Climbing Gobi’s highest dune

By Alifiya Calcuttawala

Its 6.30 am on 20th, June 2013.  The alarm goes off but today is a relaxed day. I get up for my morning cuppa and sit outside my ger watching the sand dune at a distance. Thats where I am going shortly. After breakfast and a quick shower we huddle into the car, excited like school kids – on our way to visit the tallest sand dunes in the world. I am in the midst of the Gobi desert in Mongolia, the largest desert in Asia and the 5th largest in the world.

Eventually after a drive of about 40 minutes we were there. Standing at the base of the tallest sand dune in the world!

I check my gear:

water bottle – check
sunglasses – check
hat – check
shoes laces tightened – check

Ok all set – the weather is kind to us today – its overcast, else it would have been a very big challenge to climb up in the heat. It’s not hot and there’s no wind, which is good as its difficult to climb a dune with the sand blowing in your face.

As I start climbing, it dawns on me that its not as easy as it looks – with every two steps forward, I come down one step as the sand keeps sliding down. With my feet buried in the sand, going forward and up gets more and more challenging. The peak of the dune now looks quite elusive. Panting and out of breath I am soon at, what feels like, the half way mark. It has taken me 45 panting minutes to get here and WHAT A VIEW IT IS!! The landscape from the top is simply wow. Sand dunes rolling into the horizon interspersed with semi arid land on one side with patches of green on the other; a small pool of water (at least that’s what it looks like from here) and the blue mountains in the distance. People and cars look so tiny from up here. An incredibly awesome view. I decide to continue the climb but finally give up as its very difficult towards the end as the dune sucks my legs in up to my knees. I sigh! ‘Am almost there.

Coming down is, however, a fun experience – I feel so “free.” I kind of roll and slide down the dune, falling, laughing with the sand in my eyes, hair, mouth, clothes and shoes. By the time I return to the base, my feet feel 2 kg heavier. I take off my shoes and empty all the “gobi” sand out.

We drive out.

Next stop is the herders camp, where we stop to get onto the camels. These camel herders camp here in the summers and raise camels and horses. All of us alight on the camels and go off for a short “spin” – this too is a unique experience – getting freakier in parts as the camels snort and get too close to each other with one of them scratching his face on my legs .. eekss!!!! But every minute on the camel is worth it. It makes my experience of the Gobi complete.

I walk around the camp, taking pictures and trying to chat up with them through my guide and interpreter. Quite strangely, the herders in the middle of this stark wilderness terrain cannot resist the ease that technology brings. I see a washing machine with a generator next to it to power it! They need clean clothes too, I guess.

We return to the camp, take a hot shower followed by lunch – all of us are famished and tired.

Most of us retire to our ger for an afternoon nap. Lying on my bed, I look back at the morning with a sense of achievement.

I think of the days to come. There’s a lot of Mongolia left in the trip. I drift off to sleep with the wind howling around my ger.

(Alifiya Calcuttawala is the Regional Director of The Wanderers based in Kolkata. When she is not busy sending people to distant places on the planet, she is herself at some distant place on the planet. She wandered off to Mongolia this summer with a small band of travellers)

Check out our latest Photography Trip in Mongolia