Although the Gobi is mostly rock, it does have some sand, and the largest accumulation is at Khongoryn Els, or ‘The Singing Dunes’, which sing away as the wind blows over them. They certainly couldn’t be any worse than the acts I’d seen on ‘Mongolia’s Got Talent’.
The dunes lay a couple of hundred kilometres to the west of Dalanzadgad and to get there from Yolyn Am took most of the day, mainly because the track was pretty rough.
I packed up the tent early and adjusted the chain another half notch again. It was wearing extremely fast for some reason.
I past more Ovoos and played ‘guess the track’ when they did their usual thing and split into several dozen leading off in different directions.
Then I bumped into German couple Danny and Heinei in their Landcruiser on their Asian Tour. I hadn’t really met many other ‘overland travellers’ at all so far on my whole trip. They were heading back to UB and told me the sand dunes were wonderful, if a little sandy.
It was a great ride across a variety of tracks from desert scrub, jagged rocks, soft sand and the occasional mud patch. One such mud patch had cleverly disguised itself underneath a thin layer of dry clay; I thought it was hard clay, like the other 99.9% of clay in the Gobi Desert, so trust me to find the only bit covering a foot or so of soft, squidgy mud. I hit it too fast and the bike squirmed and slid as I tried to keep it upright, but it was too late. Down I went, on the first proper fall of the whole trip (not counting silly slow speed manoeuvring mistakes and one cliff dive).
The fall didn’t hurt at least, but broke the casing of my already battered right pannier (previously hit by a cart in Java), and smashed one indicator (who needs these in Mongolia anyway?)
Then, somewhere along the track, my spare set of shades just snapped in half. The Gobi Desert probably isn’t the best place in the world to ride without sunglasses. Oh well, I hadn’t noticed any nomads wearing any. Having said that, I hadn’t noticed any nomads at all lately…
I kept my fingers crossed a 3rd bad thing wouldn’t happen.
In the afternoon I caught my first glimpse of Khongoryn Els dunes, and they really were a beautiful sight, glimmering gold in the sun.
The dunes are about 150km long and 12km wide, and get bigger and better as you ride northwest. I rode along their base for a couple of hours looking for a Tourist Ger Camp I’d read about in the Lonely Planet guidebook; the temptation of a comfortable bed, shower, food and a cold beer was too much for me to resist after several days rough camping.
I do love rough camping, and my air mat is comfortable, but my main gripe with it is living without a shower, especially after a hard day’s ride and thorough coating of dust from head to toe; there’s only so clean you can get with a baby wet wipe bath.
Eventually the ‘Discover Gobi’ camp appeared like a mirage on the horizon; a couple of dozen typical white Gers in the middle of nowhere.
I was warmly greeted on arrival by a somewhat perplexed looking manager, probably because I was their only guest, and not many guests just rock up on a motorbike. When I was shown inside my Ger I knew I’d made the right decision – it was amazing! After a hot shower I felt like a new man; Lawrence of Arabia in his royal tent.
I still had a couple of hours before dinner, so I slipped into my running gear and headed for the dunes. They were so big they looked a lot closer than they really were, and I ended up running for over an hour in total to get there and back. It was worth it though, and I ran up the highest dune I could see to get great views of the surrounding desert and mountains.
Later on a couple more pre-booked guests turned up, but for a large resort Discover Gobi was almost empty as Tourist season was only just starting. There were only 2 other tables of guests at dinner and I was kindly invited to join Jack and Edward, grandfather and grandson, originally from South Carolina.
Jack had lived in Mongolia, on and off, for 15 or so years, and was in love with the friendly people, amazing scenery and freedom (REAL freedom). He was showing his grandson, Edward, the delights of the country on a long tour, and Edward (16) was loving his first real adventure outside the US. Great for them! They were a great couple to meet and I found Jack’s knowledge of the country, people and their history especially fascinating (he’d been researching it for years).
With a full belly, a few beers and good company, it was time for an early night, so I retired to my luxury tent and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
In the morning we all enjoyed a good breakfast together and then I said farewell to Jack and Edward as they continued on their journey. I had booked in for another night, so nice that it was, and planned to spend the day riding the dunes.
Before I went off riding I got my washing done and did a bit of bike maintenance, including a gaffa-tape repair to my right pannier.
Close to the camp a sandstone cliff denied me access to the dunes on the bike, so I rode about 12 km further northwest until I found a great access point.
On the way I passed a real oasis where a few sheep and cattle were grazing – so they really do exist!
Then I took to the dunes.
Before I started this word tour I hadn’t really ridden in deep sand before, but after a little experience in Australia and a few other places I was starting to get the hang of it. It’s true what people will tell you – the only way to get better at riding in sand, is to ride in sand. The good thing is you probably won’t hurt yourself if (when) you fall off. Another good thing is, it’s a huge amount of fun, and once you get the hang of it, it isn’t all that difficult – just use lots of throttle, lean back and don’t fight the front (I still need a bit more practice though!)
When I’d finished making a mess off the sand, a group of Spanish tourists turned up on camels.
That was when I learned that the huge sand dune I’d stopped at was in fact the highest sand dune of them all, and the Spaniards had stopped to try and climb it.
Great! I parked up and shot off to do the same. The dune was 300m high and steep – very steep. It was one foot forward, slide one foot back for most of the way, and reminded me of climbing Mt Rinjani volcano in Lombok.
Eventually I made it up and found a group of Brits already there with their tour guide waiting for the sunset. The view from the top was eerily peaceful and somewhat surreal.