The Gobi Desert: Harsh, Desolate Beauty

The Gobi Desert: Harsh, Desolate Beauty

Mongolia’s countryside, which, with its profound sense of isolation and sparsely populated landscape, captures the ‘real’ Mongolia. And you can’t get much more isolated than the Gobi Desert.

Some would argue that it’s a little too stark and desolate – a huge, windswept barren stretch of nothingness that is harsh, unforgiving and far from being an ideal place to visit. And yet for me it’s precisely that which drew me to the place. It’s a place where you can truly escape the immersive stresses of the modern world.

The Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag

Back in 1922, this area was excavated by one Roy Chapman Andrews, and he dug up a veritable bonanza of dinosaur fossils, eggs and bones. These days, most of his finds are on display at museums – mostly in his native USA – but the disappointment of there being no fossils or skeleton bones on view is more than made up for by the vivid red of the landscape itself, plunked as it is in the middle of the otherwise classic barren sweep of the Gobi on all sides.

Photo opportunities of the rock formations and cliff faces abound, and they don’t stop when you head North to the surprisingly verdant scrub forest nearby. Ok so forest is a generous term, but there are more clumps of lush green undergrowth than you wouldn’t think possible in any Desert, let alone a vast, harsh one like the Gobi.

Khongoryn Els

Khongoryn Els sand dunes are a great place for a camel ride. The one I had here was infinitely more pleasant and safer than the one I did on a temperamental camel in India, although I was almost too relaxed and almost slid off the side of the saddle toward the end – our guide had to step under and push me back up in to the saddle!

After the camel ride, we had a brief walk along the foot of the sand dunes, where we found a spring with fresh drinkable water, which was pleasantly cold, although sadly it had an earthy, almost eggy smell to it…

Then, after dinner, came the sunset ‘highlight’ of the day – an exhausting climb up the beautiful sand dune arrangements of Khongoryn Els. Looking like huge sandy meringues, and with the more jagged edged rock formations of the mountains behind providing a backdrop, this place was visually stunning and a natural highlight of the Gobi. But climbing them is not easy…

For each step forward it felt like two steps back, and even the supremely athletic have to stop and rest frequently, as the way the sandy quagmire drags you down is energy-sapping. It took us the best part of an hour to hit the summit, and I nearly missed the sunset at the top, needing our guide Enkhbold to push me up the last bit to ensure I just about caught it. The view was, of course, spectacular, and the winds that whipped and sculpted the dunes produced a chilling whistling sound, although we didn’t linger for too long at the top; sand flying in your face is not a pleasant experience!

Then began the infinitely easier and more pleasant big foot-esque tramp down the steep slope, where this time the sand works with you rather than against you! We’d definitely earned the beers back at the camp this night…

Yolyn Am

After yesterday’s endeavours it was undoubtedly welcome news to have restful lie in again, before taking a long jeep ride in blazing hot weather back toward Yolyn Am, which is near the airport we had flown to from Ulaanbaatar.

First up we checked out the Nature Museum at entrance to gorge, with stuffed animals, fossilised Dinosaur eggs and other Gobi-based curiosities. Then we walked to the gorge itself through verdant valley paths as soaring mountain scenery, with vultures gliding overhead, shaded the paths on both sides. Despite it being a tourist hot spot, it’s possible to find relative solitude here, and the landscape is peacefully and beautifully unspoiled.

Yolyn Am is famous for its ice, but sadly it was just too warm at this time of year, and we saw none within the gorge itself, unfortunately. But to compensate we were instead lucky to see an ibex relatively up close on the way out, which was a treat, as apparently they can be very hard to spot!

Vast and hostile as it can be, the Gobi Desert is undoubtedly a starkly beautiful part of Mongolia, and very much worth its place on any visitors’ itinerary to this beautiful country.


