Three years ago I visited the Gobi Desert and had one of the most memorable experiences of my life. At the time I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, out east in Ondorkhaan (more about that HERE!). A group of Peace Corps volunteer and I journeyed south by bus, taxi, purgon (Russian mini-bus), camel, and finally our own two feet to get to the sand dunes of the Gobi. The journey was loooong and uncomfortable. Imagine traveling with luggage in your lap, luggage in the bus aisle, and people sitting on top of that luggage. Human tetris is real and we nailed it for those 10 hours down into the desert.
But I digress….this post is about my time in the desert itself. Mongolia is sparsely populated. When you’re driving on the “roads” in the Gobi it is easy to imagine yourself on the planet of Tatooine. Red dirt and sand sprawls as far as the eye can see. Scruffy shrubs and small plants are spotted here and there. Sometimes a herd of camels can be seen off in the distance. As our driver navigated his way across the desert we talked and laughed together, occasionally yelling “look a camel!” while we scrambled for our cameras.
When we got to the desert we stopped at a local camel herder’s ger (also known as a yurt) where we saw baby camels (cuteness overload!!!!) and eventually mounted our own personal camel to trek over to the sand dunes. Have you ever ridden a camel? It is nothing like horseback riding! For instance, you mount the camel while it’s laying on the ground and when you’re ready it stands up. First, leaning back, then forward, and finally settling. This motion continues when it starts to walk but is a bit gentler and smoother. Bactrian camels have two humps and you ride them by sitting in between those two humps. Their fur is very thick because it needs to keep them warm during the sub-zero Mongolian winters.
Once we arrived to the foot of the dunes we all hopped off, said goodbye to our camels, and immediately removed our shoes. The sand was soft and fine. It was hot on the surface from baking in the sun but we dug our toes in and it was cool underneath. Our first goal was to race to the top of the nearest dune which was a good idea until halfway up when we struggled and slipped up the steep wall of sand. Surprisingly, there was life on the dunes. Small plants no longer than a finger poked through the sand and little bugs scurried along the top leaving a trail behind them.
At the top of the dune we looked around and saw miles of dunes trailing to the north and south. On either side was the red dirt I described earlier but in the middle was a meandering trail of white sand mountains. After we marveled at the sight someone had the bright idea to roll down the dune. If you get nauseous easily don’t try this! Rolling down the steep side was a thrill and as you can see in the photo above we all needed a rest afterward.
If you ever find yourself in Mongolia definitely visit the Gobi desert and the sand dunes. The experience is unforgettable!