Sand dunes are the most malleable structure on earth. Their size and shape are constantly changing as they are sculpted and re-sculpted by the elements. For hikers, this variable character is both a curse and a blessing. A curse while ascending the steep and loose terrain, where every step forward equates to half a step back. And a blessing when descending the forgiving surface, which is normally done by way of leaps and bounds, accompanied by lots of hooping and hollering. The bigger the sand dunes, the harder the climb and the more joyous the descent. And there are few dunes in the world that better encapsulate this extreme effort-to-reward ratio than the mighty Khongoryn Els.
At a Glance
Background: Situated in the Gobi desert in the far south of Mongolia, Khongoryn Els measures approximately 100 km (62.1 mi) long, 12 km (7.5 mi) wide, and up to 300 m (984 ft) high. Commonly known as Duut Mankhan, or the “Singing Sands”, due to the sound the dunes make when being buffeted by howling winds, Khongoryn Els forms part of Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park. The park is the country’s largest, and within its two million hectare plus boundaries lie a myriad of diverse landscapes including lonely steppes, majestic mountains, saline wetlands, barren gravel plains, and of course, giant sand dunes.
Average Time: Spend at least two days wandering the dunes. Three days are even better.
Start / Finish :
- The Ger camps on the eastern side of the dunes act as your base.
- As Khongoryn Els is only accessible by private transport, you will need to inform your driver/guide how long you plan to be hiking.
Season: May to October. Spring and autumn are ideal.
Maps & Information
- Guidebook: For general information on the Gobi Desert, see the Lonely Planet Mongolia guidebook (available in Kindle).
- Permits: Entry permits for Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park can be attained at the park office in Dalanzadgad, the entrance to Yolyn Am, or from the ranger at Khongoryn Els.
- The Dunes Less Taken: Standard tourist activities at Khongoryn Els include an afternoon hike to the nearby ridge tops, as well as a multi-hour camel ride along the outskirts of the dunes. However, for those intrepid souls who wish to venture off the beaten track, it is possible to set off on foot into the heart of the dunes, and in so doing have one of Central Asia’s most remarkable natural wonders all to yourself.
- Flora & Fauna: Speaking of camels, Mongolia is home to the world’s largest population of two-humped Bactrian camels. Commonly known as the ‘ships of the desert’, these beasts of burden can carry up to 270 kg (595 lbs), almost twice as much as their Dromedary (one-humped) brethren. Depending on temperature and activity level, Bactrian camels can go for a week without water and more than a month without food. When they do eventually take a drink they are capable of drinking more than 100 liters in less than ten minutes.
- Equipment: Broad-brimmed or beekeeper style hat, long sleeve shirt and pants, a buff or bandana to wear over your face when the wind picks up, sunglasses, lightweight running shoes, and a compass and/or GPS.
Route / Conditions
While there is no established trek in Khongoryn Els, it isn’t too difficult to piece together a multi-hour loop or out-and-back hike. Beginning from the Ger camps, head in a southwest direction towards the top of the obvious ridge (see photo above). Once this has been scaled, I would recommend doing a loop circuit by initially descending west down the other side and then heading north toward some of the highest, most spectacular dunes in Khongoryn Els
Keeping an eye on the time, you will eventually head SE back to the high ridge that you initially climbed. From a practical point of view, always be cognizant of your location in relation to that initial ridge, as it will act as your primary geographical reference point when you eventually return to camp. Also make sure you leave yourself plenty of time in order to arrive before it gets dark (Tip: Don’t forget your headlamp just in case). In order to do so, aim at being back on top of the highest dune at the very latest by sunset.
- Equipment Reminder: Don’t forget your compass/GPS – sand storms are very common in this area and it is easy to become disorientated.
- Water: In regards to H2O, take all that you need from camp. If you plan on hiking for six hours plus, be sure to bring at least three to four liters per person.
Sleeping & the Night Sky
- Yurts: Visitors to Khongoryn Els overnight at the Ger (yurts) camps situated on the north side of the dunes complex. Staying at these nomadic abodes offers a fascinating insight into the Mongols traditional way of life; the dung-fired iron stove, the handmade carpets, and the customary post-dinner game of Shagai (sheep ankle bones). What these simple establishments may lack in western luxuries (showers are a rarity and bathroom facilities may be “rustic”), they more than makeup for with their incredible location and the legendary hospitality of the nomads themselves.
- Star Gazing: Before going to bed, be sure to step outside and admire the night sky. Mongolia has the lowest population density of any country on earth, and away from the country’s capital (and only big city) Ulaanbaatar, the stars shine with a brightness that must be seen to be believed.
Narrow Gorges and Flaming Cliffs
Apart from the dunes of Khongoryn Els, two other must-see natural attractions in southern Mongolia are Yolyn Am (which translates to ‘Valley of the Eagles’) and the Flaming Cliffs. The former is a dramatic canyon whose narrowest sections are covered for most of the year by a thick layer of ice, and which offers visitors the chance to spot vultures, wild Argali sheep (the largest sheep in the world), and the golden eagles after which it derives its name. To the northwest of Yolyn Am are the Flaming Cliffs (also known as Bayanzag), a collection of splendid red rock formations that are best appreciated at sunrise and sunset, when they light up with an ethereal orange and red glow. Apart from their stunning beauty, the cliffs are most known for being the place where the first officially recognised dinosaur egg fossils were discovered in the 1920s. The man in charge of that historic excavation was American paleontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews, who it is said was the inspiration for the film character ‘Indiana Jones’.