A vast rain shadow formed by the blocking of clouds by the Himalayas, the Gobi dominates the southern half of Mongolia. Freezing in winter and blisteringly hot in summer, this is an inhospitable landscape of sun-scorched plains, huge dunes of shifting sand and rocky canyons backed by ranges of rippling red mountains – one of the last and greatest wilderness areas on the planet.
The Mongolian desert has long been a source of fascination for visitors, and no trip to the country is complete without a foray south into the sandflats. Landforms such as the ice-carpeted Valley of Vultures (‘Yolyn Am’) and ‘Flaming Cliffs’ of Bayanzag provide targets day trips in Four-Wheel Drives. You’ll spend the nights in remote ger camps, where the purple-pink light at sunrise is sublime, and night skies truly wondrous.
The ultimate location for admiring the transformative effect of the desert light is the Duut Mankhan, popularly known as the ‘Khongoryn Els’ – a tract of otherworldly, 300-metre-high dunes in the lap of the Altai Mountains. Exploring this spectacular landscape on the back of a Bactrian camel, you may, on windy days hear the eerie whine of slipping silica that has earned the Els the name ‘Singing Sand Dunes’.