Wonder of Khongoryn Els

I remember July 20 as a day of colors for me. It was the second last day of our adventure in amazing southern Gobi. The plan was to get to the top of Khongoryn Els, the singing dunes that are up to 300m high, 12km wide and about 100km long, for sunset views of the dunes and the surrounding area. Looking at Khongoryn Els from a distance, they did not seem to pose that big of a challenge to reach the summit. Our guide, Uugii, mentioned a number of times that the climb would be tough but since it rained the day before, the climb should be slightly easier. We got to the base of the sand dunes around 8.03pm. Sunset was at 8.40pm. Looking straight to the top from the base, the sand dunes loomed large and powerful. Some visitors who were already at the top appeared tiny from where I was. For the first time, I felt a twist in my heart realizing I had most likely underestimated the difficulty of getting to the top.

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Vivid colors painting the sky as the sun was setting, seen from the top of Khongoryn Els.

Exhaustion started to take its toll on me soon after we began our ascent; every step forward was followed by a significant backslide. I looked up to the top occasionally, and the distance just did not seem to be narrowing. There was also the time pressure to reach the summit before sunset. After about one-third of the climb, trails of previous visitors’ footsteps appeared all the way to the top. Stepping on those footsteps helped me a lot. They acted as little stairs. For this, I profusely thanked the previous visitors for leaving their footprints. They most probably did not realize that their footsteps had helped some tremendously. I guess sometimes our little acts can help others without us even knowing it.

We managed to get to the top around 8.30pm. We had heard that it usually takes 45 minutes to 1 hour to reach the summit. It took us less than 30 minutes so that was something that we could pat us on the back for. We found our own little spot on the sandy summit. As the sun was setting, the colors in the sky were slowly changing. The colors were so vivid that I felt I was in the land of colors. In silence, my beloved friend and I watched the sun slowly sink into the horizon. From a distance, I could see the silhouette of some travelers on the other tops of the dunes. The moment was so beautiful I could not put it in words. It was just something that you would have to experience in order to fully grasp this moment of self-forgetfulness and a sense of great wonder. It was worth every ounce of energy to reach the top!

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Some travelers descending the sand dunes. Descent is much easier than ascent. It is a lot of fun too!

Once again, I was reminded that some of the most spectacular moments/experiences are only possible to come by with some time and earnest effort. But every time it is well worth it.

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A sleeping camel with Khongoryn Els and mountains in the background. If I were to ride a camel to the top of the dunes, I would make sure I would not get this sleepyhead haha!

Mongolian Angels

Mongolia was one of the countries on my travel bucket list. July 2017 finally brought my faithful travel friend, Jason, and me there. We started our adventure in the capital Ulaanbataar, a city that shocked and excited me with its dizzying modernity: high-rise buildings with a fashionable design, globally-renowned brands, international restaurants (there was a considerable number of Korean restaurants, including one that called itself ‘Pyongyang’), contemporary city cultures, etc. In such a cosmopolitan city, one would probably expect a minimal language barrier. However, that was not what we experienced. The Mongolian language sounded absolutely foreign to me, nothing like some of the Asian languages I know. Most signs and bus routes were indicated in the Cyrillic alphabet. The city residents did not seem to speak much of English. We used a lot of miming and hand gestures to communicate with the local residents. Despite being a challenge many times, our experience with the language barrier paved the way for some beautiful, positive moments. There was a number of occasions that we were ‘saved’ from a tricky situation because we were helped by some warm-hearted Mongolians who did not expect anything in return.

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Ulaanbataar at sunset, seen from the top of the Zaisan Memorial.

On one occasion, we were walking back to our hotel located in Zaisan (it was quite a distance from the city center). Without a warning the rain came pouring down. The wind was pretty aggressive too. We decided to run; ahead of us were a woman with a small child. She had an umbrella that was just big enough to shelter the child and herself. When she saw us, she motioned to share her umbrella with us. Her very kind, selfless offer moved me deeply as she was so willing to share all that she had with two strangers who were running past her and who did not speak even a single word of her language! Such kindness seems rare these days. We thanked her and gestured to her that we would just run in the rain.

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A scene captured on our walk back to hotel: four horsemen demonstrating their horse riding skill at the river that runs through the city on the first day of the Naadam Festival, right before the rain came pouring down.

On another occasion, we were taking the public bus to the city. We were not exactly sure the right buses that would take us there. We got on one. Despite already knowing the driver would probably not understand us, we still asked him if the bus route covered the place we wanted to go to (Post Office/ Peace Avenue). No reply. We just had to wait and see then! Suddenly, a young girl approached Jason and asked him ‘do you remember me?’. It took us a while to recognize she was the friendly girl working at the souvenir shop in the Museum of Dinosaurs we visited the day before. She had an impressive command of English so communicating with her was not a problem at all. She noticed we were ‘struggling’ with the bus situation and wanted to help us. We got some very useful information regarding how the public transportation in the city worked, as well as traveling to the Terelj National Park (where we were headed to later that day) by bus. She expressed her empathy for many visitors’ dilemma with language barrier, and shared her sad concern regarding the lesser use of the Mongolian language by more and more younger generations and the possibility of an identity loss as the resulting outcome. I must say we had a very interesting conversation with such a kind, smart young girl! Before we parted, she asked if we had a Mongolian mobile number so we could contact her should we need help during our trip. Once again, I was touched by the sincerity and kindness of another Mongolian angel. On our way to Terelj, she texted us to ask how things were going :-).  That day was such a lovely day for me partly because of our encounter with this good-natured young girl, whose name we later learned was Oliga.

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Oliga and me at a coffee shop. We had a coffee get-together upon returning to Ulaanbataar from Terelj.

The last day of our trip took us back to the capital. We faced another bus predicament. As usual, we tried to ask for information. This time we approached the lady working at the little hut selling various things including bus passes. We just wanted to know the bus number. She did not know any English but she was determined to help us. She decided to wait for the bus with us. Experiencing such genuine kindness in a foreign country was not only moving, but was also unforgettable.

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Our guide in the Gobi, Uugii, who is a nice, caring teacher from the Gobi region.

There were a few other occasions when we were shown kindness when we least expected it. Our encounters with these kind-hearted Mongolians taught me that language barrier is not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, it can be trying but it can also be beautiful in the sense that it can make a trip in a foreign land that much more authentic. I also had the realization that while having a local guide/friend could be beneficial in certain ways/situations, it might deprive us of an opportunity to be in a challenging situation that would allow us to cross paths with some nice locals who would extend a helping hand with much warmth and sincerity. If Jason and I had been able to speak the Mongolian language or had a local guide/friend to help us whenever we needed it, we would not have met our Mongolian angels who made our trip sweeter and more memorable, and personally made me feel more hopeful that in a world that seems to become crazier and greedier with each passing day, kindness and sincerity are not disappearing human traits. As Jason said…”for every rude, unkind person you meet, remember the nice, kind people you have met”. In my heart, I replied ”like those Mongolian angels”.

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A beautiful view of the red sky blanketing Zaisan at sunset.