I have long dreamed of visiting Mongolia, and while most people find themselves struggling to decide whether to spend their time in central Mongolia or in the Gobi Desert, it was a no brainer for me– it was always going to be the Gobi Desert. When you think of the Gobi, you might be thinking it will look like one big homogenous stretch of sand with not a lot to see or do over days at a time, but you’d be wrong. The Gobi is a vast, ever changing landscape with many very different sites to see, and all of them breathtakingly beautiful. Keep reading for our tips on how to plan your trip, what to expect, what you can’t miss, and to see our photos from our magical Gobi Desert adventure.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
We visited Mongolia as part of our Trans Siberian journey. If you are doing the same, do yourself a huge favor and book at least a week long stop over in Mongolia (the train stop is in the capital Ulan Bator). Mongolia is a huge country, and so all the sites are very spread out and take hours of driving. If you want to get out of the city (and you haven’t truly experienced Mongolia unless you do!) don’t short change yourself on the time. If you only give yourself 3 days, you won’t be able to do more than a day trip and you will be missing out on the best parts of this amazing country.
We hadn’t booked anything in advance, so spent our first few days in Ulan Bator researching tour companies. A lot of the stuff we found online was hugely overpriced with a big Western tourist markup. After asking around, we were finally directed to Sunpath Mongolia Tours who we highly recommend. They have a cozy hostel in Ulan Bator if you are looking for somewhere cheap to stay, but their best offering is their very well priced group tours leaving multiple days a week.
WHAT TO EXPECT
We did their 8 day Gobi Desert + Terelj National Park Tour, and all in it was $480/person. We saw similar tours online for as much as $1900. We chose the the most basic tour where you stay with local families in their ger camps, which is also the most culturally authentic. However, you will be doing without the modern comforts of plumbing which means using a hole in the ground as your toilet and, except for one opportunity mid week, doing without showers. If you prefer a higher level of comfort and want to pay more, you can stay in tourist ger camps which have electricity and plumbing.
You can expect to be driving for at least 4-5 hours a day, many days on bumpy unpaved roads. You will be without wifi the whole time, except for a very select few restaurants where you stop for lunch. If you get yourself a local SIM card, you will usually have at least one point a day with enough signal, but I think it kind of ruins the whole experience.
We had a group size of six people, split into two vans, with a tour guide and a cook as well as the two drivers. For the first few days, we traveled alongside two other groups who split off to different itineraries towards the middle/end. The food was basic, but good. When you meet the local families you will be offered either goats milk tea, salted goats milk, or fermented mare’s milk. All will be accompanied with offers of bread, candy, or a hard goat’s cheese that’s a bit like a funky parmesan.
Sunpath supplies sleeping bags, meals, and water. You will usually have at least one stop per day where you can load up on snacks and beverages, but the options become decidedly more limited as the trip progresses. We recommend you bring toilet paper, wet wipes, anti-bacterial gel, a basic first aid kit with standard travel medicines, a towel for the one shower opportunity you do have, a head lamp, a rechargeable battery pack, music, books, cards, and spending cash.
WHERE TO GO
We obviously went on an 8 day tour, and while it was all amazing (you can get the full itinerary in the link above), there were definitely a few stops that were far and above the best. So if you only have time for a 3-4 day tour, these are the stops you absolutely cannot miss in the Gobi Desert!
Tsagaan Suvarga / White Stupa
Tsagaan Suvarga is also known as the White Stupa as the limestone formations are thought to look similar. Once an ancient sea bed, these beautiful cliffs were formed by the erosion of the waves a millenia ago. The pink color is caused by iron deposits in the sandstone. When you visit you will also be able to descend into the valley below the cliffs to explore.
Khongor Sand Dunes + Camel Riding
When you think of epic desert views, endless stretches of sand dunes tend to come to mind, and you won’t be disappointed by the Khongor Sand Dunes. Here you will have the opportunity to go for a short camel ride along the base of the dunes (photo here), but it is the sunset hike to the top of the tallest one where you will get your money’s worth. The view is 100% worth it, but it’s also going to suck because you are basically scrambling up a sheer face of sand, only accomplishing about a half a step for each full one. This is a hike that is better done barefoot, and as much as it is painful going up, it’s a rush to go leaping down.
Bayanzag / Flaming Cliffs
Best visited at sunset, Bayanzag or the flaming cliffs are a must do stop in the Gobi desert. When we went we caught the edge of an epic desert storm– there was lighting, rainbows, dramatic clouds, and a beautiful sunset. (See the image at the top of the post) At one point the air was so charged with electricity those of us with long hair found it standing on end around our faces like medusa halos!
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Carina Covella is a writer and currently working on her forthcoming memoir, Love Dogs, detailing her six month transformational journey from Hollywood through India. Carina graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University cum laude with a degree in Art History. She also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music through the university exchange programs. Until recently she lived in Mill Valley, California with her wonderful Welsh boyfriend Anthony in a house nestled in the trees, but now they’re off on a two year adventure around the world. When she’s not writing or traveling, she loves to cook for her friends and family.