Climbing Khongoryn Els: The Gobi Desert’s Singing Dunes

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Towering nearly 200 meters high, Mongolia’s Khongoryn Els are among approximately 30 “singing dunes” worldwide. Precise balances of humidity, silicon content and sand grain size and shape must be perfect to achieve the deeply vibrating hum these dunes produce. Click any photo to enlarge. 

With each step up the steep slope of the dunes, we simultaneously gained and lost elevation, slipping back with the shifting sand. Although the mid-October day was cool, we were stripped down to jeans and shirts, and would have been more comfortable in shorts. By the midway point, we were drenched with sweat. And that’s about when we began to notice it – an unmistakable vibration that began in our feet and traveled through our leg bones up through our hips accompanied by a low, resonate hum. The sound was audible – sort of like monks chanting “ohmmmmmm” from somewhere deep in their throats.

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Wind sculpted sand has fascinated humans for millennia. Views like this were our reward for hiking to the top of the dunes.

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Water bottle in tow, Barbra takes a breather halfway up the tallest dune. Livestock look like mere dots on the shores of the distant shallow lake. The water is a morning gathering place for doves in the thousands… perhaps tens of thousands.

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The top of the dunes felt like the top of the world –  the perfect place to make sand angels. 

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Although much of the Gobi Desert is rocky and wet enough to support plant life, the area of the singing dunes is an ocean of ever-shifting sand. See Yolyn Am Canyon: Wildlife Safari amidst Remnants of the Gobi’s last Glacier and The Gobi Desert’s Valley of the Lammergeier.

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Dusk was closing in by the time we descended the Khongoryn Els, creating dramatic contrasts along the dunes’ curving edges. 

One of the funnest runs of our lives was racing down the dunes barefoot – a 200 meter decent, big strides landing in soft, cool sand, only slightly tilted away from vertical.