Driving along a bumpy track. Getting bleached by the sunlight. Out of the weedy monochrome desert, a crescent-shaped pyramid of color arises. The singing sand dune of Altyn Emel is a geological oddity: a sand mountain that rumbles, but never moves.
Altyn Emel national park, 250 km north of Almaty, has been dealt a good hand of weird geology spread around its large steppe territory. The most unusual are the 4 sand dunes, which don’t move despite very strong winds. They also produce a deep humming noise, like an airplane flying overhead, when you slide down from the top.
It’s a 2 hour ride from the park office to the dunes through a flat landscape bordered by distant brown mountains. Eagles, lizards and lonely kulans (wild donkeys) are your most likely companions along the way, although wild przewalski horses, saiga, antelopes and arkar (mountain goats) also inhabit the area. Along the way you might encounter 3 stones, looking like menhirs. Who put them there? According to legend, when Genghis Khan passed through some 800 years ago, the Mongolian army used these stones to prop up a giant kettle that could boil 4 horses simultaneously. Not exaggerating here.
Just before the dunes, a small oasis invites for a picnic. The spring is named after Chokhan Valikhanov, the famous explorer, who quenched his thirst here as he ventured through Kazakhstan. Then finally, the dunes come into full view.
It’s a serious hike up the 150m dune, and it’s best to take your shoes off. Don’t leave them behind though, as the sand at the bottom can be very hot when you come down. Once at the top, take a breather and enjoy the view for a second. The blue ribbon of Ili river invites animals for a drink, while the nearby Big and Little Kalkan (shields) stand guard, keeping the dune anchored.
Then, sit down in the sand and gently slide off the side of the dune, moving the sand with your buttocks. A deep rumble starts to emanate from below, and you can start to feel the vibration. It’s an uncanny feeling, and the more people join in, the louder the dune sings, gathering decibels until it resembles a thunder that can resonate for minutes.
It’s quite amazing, and it might help you to better appreciate the rumbling of jet engines the next time an airplane flies over your head annoyingly low. Equally astounding is that most of the villagers of nearby Basshi have never visited, and show absolutely no interest.
Whatever your guide might say, the phenomenon is well-documented nowadays and the dune is not unique in the world for its singing capacities – there are 35 locations around the world, with the singing sand dune’s closest relative being the Mingsha Shan near Dunhuang.
For optimal singing conditions, it’s important to come when the weather has been dry. The evening is best as you have less chance of getting scorched by the sun, and you can experience a lovely desert sunset (and get a shower afterwards). It is very, very sandy: protect your digital equipment as you slide down.
Find more tips for visiting the dunes and the other attractions in the park in our Altyn Emel travel guide.