A GUIDE TO AN INDEPENDENT GOBI DESERT TOUR – MONGOLIA
HOW TO TOUR THE GOBI DESERT IN MONGOLIA, INDEPENDENTLY AND ON A BUDGET
At over 500,000 square miles in area, this ever-expanding desert clocks in as the world’s fifth largest, stretching across southern Mongolia and into the Northern reaches of modern day China. Well known for it’s Bactrian (two-humped) camels, sand dunes and ancient dinosaur fossils; visitors flock here from across the globe each year to witness some of it’s characteristic charm, and the unique nomadic people that call this desert home.
Therefore, with such a vast number of captivating activities to offer, the Gobi desert is on every Mongolia travellers must-do list – and with such an array of enticing attractions, independent travel is almost unheard of – the only way to see it all, being to join an organised tour from the capital, UlaanBaatar.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Being an overland journey, your primary mode of transport will most likely be some kind of 4×4 off-road vehicle – or the more popular, ubiquitous Russian military vehicle. And, with only about 20% of the total roads in Mongolia being paved, the vast majority of roads across the Gobi Desert are merely dusty, bumpy dirt tracks.
You’ll spend around 5 – 8 hours a day in this vehicle, travelling between each attraction. Consequently, most of what you’ll see of the Gobi will be through a car window. Each day you’ll likely spend between 30 minutes and a few hours hiking around and taking in each sight. Then, at the end of each day, you’ll drive to a very basic Ger camp situated in the middle of the desert, where you’ll sleep for the night. You’ll eat modest meals cooked by your guide on the road, and you likely wont shower or wash for the duration of your tour.
However, what you’ll see will be some of the most unique scenery this part of the world has to offer. You’ll ride camels and climb sand dunes, and see a unique landscape that relatively few people will ever get to witness. So, if the idea of living simply whilst you ride in the back of a jeep for several hours a day doesn’t deter you, then a Gobi tour may be for you.
ORGANISING A TOUR
Almost every guesthouse and hostel in UlaanBaatar doubles as some kind of tour agency. The easiest and cheapest option when organising a Gobi Desert Tour is simply to arrive in the capital and explore your options through the agencies once here. As there are so many tour operators here – if time is not an issue – the best option would be to stay a few days in UB and explore the many tour agencies, researching different itineraries and getting price quotes. Your guesthouse should be able to help – suggesting reputable company names, giving general price guidance, and even offering their own tours. However, even if time is more scarce, booking online before arriving is not recommended.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I PAY?
That should depend almost entirely on how many people are partaking in your tour. A typical price range would be from around 100USD per person per day for a one person tour, to around 50USD for a 5/6 person tour. The number of days should not affect this price, and everything from food to transport should be included in the price.
SHOULD I BOOK ONLINE BEFORE ARRIVING?
One of the biggest advantages to booking after arriving in UB is that there is a lot more choice and prices are much fairer. If you are a solo traveller – or travelling in a pair/ small group – another huge convenience to waiting until you get into Mongolia is that there is a large number of other travellers looking to cut costs and join others on tours. Because of this, it’s easier to cut the overall price even further by creating a larger group with like-minded travellers from your guesthouse/ hostel.
HOW MANY DAYS?
A typical Gobi tour stretches from between 3 and 9 days. Of course, there are much longer tours lasting as long as a few weeks, but generally around 6 days is enough time to see the main attractions. The determining factors on the length of your tour should be both “how much can you afford?” and “what do you want to see?”. Ask to see itineraries of each tour, and try to decide what attractions appeal most to you. If you can see everything that interests you in just 3 days, great! If not, consider a longer tour.
WHICH COMPANY SHOULD I CHOOSE?
Given the huge number of tour operators across the country, it’s hard to know which company to choose. The majority of the tour operators are based in UlaanBaatar, therefor high competition dictates there is lower prices and more variety in the capital. Try to choose a company that accommodates any personal requirements (e.g: adding/ removing a day; dietary requirements; changes to the itinerary in general) and has good reviews and recommendations from other travellers.
HOW MANY PEOPLE SHOULD I GO WITH?
Put simply: the more people on the tour, the lower the costs. Each tour group typically travels from place to place in a small Russian military vehicle. This means, the more people in your tour – the more people in your van. You will likely be spending many hours of the day in this vehicle, and sharing a small yurt/ger at the end of the night with these people. How many people you should go with should depend on how comfortable you are sharing these small spaces with your tour buddies. Similarly, it should also depend on how important the comparative money savings are to you.
DO I NEED A GUIDE OR JUST A DRIVER?
If you’re already sure of where exactly you’d like to go, and don’t require an English speaking personal chef, then a driver may be a better option. Hiring a driver allows for more independent flexibility and cuts costs dramatically. This would be better suited to someone with a clear itinerary in their minds. Someone who doesn’t mind arranging their own food. Finding a driver with a vehicle should be very easy after arriving in UB.
WHAT SHOULD BE INCLUDED?
Before finalising and paying for a tour, your tour agency should be able to provide you with a detailed itinerary and all information required. Some of the things you should make sure you’re aware of before leaving are:
WHAT’S INCLUDED IN THE PRICE?
Most tours include pretty much everything; from the wages for both the guide and the driver, to three meals a day and fuel. Make sure that you’re aware of what is and isn’t included in the price you’re paying. Generally, the only things that are not included are; snacks, beer, drinking water, toilet paper and gratuity for the driver/guide.
WHAT’S THE DAY-TO-DAY ITINERARY?
Before leaving UB, you should be supplied with a detailed itinerary. This should include all attractions, where you’ll be spending each night, the facilities available (showers, electricity, internet), and how many hours spent driving each day.
