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 a Gobi tour, which leaves little time to see the actual sites. You’ll spend an average of 8 hours / 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 actual desert, and more time looking at it through the van window.
Doesn’t 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 desert. The sand dunes, gorges, cliffs and caves at the end of each day will really make up for the wasted time in the van.
The best experiences are with the families. It’s amazing to be invited in to a ger (traditional Mongolian yurt) and witness the age-old customs of these nomadic people first hand.
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/guesthouse that you can trust. We’ve compiled a list below of good operators vs. bad operators based on real traveller’s reports on the ground (not an outdated guidebook).
Sun Path Guesthouse – We used them to book our Gobi tour and while the guide wasn’t very informed, 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 good guides.
Ger to Ger – Probably the most popular travel agency in Ulan Bator, Ger to Ger is a great community based program which prides itself on giving back to the families who host, and continuing a sustainable relationship between tourists and local families.
Operator To Avoid:
Golden Gobi – We heard a few bad things about the tours put on by this popular backpacker hotel, including worms found in the lunch meat! Not to scare everyone off, but negative reviews have definitely been given about Golden Gobi, other feedback was mediocre at best.
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 agreeing to a tour, make sure to ask the following questions to avoid any unwanted surprises.
1. Can I meet the guide and driver before leaving?
2. Can I see the van?
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 (What We Paid):
We went with Sun Path’s tour and we bargained down to $45/day/person for 6 people in a comfortable van including 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 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 Gobi 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, 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 wet-naps can save the day.
2. Bug Spray/lotion: There are times when the desert is full of flies and mozzies, don’t forget to protect yourself just in case.
3. Sun Screen: Obviously.
4. A Hat. 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. An Mp3 Player: The Mongolian horse music is great on day one, but after the same 6 songs are repeated for 6 days, you’ll probably want to hear some of your own tunes.
In the 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 tour 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 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 in Mongolia.
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. It feels more like a road trip than a tour and you’ll be free to do as you please much of the time. Definitely 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:
Also, check out our Video of the Gobi Desert Tour!
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