Khogorin Els Sand Dunes, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Mongolia  , South Gobi Aimak,
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Gobi is one of the world's largest deserts and the coldest one on average because of its northerly latitude and rather high elevations.  Most of the Gobi is made up of vast rocky expanses separated by mountain ranges, somewhat reminiscent of the Great Basin desert in the western U.S.  It's also the emptiest and least hospitable part of the nation with the world's lowest population density.  Ironically, though, the central part of the Gobi Desert is also one of the areas of Mongolia with the best developed tourist infrastructure since the great emptiness is the main attraction of Mongolia to outsiders, especially to those from more crowded Asian nations.  Thus, scattered through these vast empty regions and around some of the spots popular with foreigners because they conform most closely to peoples' expectations of what a desert should look like are ger camps of varying levels of luxury for tourists.

Unlike natural resource rich Kazakhstan and Russia, Mongolia is actually trying to build a tourist industry as part of its economic development and now attracts around 300,000 foreign tourists annually.  Unlike the former Soviet "Stans", Mongolia emerged from the collapse of Communism into a democracy, making it the regional favorite of western nations and a significant recipient of foreign aid with a strong presence of the Peace Corps and aid organizations.  They must all hang out in Ulaan Bataar, though, because I didn't see evidence of any of them in my month in the countryside.

Our ten days or so in the Gobi consisted of a mix of sightseeing and transit and a combination of ger camps and bush camping.  Perhaps it's a misnomer, though, to characterize camping in a land without any bushes as bush camping.  The first of the three main sights in south-central Mongolia that we visited was Khongorin Els sand dunes, one of several major sand dunes areas and stretching about 75 miles long by 5 miles wide in what is overall a mostly stony rather than sandy desert. 

There's not much else to do in the Gobi except walks in the desert to some of the scenic spots and perhaps a camel ride to the sand dunes.  I've ridden one-humped camels (Dromedaries) many times when working at a trip leader in Egypt and Jordan, but riding on a two-humped Bactrian Camel was an entirely new experience for me.  The main difference between the two as far as I can tell is that Dromedaries are taller than Bactrian Camels, an evolutionary adaptation to be farther from the hot ground in a hotter climate, thus the swaying "ship-of-the-desert" sensation of riding a camel is more pronounced on a Dromedary than on a Bactrian Camel.  So keep that in mind if you are considering purchasing a camel as alternative form of transportation because of high fuel prices. I feel like such a camel connoisseur in comparing the difference in the ride between and one-humped and a two-humped camel.

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