CAN I MEET THE GUIDE?
One of the best things about travelling on an organised tour – as opposed to independently – is that you’ll have access to a native, English-speaking guide, on hand to answer your every question. So, ensuring that this guide is a good fit to you and the rest of your tour group then, is an important part of the preparation process. If possible, ask to meet your guide before leaving. If that’s not possible, be sure to ask a few simple questions. Do they speak fluent English? How long have they been leading tours across the Gobi? Will they be cooking? Are they familiar with the Gobi Desert? Ultimately, having an inexperienced guide can make the entire experience a lot less worthwhile.
- Ice Valley – Yolyn Am
Yolyn Am – also know as Ice Valley, or Valley of the Vultures – is a narrow gorge situated in the Gurvansaikhan National Park in Southern Mongolia. The valley is known for the thick layer of ice that covers the ground year round, deep on the valley floor. The ice field is an easy 2.5km walk from the entrance to the valley, taking around 30 minutes each way. The walk includes some small stream crossings and some ‘treacherous’ rock clambering:
- Sand dunes – Khongoryn Els
This is one of the most iconic and spectacular sights of the Gobi Desert. The Khongoryn Els sand dunes rise up to 300 metres from the desert floor. Constantly shifting and moving, these attractive mountains of soft sand stand between grassland and snow-capped mountains. Best seen as the sun begins to set, the exhausting climb to the top is rewarded with incredible views across photogenic curves of sand and the contrasting edges of the mountains behind. The painful climb takes around 45 minutes from the bottom, with each step sinking back into the sand. This is definitely the most exhausting part of a Gobi Desert tour!
- White Stupa – Tsagaan Suvarga
Standing over 30m tall, the White Stupa is a large, limestone formation standing in the middle of an almost endless, flat landscape. These pink and white cliffs are perfect for hiking around and witnessing panoramic views of the pink desert below. Best viewed at sunset – when the pink limestone is more exaggerated – these stalagmite looking cliffs take around 30 – 40 minutes to explore.
- Flaming Cliffs – Bayanzag
Known for the discovery of both dinosaur eggs and fossils over 100 years ago. These orange and red coloured cliffs glow an impressive deep red colour during sunset, giving them their English name: Flaming Cliffs. Rich in history, this former small, inland sea is the perfect spot to watch the sunset and search for any remaining fossils.
- Granite Rock Formations – Bag Gazriin Chuluu
Surrounded by the flat desert landscape, these huge granite formations rise out of the desert floor, creating an incredible sight from a distance. Hidden in-between these tall, granite pillars of rock lies the ruins of an old monastery. It takes only around 30 minutes to explore the ruins between the birch and asp trees that grow in the canyon. But, many more hours could be spent exploring the Nature Reserve in which the rest of these granite giants reside.
A typical nights’ accommodation in the Gobi will be in a traditional yurt/ ger – either in a tourist camp designed to accommodate those on tours, or with a typical, native nomad family. A ger is a portable, round, tent-like structure, created with felt and wood and used as a dwelling by the nomadic people of Mongolia and other Central Asian countries. These structures are typically very primitive, with no furniture other than a few beds, and a wood/coal/animal-dung stove for heating.
Each night will most likely be spent in one of these camps. Most will have no running water, no electricity, and a wooden outhouse in place of a toilet. These camps are very remote and will vary in quality and facilities. It’s very feasible that they will be much more basic than the types of accommodation found in towns and cities.
WHAT TO BRING
As most tours will last less than a week, it’s not necessary to bring a large backpack or suitcase with you. The majority of guesthouses in UlaanBaatar will allow you to store bags and suitcases with them for the duration of your tour. So, bringing a small bag of necessary items is advised. To help with the packing, we’ve compiled a list of things that you’ll probably need on a typical Gobi tour:
Danielle recommends: Pringles
Brenna recommends: Mentos
- Drinking water
Around 1L per person, per day should be enough.
- Hiking shoes
Some of the attractions require some clambering.
Danielle recommends: A LOT
Brenna recommends: 2 Kaltenberg each day
- Toilet paper
Danielle recommends: The scented, soft kind
Brenna recommends: Pretending to be Bear Grylls and using leaves
- Wet wipes
Because there wont be any showers and you will definitely smell.
- Warm clothes (winter)
Because it can get really cold in winter and at night.
- Suncream (summer)
Because the sun will burn you.
- Dry shampoo
Because no one likes greasy hair.
- Hand sanitiser
For use after going anywhere near the outhouse.
Because your lips will get dry.
Because the sun is bright, and dust will get in your eyes.
- Sleeping bag
Because if you’re lucky enough to get bedding, it will smell like goat.
- Travel pillow
Doubles as a pillow/ face mask.
Because the desert is beautiful.
Because finding the outhouse is hard after the sun goes down.
- Battery pack
Because there are no electrical sockets in the desert.
The Gobi desert is a fascinating and beautiful corner of the planet that is well worth the effort of a visit. For more information about travelling around other parts of Mongolia, click here. For our entire Mongolia gallery click here.
OUR PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR
LAPTOP – Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch
SMALL CAMERA – Olympus OMD- E-M10 Mark II
ZOOM LENS – Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm Lens
DSLR BODY – Canon 60D
WIDE ANGLE LENS – Sigma 10-20mm Lens
DRONE – DJI Mavic Pro
ACTION CAMERA – GoPro Hero 7 Black Edition
MICROPHONE – Rode VideoMicro
CAMERA BAG – Lowepro Fastpack 250 AW II