There are plenty of mixed reviews coming out of the Gobi Desert and for good reason. Due to the vast expanses of this land, there is an exhausting amount of driving involved in this Mongolian desert tour, which leaves little time to see the actual sites.
You’ll spend an average of 8 hours per day riding in the back seat of a Russian van bouncing around like you’re in a washing machine. Unfortunately, and much to the surprise of most travellers, there is very little time spent enjoying the Gobi desert itself, and more time looking at it through the van window.
Sound like fun?!
Well, the saving grace really is the last few hours of each day when you arrive at the incredible sites & family homes in the Mongolian desert. The sand dunes, gorges, cliffs, and caves at the end of each day will really make up for the uncomfortable time in the van.
The best experiences when traveling Mongolia are with the local families. It’s amazing to be invited into a ger (traditional Mongolian yurt) and witness the age-old customs of these nomadic people firsthand.
Planning For a Gobi Desert Tour
So, how do you plan for a Gobi Desert tour? Well, the best way is to book it through your guesthouse in Ulan Bator. Almost all of the tourist-oriented hostels and guesthouses in the capital can arrange a number of Gobi tour options, as well as tours to all corners of this majestic country.
You first need to find a company or guesthouse that you can trust. We’ve compiled a list below of some good operators based on real traveller’s reports on the ground, and on TripAdvisor. Always do your own independent research when planning a Mongolian desert adventure.
Good Gobi Desert Tour Operators:
Sun Path Guesthouse – We used them to book our Gobi Desert tour and while the guide wasn’t overly informed about the history, the tour itself was superb. We were able to stop for photos when we wanted, our guide helped us find traditional food and drink that we were looking for, and she was an excellent cook.
Others used this same guesthouse for different tours and had a very positive experience as well. Ask to speak to your guide before setting out to get a feel for his/her level of English. Sun Path has many great guides available. Click here for updated TripAdvisor reviews, and click here to book a room at their guesthouse and contact the staff.
Ger to Ger – Probably the most popular travel agency in Ulan Bator, Ger to Ger is a great community-based program that prides itself on giving back to the families who host, and continuing a sustainable relationship between tourists and local families. (Update 2018: We can’t find any recent reviews on this company).
View Mongolia – We’ve recently heard about this company and it has high reviews on TripAdvisor.
Golden Gobi – While we hadn’t heard great things about this company back in 2013, according to reviews it seems they’ve smartened up and are now offering a great stay at their hostel/guesthouse, and high-quality Gobi Desert tours. Click here to read reviews and compare prices on Booking.com.
There are plenty of good operators in Ulan Bator so just look around and go for the one that you have a good feeling about. Another option is to have a look on TripAdvisor.com to see honest reviews about tour operators.
Questions to Ask Before Going on a Mongolian Desert Adventure
Before agreeing to a Gobi Desert tour, make sure to ask the company the following questions to avoid any unwanted surprises.
1. Can I meet the guide and driver before leaving?
2. Can I see the van we will be driving in?
3. Does the driver have experience in the area, a map, and/or a GPS unit? (this is very important)
4. What type of food will be included?
5. Are there any extra costs while on the tour?
6. Are there spare tires & shocks in the vehicle? (a breakdown is almost guaranteed)
Costs of a Gobi Desert Tour (What We Paid)
We went with Sun Path’s tour and we bargained the rate down to $45/day/person for 6 people in a comfortable van. This included all entrance fees, 3 meals a day (with snacks), camel riding, accommodation in shared gers, 1.5L water/day/person and basically everything we needed for our 6-day tour.
The next thing you need to think about when planning a Gobi Desert trip is who you’re going with. If you’ve put together your own group of friends or like-minded travellers then you’re ready for the next step. But if the operator is pairing you up with others, you should seriously consider meeting them before agreeing to the tour.
Remember, you will be in a small van with these people for 8 hours/day, sleeping, eating and travelling together, so you better make sure that you get along! A quick meet n’ greet will usually give you a good feel for your new travel companions. If possible, we suggest having a coffee or meal together and make your decision after meeting everyone.
Things To Pack For a Mongolian Desert Tour:
Here are a few things that we found invaluable while on the Gobi Desert Tour.
