The Gobi: Sand Dunes

Gobi Discovery Ger Camp
The Gobi

August 19, 2010

Dear Family and Friends.

Sand dunes.  I am here, overnight, at the Gobi Discovery Ger Camp.  To see the sand dunes.

Until today, the only sand dunes I have ever seen are on the south shore of Long Island or the east coast of Florida.  Those dunes are little hills with convenient wooden walkways.  You carry your chair, umbrella and towel over the dunes to the beach.

Why am I here for the sand dunes in the Gobi?

Just recently, I read Extremes Along the Silk Road by Nick Middleton, a geography teacher at Oxford University.  He is an award-winning author of seven travel books including Going to Extremes and Surviving Extremes.  Nick Middleton is an adventure traveler.

Middleton and his guide Bruno attempted the dunes in Inner Mongolia, China.  Here’s a brief excerpt from Extremes Along the Silk Road: *

“The sand was softest so far.  Each step, even when I placed my feet in Bruno’s footprints, resulted in a mini-avalanche.  I tried the shuffling technique, but it made no difference.  Each time I moved I generated a cascade of grains and I soon discovered that I had to keep moving or I lost height.  After another five minutes of incredibly hard work, I fell flat on my face and started to crawl.  On all fours, progress was more manageable, but I’d been reduced to the status of a four-legged animal and I still had to stop about every twenty minutes to rest.

Panting hard, I began to wonder if I had the stamina to make it.  I could understand why mountaineers say they got to within twenty-five metres of the summit and gave up.  But now Bruno was standing on the crest and I wasn’t going to let him make it alone.  I delved deep and crawled another few metres, as if I were swimming the doggy paddle to the top of this bloody sand dune.  I collapsed, my heart racing, and waited before edging a little closer. 

We tottered along the narrow crest in single file, battling against the furious wind.  It sent torrents of sand streaming into the ether.  It was so strong I was seriously concerned that I might lose my balance, and plunge back down the slope I’d just crawled up.  But we both managed the last few metres and sank down on our haunches at the summit.

Bruno checked the GPS.  Laid out all around us was the world of sand, a mountain range of mega dunes that stretched far into the distance.  It took a few minutes to locate the satellites that would give us the final altitude.  At last, he said “1582 metres.” In our exhausted state, it took a little while to do the mental calculation.  (The climb began at 1237m. jp)

“345 metres high,” I said eventually, “about twelve hundred feet.”  We’d just climbed a sand dune that was higher than the Eiffel Tower….

It had taken us nearly four hours to climb the mega dune.  Our descent was closer to four minutes.*

The Inner Mongolia sand dune in China is as tall as the Eiffel Tower?  Is this an exaggeration?  Can this be true?  So when I booked my Gobi tour, I added the option for the trip to the Mongolia sand dunes.  I had to see them for myself…..

My driver Boltjo was waiting for me at the Dalanzadgad Airport.  He loaded my bag, drove across the parking lot and headed out towards the Three Camel Lodge, my home in the Gobi. 

The first thing I noticed was that there are no roads!  No roads!  The roads in the Gobi are well-worn dirt tracks.  In several locations, the tracks are multiple-lane.  The driver chooses one or another.  At intersections or forks, there are no road signs.  Again, the driver must decide his route.  Anyway, across the flat desert, or along the rolling hills, or through the rough mountains, who could he ask?

Boltjo speaks not one word of English.  It’s a blessing.  Except for the sound of the engine and the tires across the sand and gravel, the desert ride is silent.  From time to time I motion to stop.  Who can resist a family of camels or a herd of goats or a landscape worthy of a photograph? Occasionally, far ahead is a scene of dappled brown or black.  We draw closer to find large herds of silent cows and horses.   

One time, my driver spotted a fox sprinting across the desert floor.  We swerved to the left, off the track and chased the fox full speed cross the bumpy sand.  Dust flying, my jolting camera on overdrive, I managed just one good shot before the red-coated runner disappeared.

Our vehicle, the Russian UAZ 469 is built for such jolts, shocks and sprints across unpaved roads. The UAZ is no Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee or even BMW X5 that is designed for the choppy trails and sandy Interstates of Palm Beach or Preston Hollow, Beverly Hills or Pocantico Hills, Sudbury or Duxbury, Sag Harbor or Bal Harbour. 

UAZ (УАЗ), Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod (Ульяновский Автомобильный Завод) is an automobile manufacturer based in Ulyanovsk, Russia that makes military jeeps, buses and trucks.  Production started in 1941.  The models are known for their simplicity of design, and easy, inexpensive maintenance.  Just like their American counterparts.  A fleet of UAZ vehicles parks every evening at the Three Camel Lodge.

From the Three Camel Lodge it is a four hour drive to the Gobi Discovery Ger Camp. I arrived in the afternoon, enjoyed a late lunch and took photos of little lizards and bleached animal skulls in the sand.  In the evening, my new friends Anna and Richard and I were chased indoors by a brief but fierce sand storm.  The accommodations in the ger are adequate, the food plentiful and my fellow travelers are as excited as I am to see the sand dunes. 

I am up early to see the sunrise. The desert floor, the dunes and the mountains are a multi-hued ribbon of gold, tan and grey. After breakfast we drive to a herder’s home where I mount my camel for a brief, muscle stretching ride to the sand dunes.

Many travelers (the young and the very young) are snaking their way up.  I start to walk.  Even with my proper hiking shoes and hiking stick, there’s little purchase over the sand.  I try heel first in the loose sand.  Then I try toes first.  My pulse is racing and I remember that I am about 1400m (4600 ft) above sea level.

To the top, a 200m climb?  Not.  A new goal.  To the first ridge.  Just ahead.  Maybe 30m.  Cannot.  Can not.  (Nick Middleton is no youngster.  How on earth did he manage a four hour climb up “the Eiffel Tower” of sand?)  I flop down in the soft grains and smile.  I remember that I didn’t travel to Mongolia to climb the sand dunes.  I came to see them.

Other travelers I met came for other reasons.  The French couple on the three-wheeled motorized tandem bicycle came for leisurely sightseeing.  Another French couple from Paris with their two young daughters came for the fresh air and the animals. 

Two young men from the Netherlands were sponsored by Yamaha and Canon.  They had an adventure tooling around the desert in open Yamaha ATV’s.

Markus and his friend, also Markus, drove for three weeks from Austria! Along with three hundred teams from Europe they sold their car after they arrived in Ulan Bator and donated the proceeds to a local charity.  In return they received a certificate saying that they completed the Mongol Rally.

Anna and Richard are young British expats who live and work in Singapore.  They travel everywhere.  They love Mongolia.  For scenery, they recommend Botswana. 

Christin is an attorney in Switzerland.  She left her job and is taking a six month journey in Asia and the Pacific.

I met a young paleontologist from Australia.  He and a group of professionals and hobbyists are packing their net books, tents, tools and toilet paper for a dig out there somewhere in the desert clay.

And me?  I won’t sleep in a tent in the desert or ride an ATV.  I don’t peddle a bicycle.  And I can’t climb a sand dune.  But I do travel.  It’s what I do.

What was my motivation to travel to Mongolia?  Another notch in my travel belt?  Fresh air?  Red-coated animals?  Soaring birds?  Mountain scenery?  Sand dunes?

Wherever I decide to travel, my motivation is consistent and simple:  I’d never been there before.


PS  Let me not forget my friend Baaysa in Ulan Bator, and my new friends Batschka and Unru.  Thank you for your help and your friendship.

* Nick Middleton.  Extremes Along the Silk Road.  John Murray (Publishers). London. 2006.  pp 92-94.


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