The Mongolian Altai range tails out into the Gobi Altai, and then into the Gurvan Saikhan range. The Gurvan Saikhan or Gurvan Sayhan (Mongolian: Гурван Сайхан, literally 'the Three Beauties'), is named for three subranges: the Baruun Saikhany Nuruu (the Western Beauty), the Dund Saikhany Nuruu (the Middle Beauty) and the Zuun Saikhany Nuruu (the Eastern Beauty). The highest peak is found in Dund Saikhany Nuruu, and it is 9,268 feet (2,825 meters) above sea level. A notable gorge, Yolyn Am - Vulture Canyon - is found in Zuun Saikhany Nuruu. Though the range is surrounded by the Gobi desert, Yolyn Am contains a semi-permanent ice-field. The mountains cause passing clouds to precipitate rain and snow, which makes a sparse human habitation possible on its slopes, as well as in the oases that short mountain rivers race to before disappearing into the desert sand.
Dalanzadgad is the only 'town' the area, and when we alight at the Gurvan Saikhan airport (DLZ) we see a frontier settlement, half gers and half cinder-block buildings, spread haphazardly around us. About a dozen SUVs have congregated to pick up the passengers from our Air Mongolia Fokker-50 flight, comprising half of Gobi trekkers and half of mining industry professionals.
A few years ago, the Oyu Tolgoi site created much news as the world's largest undeveloped gold and copper mine, with reserves of 1.3 million kgs of gold and 40 million kgs of copper. At one stroke, the economy of the South Gobi (and Mongolia) may have been transformed. The "OT" mine is swinging into production, and there has been news that the first shipments are beginning to flow even as we fly to Dalanzadgad from Ulaanbaatar. Byambe, our Girl Saturday, has just quit the mining sector, where she was a supply officer, to accompany us in the Gobi and translate. She talks of 3-weeks-on-2-weeks-off shifts in a 90 sq-km mining outpost in sand-whipped wasteland - the OT mine is 240 kms out in the desert from DLZ. Given the water demands of a heavy-metals mine, as well as the toxic cyanide produced by the extraction process, can environmental disaster be far behind in this fragile area?
A real-estate company following the expat-spend skyrocketing in the Omnogovi (South Gobi) area has put together this brief on Dalanzadgad. It makes for interesting reading. We wait for the lone supermarket to open so that we can stock up with water for our trek across the desert to the famous singing dunes of Khongoryn Els; it is the time of the annual Naadam festival, much vodka was drunk last night, no one is up-and-about yet.