flurry of excited welcomes warmly reminiscent of a home away from home.
Pulling back the felt sheepskin door flap and stepping inside, the sweet warmth is gratifyingly assaulting. Framed by a structured wooden lattice supporting the soft tent walls, the ger is surprisingly sturdy and spacious within, telling of its inherent practicality against the elements.
Once seated cross-legged on the ger floor, receive the offered traditional Suutei Tsai, a peculiar brew of Mongolian salty milk tea – a gastronomic exploit in itself that travellers either love or hate. Even if the tang makes you wrinkle your nose, take at least a sip out of respect.
Photo: Einar Fredriksen
Nothing screams back-to-basics like an authentic Mongolian homestay experience with these modest families. Here, learn the ways of the nomads, from milking their livestock to taking apart and reconstructing the ger. Relish the quality headspace as you relax beneath an inky, star-strung night sky unsullied by the city’s lights.
Even learn to use the rickety outhouse, a little more than a sheltered hole in the ground that is sure to paint city sanitation in a new light for us urbanites.
Photo: Patrick Schneider
Dotted around the gers are specks of brown: grazing native Bactrian camels which never fail to fascinate. To the Mongols and their wayfaring origins, they are livestock or modes of travel. To the unversed, they make for gentle companions and thrilling Instagrammable rides for which the nomad families are happy to saddle you up.
Perched upon the back of the hairy creature, flush between its two distinctive humps, is a fresh Gobi-style take on transportation as you sway along to its rhythmic gait. The expanse of the Khongoryn Els Singing Dunes warrants at least a day’s worth of exploration on camelback – truly a quintessential desert experience.
Photo: Einar Fredriksen
With the bumpy camel ride behind you, you may relish the smoother journey back in the trusty van as you bid the lovely family goodbye.
As the UNESCO-declared largest dinosaur fossil reservoir in the world, the Gobi unveils the ultimate playground for palaeontologists and those of us who simply want to glimpse remains of these monstrous storied reptiles.
Photo: Einar Fredriksen
Enter Bayanzag and its Flaming Cliffs as dubbed by palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews who made the phenomenal discovery of the first dinosaur eggs in the world. The brick-red hues of rock sediments here make for a distinctive Martian landscape, its rocky valleys dotted with thorny saxaul shrubbery.
It is admittedly a staggering experience to be standing amid a graveyard of our monstrous predecessors from millennia ago. Rummage around for some fossils and bones in a Jurassic Park-esque fantasy as you envisage the fearsome reptiles that used to walk the earth.
Navigate the contours of these ochre ridges for a truly scenic hike, where the sweeping views vary from every angle. At sunset, the fiery shades truly burn bright, bathed in the rich glow and juxtaposed against the flourishing green of the valley below.
By this point, you will inevitably be well-acquainted with the faithful four-wheel ride as your driver takes turns out of nowhere, recognising invisible direction markers in the seemingly homogeneous wilderness.
Photo: Marcin Konsek
Northbound toward the outskirts of Gobi brings a welcome change of scenery from peaceful multifarious nature to the colourful town of Kharkhorin, the former capital of the Mongol empire. Its prime landmark, Erdene Zuu Monastery, was the first, largest and oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia.
In its heyday, it was a picture of majesty, housing up to 1000 monks and more than 60 temples, most of which were destroyed in religious purges. The remaining three are dedicated to a stage in Buddha’s life – childhood, adolescence and adulthood – each of which is home to myriad monuments waiting to be discovered.
Entrance to the grounds is free, a definitive cue to roam the premises and soak in hallowed heritage. Marvel at artefacts like tsam masks, thangka paintings, and revered 18th-century sculptures at every turn. The entirety of the walled compound is lined with 108 (a sacred number to Buddhists) stupas – religious relics harbouring symbolic meaning.
Today, the monastery remains the preserved centrepiece of Kharkhorin for an eye-opening glimpse into ancient Mongol culture and history – a crucial conclusion to your complete Gobi desert escapade.
A final van journey to the beat of Mongolian country music takes you back toward the hustle and bustle of Ulaanbaatar city. There is a conflicting ambivalence to this: the lovely respite of modern luxury and connectivity yet the hectic return to fast-paced civilisation a sharp contrast to the idyllic charm of the Gobi Desert.