Have you ever tried to hike up a dune in the Gobi Desert? If you are hiker like us, this shouldn’t be a big issue. Right?
This was a tough, tough hike. And hot. And slippery. And my heart beat way too fast. And I was on my fours like a toddler, scrambling and trying to gain elevation while I kept sliding down every other step…
But I loved it. Hiking the tall sand dunes of the Khongoryn Els in the Gobi desert turned out to be one of the “WOW” moments of our Mongolia trip.
Hiking the Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes
The sun was almost at high noon when our driver Batbold stopped our Russian minivan at the foot of the sand dunes. We could feel the sun heating up through the car roof as we prepared for our dune explorations.
We geared up with our regular hiking boots but Batbold gestured us to remove them and go barefoot. As I noted pieces of broken glasses around the area, I was not too keen but I decided to trust the locals. Off with the shoes. I have to say it was nice to feel the warm sand on our bare feet. Equipped with sunscreen, hat, and water, Bruno and I headed up to the gentle slope leading to the tall dune.
The distance to the top was hard to evaluate but we got clues the dune was tall and far as we noticed small dark dots on the creamy sand dunes. These were people hiking up, and boy, they were small.
Bruno branched off the main slope and went to explore the dunes by himself. I joined the other girls of our group as the gentle slope veered up. We quickly commented on hard it was to hike on sand. The tiny particles kept sliding under our weight, and we barely made a dent up the trail. It was really tiring, especially under the noon sun. As any outdoor person knows, this was the worst time to exert yourself, but we, unfortunately, had little control over the timing of our drivers (blame the lack of communication…). Our little group quickly broke down as everyone concentrated on her own progress. We would meet up every few steps to catch our breath, encouraging each other as we did.
Several from our group were high up and were shouting similar encouragements. As I looked up to see their location, I despaired given how far they were. It had taken me already a long time to reach my current spot, barely a fourth of the trail. This would be a long walk.
I was the elder of our group – all from their early to late twenties – and in far lesser shape. My mood played yo-yo, one second thinking “I will make”, the other shouting “what the hell I am doing!?” During these moments of personal motivation speech, I was trying different techniques to inch my way up. This included side-step following an imaginary trail of switchbacks. That worked a moment but I wasn’t really making much progress. I decided to face the slope and hike straight up. This worked better, though the sliding down was more pronounced. Four steps up, one down. My calves quickly tired and I felt them cramping. Funnily enough, my toes started to hurt too, as I was using them to hold on the moving sand.
A revelation happened as I was over a particularly steep section of sliding sand. I used my hands. I was now on my fours like a child who hasn’t learned how to walk / like a monkey in the forest. And up I went, slowly but steadily, adding up to 30 or 40 steps with every burst of energy I could muster. My heart was beating fast and I could hear it in my ears – usually not a good sign. But up, up, I was going up! I even passed a few people on the way, making me feel good about my technique, even if it must have been pretty very hilarious to watch.
After what seemed a long while, I heard the group shouting as they made to the top. Though I knew it would still take a strong effort before I rejoined them, hearing their cheers and knowing the summit was close gave me the necessary motivation to push through. Inch by inch, foot after foot, hand after hand, I was conquering the dune.
As I neared the top, I heard Bruno’s voice encouraging me. Three feet to go. Two feet. And finally, I reached his hand as he pulled me for a well-deserved hug. I made it!
And as it is often the case, the view from the top dissolved any pain or fatigue. The dunes extended far in all directions and this dune appeared small in comparison of the wide expanse of sand around us. I looked back where our minivan was parked and could not believe how tiny it was. We had come a long way.
Bruno and I walked on the ridge of the dunes, printing our own footsteps over pristine sand. The sun was vertical at that point and the sand burned our bare feet. I gladly kept my feet buried deep where it was still cool, but that was not really helpful as I wanted to explore around. I sat for a moment on the top of a dune to take in the scenery, still not believing I was really in the Gobi Desert.
After a good half an hour of enjoying the view, we made our way down. But not before taking a well-deserved selfie on the top of the dune!
Not only it was time to go back to the minivan, but the burning ground was not bearable and we could not stay to the exposed side of the dune any longer.
