Our main mission when visiting Mongolia was to explore the Gobi desert. I quickly realized, though, that the other two adventures I’d wanted to have while there like check out the eagle festival in Bayan-Ulgii (which was just slightly impossible since it only takes place in October and our trip was slated for April) and hike the snowcapped mountains in the Northeast part of the country bordering Kazakhstan, was simply not going to fly with our two-week itinerary. Let’s not forget how humungous this country is. Humongous and not overwhelmingly saturated with proper road systems.
That said, we decided to spend as much time as possible in the Gobi desert. If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll have noticed my deep deep fascination for deserts. They are just so majestic, dramatic… and of course, breathtaking. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about heading to the Gobi. Keep on reading to find how we prepared for our week-long stay in the world’s fifth largest desert!
How do you book a trip to the Gobi Desert?
With excitement! Nah, semi-lame jokes aside, I’d suggest you do it on the spot once you get to Ulaanbaatar (UB). It will be much cheaper that way. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous about this since our trip was in April and the tourist season (don’t worry, it doesn’t get Palma de Mallorca touristy and packed) doesn’t start until the beginning of May. Most Gobi tour operators won’t start talking business until that time. However, I quickly learned that if you really want to, you can practically go at any time of the year as long as you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort. And by comfort I mean warmth. Only in February is there practically no way for you to explore it, unless you don’t mind turning into an icicle at night.
I had done plenty of research prior to getting to UB and quickly realized (to no surprise) that more or less all of the tour agencies offer a standard package. I ended up booking our tour through the hostel where we stayed: Sunpath Hostel. They offered several options (like many other agencies) with tours ranging from 3-7 days. The lengthier ones include stops at the sand dunes, horseback riding and camel riding. That said, we were able to book our tour fairly cheaply (350 USD per person) for a 6-day tour to take off the very next day. I would highly recommend their tours, our guide and the rest of the staff are just wonderful people and the tour itself was absolutely incredible.
What is usually included in a Gobi Tour?
Your tour is lead by a driver and an English-speaking guide. All meals are included and most of the time you’ll munch on classic Mongolian goodies (like the occasional dehydrated piece of raisin-infused butter) with the different host families you meet, other times you’ll explore smaller road-side restaurants where you will surely be the only non-Mongolian speaking guest. You will not be spending any extra money on your tour. Why? Well, first of all everything is included. Second of all, there’s not many leisurely shopping opportunities in the Gobi (big surprise!). You’ll spend each night with a different nomadic family and stay in their guest ger (traditional nomadic home), which was honestly one of the most (if not the most) humbling experiences of the trip.
Where do you go and what do you do?
Well this completely depends on the length of the tour. Your agency should be able to provide you with a map but for those of you interested in the itinerary I took, below is a snapshot of what we did each day. The actual sights/ activities you’ll engage in range from hiking around snow-capped mountains to climbing sand dunes.
Day 1: White stupa (Tsagaan Suvraga): Walking around cliffs and valleys formed by rivers that once meandered through the are.
Day 2: Yol Valley (Yolyn Am): walking on ice (in April, the river is frozen solid) in a narrow gorge among the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains.
Day 3: Singing sand dunes (Khongoryn Els): climbing around 200m sand peaks and sunset camel riding with a nomadic family
Day 4: Ongi Monastery (Ongi Khiid) and Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag): visit to a temple and hiking around red rock, Mars-like landscape.
Day 5: Horse riding and cooking lessons with a Nomadic family
On the way to each spot, we stopped in nearby towns for lunch and to stock up on snacks. Below, I’ve included a map of those towns and as you can see, distances are quite far:
- Mandalgobi, Luus, Khuld
- Tsogt Ovoo, Dalanzadgad
- Bulgan, Mandal Ovoo, Saikhan Ovoo
- Rashaant, Erdenesant, Lun, Atar
How do I prepare for the trip and what should I bring?
Since pretty much everything you will be doing/ need is already included, there are few items that you’d really need to bring. Albeit, below is a list of some recommendations:
- Wet wipes (germaphobes beware- there are NO showers throughout the trip)
- Snacks (for the road)
- Audio books (make sure they’re downloaded and playable on offline mode) I was oh-so grateful to know that I had these. I had originally thought of bringing some books with me but since the car ride is so bumpy (you’re literally off-roading about 90% of the time) reading a physical book would just not play out very well
- Sunscreen: you’re at pretty high altitude
- Extra sleeping bag (in case you, like me, easily turn into a icicle)
- For the shutterbugs out there: tripod and a ultra wide-angle lens (I used the Rokinon 14mm f2.8), and extra batteries
- Toilet paper
- Water (unless you want all your hydration to come from warm salty camel milk of course)
- Power dock (assume you won’t have any access to electricity throughout the trip, I brought a camera charger with me but was only able to use it once as the majority of the restaurants we stopped at either didn’t have any outlets or there was a power outage).
How much does it cost?
I read up on this quite a bit before going and it seems as though the average pricing ranges between 45-70USD per person per day. This is also dependent on time of the year, total trip length etc. We ended up paying 350 USD per person for a 6-day trip. Sure, it’s a bit pricey but at the same time you get your accommodation and meals paid for.
Could I go on my own, without a guide?
The short answer is no. Most definitely almost absolutely no. Why might you ask. Well, first of all the Gobi desert is in the extreme south part of the country so just getting there from UB will take about 8 hours. To top it off, all highlights in the Gobi are spread very far apart, making driving every day a necessity. And the drives are not short so you’d definitely need a few people capable of sitting behind the wheel. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that we’re dealing with the desert (I’m sure you didn’t). Alas, there are not very many street lights to illuminate your off-roading adventure. Still not convinced? What about figuring out last-minute stays the very same night? Every night for 6 days? So yeah, unless you’re a group of at least 2-3 people all comfortable off-roading a manual car in the middle of one of the world’s largest deserts, trying to ask in Mongolian/sign language for directions, prepared to book your sleeping arrangements everyday for a week, OK with foregoing the horseback riding and camel riding portions of the trip, then be my guest. Try it out, it’s definitely doable. I just wouldn’t do it.
“Cool story, bro. But how much did it cost?”
6-day Gobi tour: ₮84,000 per person
Wet wipes: ₮4,200
2 cans of peanuts: ₮900 each
Grand total: ₮108,000 per person
More to come on my Gobi adventure with stories and photos of each gorgeous spot. Stay tuned!