Tuesday, July 23

Climbing Khongoryn Els

I sleep fitfully. The night is filled with howls from afar. They can't possibly be wolves (there are grey wolves in the hills, but any propensity to howl within earshot of a ger should have been eliminated from the gene-pool long ago), so I conclude they are dogs from nomads' camps. Later I learn they are baby-camels separated from their mothers by the herders, howling for milk.

The higher elevations of these deserts contain areas of steppe that reach 9000 ft - in these parts might reside the elusive snow leopard and the Gobi bear. Vast tracts of sand dunes stretch a hundred miles long and a dozen miles wide, reaching 800 ft or so at the highest, their shape and color shifting under wind and sun. The most famous of the sand formations is in front of us - the Khongoryn Els - also known as the Duut Mankhan, the Singing Sands. Legend says that the desert is magic for it speaks, singing of the bravery of the ancestors; when the wind is right the dunes thrum.

Behind the dunes is the last rocky tail of the Altai, purple or black in play of light. At the foot of the dunes runs the Khongor Gol, a 3-mile-long river that is fed by the mountains and that disappears into the desert - its short course an emerald ribbon where horses and camel herds congregate. The sulphurous waters are supposed to have all kinds of healing properties, a couple of Mongol families on 'water-cure' camping-trips have pitched tent in this oasis, and are collecting the water in giant milk-cans, one-dribbling-cupful at a time, from the deepest pools on the riverbed. Clouds swirl-in and speed-away; the sun rises, tilts and sets; the green, gold and purple change shades all day.

The Hiking Life has put together a list of 100 classic hikes; alongside the trek to Manas-sarovar and climbing the Inca Trail is 'wandering among the dunes at Khongoryn Els.' We rise early, and leave camp at 7, to start our climb up the dunes in the cooler part of the day.  Once on top of the first ridge, the vista stretches over the Western Beauty, the Tsogt Ovoo pass through it (whence we came), and, on the other side of the valley, the Altai with the short swift course of the Khongor. Stallions bite each other and roll around in the green grass far below, their snorts and neighs float up to us. The sand heats up.

(A plug for our base the Gobi Discovery 2 ger camp - location, location. Also, belying our expectation of ger-food, beetroot-with-feta-cheese and delicious salads, served up with smiles by an energetic teenage Mongolian staff, who all cluck after Mr. M and look crestfallen if he happens to miss a meal or a step.)


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