7 DAYS IN THE GOBI
When you think of the Gobi Desert, a few certain images spring to mind. A quick canvas of our fellow travellers brought back everything from camels and sand dunes to a barren wasteland. But, the real Gobi is so much more. The true Gobi is full of life and variety, a place of mountains and plains, stillness and sound, peacefulness and storms. It’s a place where history reaches forward from the past in the people who live there today.
Our week in the Gobi went beyond all expectations, leaving us with lasting memories and fuelling our excitement for more Mongolian adventures to come. This is our experience of 7 days in the Gobi – the places, the people and all the fun along the way.
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Ulaanbaatar to Tsagaan Suvarga (White Stupa)
Gathered together in two landcruisers and one Russian van, our group – nine passengers, three drivers, two guides and one cook – left UB at nine, speeding south across 200 kms of blindingly bright wide open spaces, punctuated by spinning dust devils and occasional sheep, goats, horses and camels.
After crossing into Dundgovi Province (Middle Gobi) we stopped for lunch, a roadside canteen place with a few standard items on the menu that would become pretty familiar. As with most dishes in Mongolia, everything was meat heavy – even the vegetable soup was swimming with sizeable chunks of mutton. We had to wait a while but it gave us a chance to chat and get to know each other. The food when it arrived was tasty enough. The toilets however were the kind where you try to avoid touching as much as possible.
Back on the road we ran through a few showers, and then an hour after lunch we approached a huge dust storm, a wall rising from land to sky like a giant barrier. An amazing light filled the sky – a luminous, soft, orange peach tone. It seemed like we’d never reach it, then, bam! Visibility cut to a few metres in a second, brakes slammed on as we narrowly avoided collisions. As we rolled slowly forward, rain started to fall, and the land turned a deep reddy brown.
The White Stupa
By late afternoon, the storm behind us, we arrived at Tsagaan Suvarga. Known as the ‘White Stupa’, it’s an ancient seabed and interesting area showing the ages of the earth, or if you’re not geologically minded, some pretty nice rock formations. Scrambling down a rough sandy trail, we looked back up at layered sandstone cliffs of pastel oranges, pinks, browns and yellows, topped off by what looked like badly battered cake icing.
Wandering around Tsagaan Suvarga
A very short drive took us to a local ger camp. This family were nomads no more, their camp a permanent one to cater to the likes of ourselves. Here we were treated by the host family to a hearty meal of rice, meat and veg, and a constant supply of comforting milk tea. It was a little hot inside the ger – unsurprisingly with twenty people and the intense heat from the central stove – so we were glad to get back outside and enjoy the last of the fading light.
Countless goats roamed near the camp, the ground covered with the evidence of their existence – a multitude of black brown pellets. Weird little rodent things bounced around, all oversized ears and long scrawny tails, their eyes shining brightly in the near dark – the object of much fascination as we brushed our teeth. With night arriving, we retreated to our gers, crawled into our bags, and fell asleep on low, not uncomfortable beds – our first night in a traditional Mongolian home.
Yolyn Am and a walk on ice
We were up and gathered for breakfast at eight, everyone together in one of the guest gers. Eggs, sausage, bread, jam, tea and coffee, and a double chocolate spread by the name of ‘Duo’ – a spread that was to prove as addictive as hard drugs for some.
By nine we were underway, up and down on gently rolling moonscape, mars like, dust trails streaming skyward from the other vehicles. We’d swapped to the Russian van, and were so far enjoying the roomy and retro interior while getting used to the slightly more ‘bouncy’ ride.
With less than an hour gone we were cruising on tarmaced road under overcast skies, heading for Ömnögovi’s (South Gobi) capital, Dalanzadgad. First stop was the bathhouse (khaluun), or rather shower block, a non-descript concrete building. Each shower was in a private room, only 3,000 per person and couples could double up. Still, with only seven rooms, things were a bit busy – the nine of us plus quite a few others – but before we knew it we were clean and sitting in a restaurant ordering lunch.