  • Melissa

    November 29, 2017 at 2:07 am Reply

    This would be an incredible adventure. Hiking and nature are some of my favorite things. As difficult as the hike was, and as barren as the desert is, I bet it was still somewhat relaxing being away from all the chaos of cities and more developed areas.

    • Joe

      November 29, 2017 at 5:26 am Reply

      Well, Mongolia only has one city really! But yes, made a nice change of pace from Ulaanbaatar 🙂

  • Medha Verma

    November 29, 2017 at 7:54 am Reply

    You know what stands apart in the landscape here (I live in the UAE so I am very used to seeing desert landscape and sand dunes) – it is the sand dunes set in the backdrop of greenery! That’s rare, I’ve not seen much of that. Mangolia seems to be an interesting place although I’ve seen so much of arid desert landscape since I moved here that I try to visit places that are more green and scenic 🙂

    • Joe

      November 29, 2017 at 5:36 pm Reply

      Yes, that’s true! Certainly makes it distinctive. There are many parts of it where it’s not so green, of course, but the green that is in the parts I visited definitely added to the appeal 🙂

  • Followingtherivera

    November 29, 2017 at 12:41 pm Reply

    This is just nature at its stunning best! I’d never thought of visiting Mongolia before, but you’ve definitely inspired me. It’s so refreshing seeing unspoiled lands, I’d like to see it one day too!

    • Joe

      November 29, 2017 at 5:37 pm Reply

      Hope you do get to go one day 🙂

  • Ritika

    November 29, 2017 at 1:15 pm Reply

    Mangolia had been on our bucket list liek forever..reading ur blog makes us wanna visit more now..we luv hiking and looks like Mongolia is a paradise for hikers..have bookmarked this post for our reference.
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    • Joe

      November 29, 2017 at 5:38 pm Reply

      Yes, it most definitely is that! Lots of wide open spaces and hiking opportunities. There are some truly remote areas where you can go for days without seeing a soul as well, if that’s your bag 🙂

  • Stefanie

    November 29, 2017 at 2:53 pm Reply

    I’ve been dreaming of taking the Trans-Siberian Express, with a stop in Mongolia en route. This just makes me want to go even more! Talk about an off-the-beaten-path destination. Lovely photos! And I had to laugh imagining you being pushed back up onto your camel! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    • Joe

      November 29, 2017 at 5:40 pm Reply

      Hahaha, believe it or not I’ve actually had a worse camel experience in my time! I haven’t been on the Trans-Siberian Express…you’ll have to tell me about how that one goes when you take it 🙂

  • Exploring Curiously

    November 29, 2017 at 11:14 pm Reply

    Places like this are intriguing! It looks like it is very beautiful there. I like the contrast of the sand with the green right next to it.

  • Justine

    November 30, 2017 at 4:12 am Reply

    OOoooh! The Flaming Cliffs and the discovery of dinosaur fossils in there reminds me so much of Drumheller in Canada. As for Khongoryn Els, I’ve never seen sand dunes and grassy landscape together in one picture! That is amazing!
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  • amit

    November 30, 2017 at 7:35 pm Reply

    I have always had a fascination with Mongolia, the landscape and the vastness of the country – It’s one of those places I’ve saved and to travel through the Gobi desert would be incredible. Just from your pictures you’ve made me yearn to bring the trip forward and start planning for it already. Khongoryn Els look so picturesque but I can imagine how difficult it must have been to climb, I bet your calves were not happy haha. Great post, have saved this for when I do start planning my Mongolia trip 😀
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    • Joe

      December 2, 2017 at 9:57 am Reply

      Thanks Amit 🙂 Yes, my calves were absolutely killing me after Khongoryn Els. A truly exhausting climb, but worth it! Have a great time when you get round to going to Mongolia yourself.

  • Shreya Saha

    December 1, 2017 at 2:09 pm Reply

    So happy to read this blog. I have rarely read any blogs on Gobi desert recently. Mongolia is in my list since long, your pictures have inspired me more. Loved the stunning nature pics of this post.
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