August 29, 2017
The South Gobi is a mysterious monster: hot, cold, dry, sand, ice – from the dizzying ravine of Yol Valley to the uncovered dinosaur bones of Bayanzag’s Flaming Cliffs, searching out the most diverse terrain in the region provides a holistic glimpse into the South Gobi’s most fascinating natural treasures.
Trekking with locals, sleeping in gers, and flying over the desert are a few ways to get closer to this beast of a landscape. Visitors often say the South Gobi seems like another planet, but they often neglect to mention that it feels like a whole planet.
A Little Ulaanbaatar Charm
Any international Mongolian adventure will undoubtedly see travelers going into either the Chinggis Khaan International Airport or the New Ulaanbaatar International Airport. The city itself is the beating heart of Mongolia, so don’t connect to your adventurous, desert/grassland/mountain/wildlife holiday right away. This explosive capital offers up attractions at every turn. There’s the Gandan Monastery, which has over five thousand Buddhist monks in residence, and of course there’s the unmissable 40-meter Ghengis Khan Equestrian statue. It’s so imposing it’s almost frightening.
That said, they city is more than temples and tourist spots; the nightlife in Ulaanbaatar, for example, is surprisingly bumping. Both Lux Club (yes, like in Lucifer) and Max Music Club are great for those looking to dance before heading into their holidays – though New Mass Club is undoubtedly the most hectic. Those looking for something a little more low-key will want to hit up Hop & Rocks Craft Pub or the Grand Khaan Irish Pub.
Yaks to Kayaks at Three Camel Lodge
One of the first things new travelers will notice about Mongolia is that it’s big – disturbingly big. Transport can be a bit of a trial, so it’s best to have somewhere that’s culturally interesting and used to guests having a travel basecamp. For that, there is Three Camel Lodge.
Here’s where you learn how big Mongolia is: Three Camel Lodge is a 10 hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. Luckily, you can easily fly to Dalanzadgad in the South Gobi if you have the right tour operator.
Three Camel Lodge, named by National Geographic as one of the Unique Lodges of the World, is a whirlwind of activities, culture, and convenience. It’s luxury, it’s adventure, and it offers no end of popular expeditions: horseback, Gobi walks, camel rides, eagles – you name it. From yaks to kayaks, they’ve got it all. And, all of this can be found just northeast of the Gurvansaikhan National Park.
Mountains, Ice, and Singing Dunes at Gurvansaikhan
For an all-terrain adventure, it’s hard to beat the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, found just to the south of Three Camel Lodge. Named for the eponymous mountains, the park is a study in typographical extremes. Found on the northern rim of the vast Gobi desert, areas of the park reach high elevations and the Gravan Saikhan mountains themselves are snow-capped beauties that reach up to 2,600 meters.
Dedicated bird-watchers will be delighted by the opportunity to spot any of the over 200 bird species native to the area. Nature lovers will want to keep their eyes peeled for snow leopards, Siberian ibex, and Argali sheep.
Perhaps the most iconic feature nestled within a subrange of the Gurvansaikhan Mountains is the ice canyon, otherwise known as Yol Valley (or Yolyn Am) – a ravine which tapers into a spectacular gorge and ice field that only melts by September. Wild camels are often spotted wandering just beyond campsites, and the bearded vulture, known as the Lammergeier – or yol, the valley’s namesake – can sometimes be seen taking flight within the ravine’s walls.
One of the most sought after sites in the Gurvansaikhan Park is that of the Khongoryn Els. They’re also known as the Duut Mankhan – but you probably know them as the Singing Sands. Yes, they are beautiful whisps of sand in the endless wastes of the Gobi. But, also, they sing.
Well, what actually happens is that the dunes are so large that tiny avalanches produce grating sounds that work together to produce the low, resonant hum. You’ve got to catch them on the right day, usually, but it’s well worth it to hear a stretch of desert sing you a song.
Moltsog Dunes and the Flaming Cliffs
Moving onto Hustai National Park are the Moltsog Els. Here, visitors will sate their remaining desert holiday desires. The Moltsog dunes feature long dunes of sweeping sands dotted with saxaul trees. With the dune backdrop, camel treks here are popular here. Camping in gers – a traditional Mongolian tent travelers will have become familiar with at the Three Camel Lodge – is another popular activity offered at nearby sites.
Located just southwest of the Moltsog Els, Paleontology fans will want to head for the Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs. The shocking red and ochre color of these sand cliffs are worth the visit to the South Gobi alone. But, it was in the early 20th century that these cliffs gained worldwide fame for the incredible collection of dinosaur fossils found at the site.
Amidst the scenic sprawl of desert, grasslands, and wetlands that define the Hustai National Park, there are wildlife species running rampant, including the Takhi wild horse and other fauna that brave the rough South Gobi. The area is also a popular spot for connecting with Mongolian locals and experiencing a taste of authentic nomadic culture, and, of course, food.
All these areas can be experienced from the comfort of the Three Camel Lodge, an oasis of careful luxury near some of the most diverse, inhospitable environments on earth. Still, visitors will find that life thrives here. And it thrives in so many interesting, innovative ways. In the sky and overland Mongolia never seems to end.