We ran straight down but it was easier said than done. We sank deep into the sand slowing us down. I kept falling but Bruno managed to keep going using longer strides. I hoped to slide like on snow but that did not work, and I just got stuck in a pile of sand. Bruno increased his pace and quickly reached the foot of the dune. As I approached the area, I jumped head first and rolled down. A spur-of-the-moment that left me with my head spinning and sand all over my clothes – inside and out! It would take me several showers to get rid of it all. That was a fun moment though and would do it again in a heartbeat.
The final stretch to the minivan was short but it was long enough for the hot sand to burn my soles. I hopped as much as I could and as fast as I could, shaking the sand off as I went.
I made sure to look back and wondered how I had been able to make it to the top of that dune. Reaching the 520-ft / 160-m high dune had taken about one hour, going down about five minutes. As tough as it was, this was for sure a fun and unusual hike, and a must-do when visiting the Gobi Desert.
Camel Rides in the Gobi Desert
Depending on where you access the Khongoryn Els, camel rides are also available to get further (and more easily) into the sand dunes.
Ask about the ride, whether you can ride your camel independently or not. We used the services of the ger owner where we had spent the night and ended up with camels linked in threes, with the owner leading the camels. The hour ride was actually over in 30 minutes and basically took us to the edge of the sandy area before we returned to the ger. What could have been a pleasant ride felt like a ride in Disneyland. I am sure other camel owners provide a much better experience, we just did not get lucky on that part.
Regardless of whether you ride a camel or not, it is quite a sight to see them in the wild. We first saw them when the owner of the ger brought them from the desert and it was picture-perfect! We then saw them again wandering by themselves when we hiked the dunes, just passing by slowly. We were surprised overall how many herds of camels we saw during our 3 days in the Gobi Desert.
How to reach the Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes
Also known as Duut Mankhan (or the Singing Dunes, for the sound of sand makes falling down), the Khongoryn Els are the largest and most impressive sand dunes in Mongolia. They spread over 12-km in width, about 100 km long, and the highest dunes 300 m high. The Khongoryn Els are located in the Gurvan Saikhan National Park about 180 km away from Dalanzadgad, and can only be reached by jeeps or minivans that can handle the rough dirt roads. A knowledgeable driver is important as there are no sign roads.
This means the Els can be visited only through a tour. Either an independent tour like ours where we rented the service of a driver and his Russian minivan. Our driver Batbold was great though communication was difficult since we did not speak Mongolian and he had no English. We found him through Travel Mongolia, an Ulaan Baatar-based tour operator, who helped us organized our pick up from Dalanzadgad bus station. Travel Mongolia has deep knowledge of the Gobi Desert and Central Mongolia. They provided us with a heap of information and support throughout our Mongolia trip, even to Northern and Western Mongolia. Independent means we bought and cooked our own food, and we had no English guide to help facilitate the itinerary and explain our surroundings. It’s definitely the cheaper option but this lacks any kind of informational background and the management of the itinerary is time-consuming.
Another option is to go through a fully organized tour with an English speaking guide, a cook, and a mind free itinerary where one can fully enjoy and relax. Though this is a more expensive option, not having to manage any language barrier or cooking late at night is appealing. As the former Director of Content Marketing at Viator.com, I would recommend their Mongolia tours. These are affiliate links, which means we receive a percentage if you make a purchase using them, at no additional cost to you. Our opinion is our own and is not impacted by these affiliate links.
Lodging Around Khongoryn Els
The options are basically staying in traditional gers or camping, both with limited if non-existing facilities. No restroom and no shower! Remember also you are in the desert so water is precious. If you go through an organized tour, they might offer shower options but these would be rare.
This will also give you an opportunity to observe the local live of the nomadic Mongols who still live with their livestock in the open Gobi desert.
Whatever option you choose, you are in for a treat. Staying the night in the desert is magical. No sound besides the occasional dog barking or sheep bleating. The sky is pitch black, even with the full moon, as there is no other light around. Do step outside for a while and enjoy the view of the stars. It’s a spectacle in itself.
Tips for Enjoying Khongoryn Els
- Make sure to bring sun screen, water, and a hat
- Bring water, and more water.
- We would have love to do a sunset or sunrise hike but these need to be timed properly with the lodging and transport to the dunes. We did witness both events though from our ger, and these were magical already!
- Longer or less strenuous hikes through the dunes could be organized, depending on physical capabilities and time of the day
- Adventurous spirit might want to consider renting a motorbike and camping around – this would give you the freedom of visiting at your own pace. Just ensure your GPS has the most recent maps in both English and Mongolian
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