The Amazing Khongoryn Els – Mongolia

Majestic sand dunes as far as the eyes can see in the midst of a barren land and under a clear sky – this is just one of the fitting descriptions one can give to Khongoryn Els in Mongolia. Khongoryn Els are the country’s largest sand rises, and specifically lies in the Gobi Dessert. What many travelers don’t realize is that the Khongoryn Els sand dunes only occupy 3% of the entire Gobi Desert, making them an even more precious attraction for anyone visiting this part of the country.

Stretching 185 kilometers, Khongorin Els is oftentimes referred to as the ‘Singing Dunes’ (Duut Mankhan) because of the whistling sound the sand makes whenever it is moved by the wind. These dunes will easily impress you with their enormity. Some of them can reach to a height of more than 300 meters and a width of 12 kilometers. If you want to reach the top of the biggest dunes on foot, you are in for an arduous climb that could take anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes. But like many things in life that require a little suffering, climbing the biggest dunes is quite rewarding at the end due to the breathtaking views you can get.

There is no public transport to the Khongorin Els sand dunes. Most tourists who wish to visit this magnificent landscape rent a heavy duty jeep or go for a packaged tour. The main exciting activity at Khongorin Els, aside from walking around and admiring the dunes is camel riding! Camel rides are typically included in arranged tours to the sand dunes. But if you drove your way here independently, don’t fret – local herders will usually show up and have their camels available for rent. You also have the option to have an aide to help you with the camels. If you have the budget, the camel ride on the beautiful Khongorin Els sand dunes is truly a memorable experience. Don’t forget a camera to capture your experience!

After exploring the dunes, try to find an authentic desert oasis. A popular one is situated near Khongor Creek, on the northernmost portion of Khongoryn Els. While here, try walking alongside the creek, which covers a length of 10 kilometers. Take note that some parts of the Khongoryn Els area are difficult to navigate and drive on and it is advisable to take the desert tracks north to Bogd in Övörkhangai, or the one to Bayanlig in Bayankhongor. However, if you wish to take on these tracks, it is highly advisable to hire an experienced driver.

Companies that offer tours to Khongoryn Els usually pick up passengers from the capital Ulaanbaatar, and bring them to the base of the formation to take photographs and go for camel rides. Some of these companies combine the Khongoryn Els sightseeing with other nearby natural attractions such as the Bayanzag” Red flaming cliffs, known for its dinosaur fossils.

Tours to Khongoryn Els and other sites can stretch for several days; and thus, include overnight stays at tented or ger camps in the middle of the Gobi Desert. This is indeed a treat, as you will see the golden sands glisten during sunset, and how their shadows loom under a clear evening sky. The best time to visit Khongor Sands, especially if you intend to climb a dune, is during early morning, when the air is cooler. If you are camping in the Khongoryn Els area, climbing the dunes in the evening is also a pleasant experience.

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Bayan Olgii Mongolia

sagdsaIn the westernmost portion of Mongolia, on the border with China and Russia lies the remarkable province of Bayan Olgii (Bayan Ulgii). This land is known to be the land of Kazakh descendants, whose ancestors fled their motherland to avoid the expanding Russian empire and to search for a better future. While the rest of Mongolia is homogeneous, Bayan-Olgii has its own culture and languages.

Olgii City (Ulgii) is the proud capital of the province, and this is usually the home base for travelers exploring Bayan Olgii province and western Mongolia in general. The city has approximately 30,000 people, and is still experiencing changes, albeit, not too rapidly. You can reach Olgii by taking a plane, bus or jeep. If you choose to travel by land, it takes about three days to get here from the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar. The two domestic airlines that fly to Olgii every week are AeroMongolia and Eznis.

Olgii has some of the basic tourist amenities like supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, ATMs and internet cafes. But it is not only a place to stock up some supplies; it’s also a great starting place to get to know the Kazakh’s unique culture of nomadic herding, their lively music and art, as well as their close family ties. Even in the city itself, the traditional white-felt round house called ger is set up in people’s yards. But if you want to see the gers in a more traditional setting, all you need to do is go outside town. Whichever you choose, you will soon encounter Kazakh’s hospitality and it will pleasantly astonish you.

The city is small enough to get around on foot. Take the time to visit the outdoor market or bazaar and check out the famous Olgii crafts. There is a museum on the way to the bazaar, just northeast of the main square. This three-story museum provides insights to the history, culture and lives of the various tribes inhabiting Bayan Ulgii. These tribes include the majority Kazakh population and the minorities like Dörvöd, Uriankhai, Khoshuud and Tuva. Other points of interest in the city include the social space called Green Garden, and the Kazakh National Theater, which regularly hosts cultural shows and concerts.

Olgii has served as jumping off point for visitors who wish to head to Tsambagarav National Park and Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.The Altai Mountains surround the city of Olgii stretching to the south and west. Thus, hiking is one of the main activities to do in the area. If you wish to conquer the peaks of the Altai Mountains, you may want to engagethe services of an experienced local mountain guide. You can also sign up for a more organized tour. Despite the growing tourism, the road infrastructure around Bayan Olgii is still not well-developed. The best way to explore the natural attractions is to go for organized tours, with established outfitters who provide transportation, food, camping equipment and guides.

If you have an adventurous palate, don’t miss the chance to try sampling the traditional Kazakh delicacies while in Bayan Olgii. Some of these delicacies include fermented mare’s milk called ‘koumiss’, horse sausage named ‘kaz’, and the meat plate with root vegetable and steamed flour called ‘beshbarmak’, also regarded as the national dish.

Also in Bayan Olgii you can find the rare Kazakh eagle-hunters locally called berkutchi. A berkutchi trains golden eagles and hunts with them. Eagle hunters on horseback can be spotted just outside the city.