Our first longer break was a two night stay at Khongoryn Els, a range of sand dunes in the Gobi. On our way we had discovered a Mongolian horse festival and watched the men compete in different games, attempting to catch and ride horses that had not yet been broken in, attempting to pick up objects off the ground while riding, and attempting to climb from horse to horse while they continued at a trot.
The arena was a seemingly random patch of green ‘gobi grass’ (everything in the Gobi got a special name through the addition of the word ‘Gobi’ in front of it), where local Mongolians had set up a large yellow tent to protect some massive speakers, and then created and arena through the parking of their cars in two long lines. Competitors entered and exited the arena from one of the shorter side, often galloping through at full speed. In fact, when we first arrived we nearly collided with a young man on a bucking horse, the horse pelting out of the arena in an attempt to get him off of his back.
In the distance you could see the yellow sand dunes rising seemingly from the green grass, shadowed with a dark mountain range, which formed the horizon beyond them. These large sand dunes were impressive from a distance, but it wasn’t until we started climbing them the next day that we actually realised their true size. But before we got to that, we had to pitch our tents.
It was our first evening camping, and Luke and I were the only ones to have brought our own tent. As the other tents were pulled from the van, we were more and more glad of this fact- one tent had two poles that did not match the tent and was missing a third, the other, a pop-up, had holes in its roof. I began to feel a bit smug with our ultralight wonder-tent, and may have said (read: definitely did say) as much. Instantly, karma came to put me back in my place.
Having just put up the tents to the best possible state, which meant that the others’ tents were at that point in time being hammered into the ground through the actual material because the peg loops had ripped off, we were distracted by a peculiar sight. Sand had been picked up off the ground and was whirling in a cone-shape directly towards us- a dust devil or a twister, it moved with impressive speed directly towards the van. We stood, watching it approach until it hit the van with so much force that all of the doors slammed. Then we all had different reactions. I cowered to the ground and protected my camera that was around my neck. The other two girls turned their backs to protect their faces. And Luke reached for his empty tent, which was pegged into sand…
A second too late. It was up, 40 meters in the sky, spinning in slow motion like Dorothy’s house. Luke was chasing after it at top speed, I lamely followed behind after putting down my camera. Around 400 meters later (in which the tent beat Usain Bolt’s world record, I’m fairly sure of it), the tent landed in the riverbed and began doing cartwheels, wallowing in the only mud you could possibly find in the Gobi. The impact of the return to earth ripped several long gashes along one side, and created several holes across the outer awning, not to mention made the tent a right muddy mess. The tent was still usable, and duct-tape band aids did the job for the rest of the trip, but we were fuming at our bad luck, and our ripped new tent.
The morning after, when we had calmed down and our bodies had digested our first taste of Mongolian love of vodka after drinking three rounds of (Russian-sized, i.e. 60-70 ml) shots with our driver, we set off to climb the sand dunes. (Our driver, in case you were wondering, spent the day drinking, and he and his two friends had polished off a bottle of vodka each by the time we got back for lunch).
Describing the sand dunes is difficult. They are named the ‘singing’ sand dunes because the noise the wind makes when it passes over them supposedly sounds something like music. They are unfathomably tall, scorching hot in the sun, and span an impressive distance, far into the distance. Interestingly they border directly onto green landscape, a stream and, on the other side, tall, dark mountains. On the green space camels graze and ger camps compete for space, while campers try to find suitable spots near a small river. And yet these words don’t capture it. Part of what is missing is the effort of lugging yourself up the constantly moving, steep slope, part of it is the feeling of being at the top of the world.
Most of our time at the top was spent just sitting, staring at the spectacle that opened up beneath us, trying to find our minuscule tents in the distance, and taking it all in. This was the Gobi Desert as I had imagined it.