1. Moist Towelettes (wet-naps): There are NO showers in the Gobi Desert, unless you’re paying for a top-end lodge/tourist ger camp. Be prepared to be covered in dirt and dust at the end of each day. A quick rinse off in the wash basin, followed by a rub-down with towelettes can save the day.
2. Bug Spray or lotion: There are times when the desert is full of flies and mosquitoes, don’t forget to protect yourself just in case.
3. Sun Screen: The sun is very intense – obviously.
4. A Hat: Again, the sun is intense in the desert.
5. A Bandana: Great for putting around your mouth and nose when driving through very dusty areas.
6. A Sleeping Bag: It’s nice to have because most gers don’t provide sheets and if they do, they usually smell like goat… seriously.
7. A Car Pillow: Remember, 8 hours / day of driving on bumpy roads, you’re going to want something to protect your head when it slams against the window.
8. Snacks: There are sometimes long breaks in between meals. Pick up some road snacks at the State Department Store in Ulan Bator. There are a couple of small shops in little villages along the way, but they only sell very basic goods.
9. Extra Water: 1.5 litres each / day just isn’t enough. Grab yourself an extra 1.5L/day in the capital before you leave and then get more along the way if you need.
10. Laundry Detergent: After 4 days, your clothes will smell like goat, sheep and camel, so unless you carry an entire wardrobe on your back, consider bringing some soap.
11. Toilet Paper: Ger camps don’t have any.
12. Motion Sickness Pills: If you’re susceptible to car sickness, then you’ll most likely feel nauseous once or twice on this trip. Bring some pills.
13. A Book: Especially if you can read during roller coaster rides, it’s a great way to pass the time in the van. Late at night or when waiting for dinner, it’s nice to have some reading material.
14. A Bottle Of Vodka (or 4): The bottle of vodka has many different uses. You can offer some to the elders at the ger camps, and you can ward off any unwanted bacteria by taking a shot after eating potentially dodgy desert meat.
15. A headlamp or flashlight: The majority of the gers won’t have electricity. Candlelight is nice, but when you need to find something in your bag or do a midnight toilet run, it’s a must-have.
16. A Deck Of Cards: You’ll be spending a lot of time chatting and hanging out with your tour mates at the end of each day. Cards (or some other game) are a great way to connect with your new friends.
17. Music: The Mongolian horse music that will most likely be playing in the van is great on your first day, but after the same 6 songs are repeated for 6 days, you’ll probably want to hear some of your own tunes.
Accommodation in the Gobi Desert
In the Mongolian desert, the only place to sleep is in a ger, or in your van! The gers are typically pretty comfortable with individual small beds with thin mattresses. Usually, the whole group will sleep together in one ger. You’ll want to bring your own sleeping bag, or rent one from Ulan Batar…who knows how often the blankets in the Gobi Desert are washed, if ever.
Brace yourself for outhouse (long-drop) style toilets. Unless you’re in the capital, or other bigger cities, this is the typical toilet when traveling in Mongolia.
Highlights of The Gobi Desert
- The Flaming Cliffs
- Wild Camels
- Local Families and Gers
- Sand Dunes
- Drinking arak
- Yolyn Am Gorge
- Riding Horses
- Temples & Caves
- Trying “snuff”
Ready For The Gobi Desert?!
Once you’ve found an operator that you trust, met your guide & driver and packed your bags, all that’s left to do is head out and enjoy the diverse Gobi Desert.
Apart from hiring a car and driving yourself (aka, getting lost in the desert), taking a Gobi Desert tour is your only option. This tour is basically just a few like-minded travellers getting together and hiring a guide and driver to show them around. If you have a great group of travellers, it’ll feel more like a road trip than a tour and you’ll be free to do as you please most of the time.
Make sure to speak up if there are any detours or particular local experiences you wish to have, most guides & drivers are very accommodating.
Backpacking through Mongolia is amazing and a Gobi desert tour is a definite must while in this nomadic land. Despite the many hours in the van, this is one adventure you won’t want to miss out on.
For more information, check out our articles:
Good Times In The Gobi Desert, Part #1
Good Times In The Gobi, Part #2