For our final adventure together before parting ways, Maeva and I decided to rent a jeep to take us rolling around in gigantic sand dunes. The sand dunes, known for being extremely tall, are in the Badain Jaran Desert on the edge of Inner Mongolia. And, coming from someone who actually hadn’t seen a desert before, they were pretty awesome.
Our jeep driver, a calm Mongolian, drove the jeep through the powdery sand and over peaks and bumps with the jaded air of one who’s played a video game long enough to memorize every level. He said he’d been working in the company for four years. He also said it wasn’t interesting anymore. And his hand easily adjusted the gears as we shrieked and whooped at the cliff of sand below us. (Don’t worry, mom, I was wearing my seat-belt).
It was like live-action Mario Kart. The sky so blue, it didn’t look real. The jeep fumbling and revving through sand around steep bends. The lunacy of seeing road signs sticking out of the sand. We stopped on the edge of sand dunes to get pictures. We made sand angels. We rolled down dunes. We gripped the handles in the jeep over bumpy roads, grateful to have eaten a light breakfast.
The desert felt so unreal to me, partly because it’s such a strange one. There are lakes in the desert. LAKES. We swam in one of them (to the amusement of our guide). There are towering dunes that look unimpressive and puny from a distance. There are tracks from jeeps in lines, definite roads created from wear.
I kept thinking ‘This is a desert. This is a deadly place. FEEL THE POWER.” But instead, I raised my hands in the air as we went for another roller coaster ride. Then the jeep stopped. We got out and our guide said we could go climb what was allegedly “the biggest dune.” I wore my hat, a scarf and effectively looked like Zorro. Maeva wrapped her head in a scarf for a more Lawrence of Arabia look. And we began the climb.
The thing with sand, we realized, is that it’s really hard to climb. You take a step up, and your foot sinks in and drags back almost to where you’re started. It sifts beneath you and tires you much faster than packed dirt might. We were panting within 10 minutes, gasping in 20.
“Right now, I hate the desert so much…” Maeva said as we rested, still a fine distance from the top.
Behind us, I could see our trail of footsteps leading up and up. The jeep disappeared behind the dune. It was just the two of us.
Something I learned is that there’s a certain silence to the desert I’ve never experienced before. No birds, no rustle of trees, no animals pawing around. If anything happens in the desert, you know a long time in advance because even the scrape of a branch against sand is deafening. And everything leaves a mark, even tiny rain droplets from the night before, impressed in the earth. The desert has an excellent short-term memory.
In the silence, I felt a brief horror for what it would be like to be marooned here. Sand, which seems so much worse than snow.
Once we made it to the top, we collapsed on the ridge and panted. There were clouds rumbling in the distance, so we paused not much longer to say “Yay!” before heading back. And we stepped with an elephant’s stride, the sand easily bending with us to take us away from its peaks and into its belly. The sandstorm never came for us, though we were still covered in sand anyway. In the course of the night, our footsteps would probably disappear from wind, and all traces of us would be gone.
But all traces of the desert stayed with us as we got in our yurt, shaking sand from our shoes, hair, clothes, everything. And if that means anything, well it means you can always take the desert with you. Until laundry day.