After lunch (another 2 hour affair) and my first taste of a local beer (Golden Gobi – average at best), we were back on the road, headed for the last thing we expected in the Gobi: a valley of ice.
Up in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains the day was cool and windy. Jackets on we made the short walk up through the first valley, this one narrow and steep sided. The final section was a slippery shuffle over a twenty metre long chunk of dirty ice. At the end, water trickled down over the rocks, wet and black, and the melting ice formed an overhang, curving under like a collapsing wave, blue veined and sparkling. Local and foreign tourists alike posed for photos before slip sliding back to firmer ground.
Walking on ice in the Gobi
Back down to the foothills we drove, dropped our bags at the ger camp, and then up into the hills again – to Yolyn Am (Yol Valley). ‘Yol’ is the Mongolian name for the Lammergeier, an Old World vulture. With the afternoon sun lighting things up to stunning effect, the drive up the mountain valley became more impressive with every turn.
From the carpark we walked down through a wide grassy valley, its green sides curving up in a gentle u-shape, crowned by jagged orange brown peaks. Shaggy cross-bred cow yaks grazed beside the snaking stream, and tiny pikas ran to and fro, carrying leaves and grass for their burrows. Kites circled overhead, coasting on the high winds. The valley narrowed, becoming gorge-like, and thick ice covered parts of the stream, the sheer rock walls denying the sun’s warmth. A place of stunning natural drama.
A cheeky pika
(Photo courtesy of our patient tour buddy, Alex)
Yolyn Am (Yol Valley)
It was dark before we got back and settled into a late dinner. Afterwards, our guides Bogi and Uyanga suggested a game. Unrolling a felt mat on the table and producing a bag of sheep ankle bones, they taught us a couple of variations on the traditional Mongolian game. A few in the group showed their competitive streak before we called it, going to sleep after a long day.
The ‘True Gobi’
Told that we’d be seeing the ‘true Gobi’ today, we weren’t disappointed. After leaving the hills and pit stopping in a small town, where a serious looking lady stood guard over the public toilet bowl and charged 500 for the pleasure, we hightailed it into the landscape of our imaginations – true Gobi indeed.
We drove into what could only be described as desert – a flat and sandy plain, pocketed by a few hardy bushes and sporadic patches of tough grass. A low mountain ridge lay on each side, camels grazed near the rough road and local gers were dotted here and there. A huge sand dune marked the distant skyline – our destination. Driving further, the midday heat bearing down, shimmering mirages tricked our eyes on the far horizon.
We pulled into our host family’s ger camp – a cluster of six gers in the shadow of the mighty Khongor sand dunes – dumped our bags, and entered the family’s home for what turned out to be a true Gobi welcome from family head Yondon. The welcome done, we got stuck into a tasty lunch, then split into two groups for a spot of camel riding. Being in the second group, there was time to get settled and wander the camp in search of prime photo opportunities.
This was where we met Ronaldo and Twinkle Toes – Yondon’s young grandchildren, a boy of 10 and girl of 8. They roamed the camp, playing with whatever took their fancy and pestering the family’s long suffering goats. Ronaldo was a little less smiley and a more hesitant around us, but his wee sister Twinkle Toes – in her sparkly Mary Janes – was happily posing for every photo, even taking the odd one back on the beat up old phone she carried in her back pocket. Around the gers, two scruffy little dogs ran and played; the bigger dogs lay in the shadows, keeping their shaggy coats away from the hot sun.
Ronaldo and Twinkle Toes
The time came and it was our turn for the camels, an hour long return trip to the base of the giant dune, the two humped animals strung together in a long procession. It was the first time for us on the two hump variety – considerably less comfortable than their one hump cousins.
After an early dinner outside in the late afternoon sun, we jumped in the vehicles for the short drive to Khongoryn Els – the ‘singing sands’. The ‘singing’ sound has variously been attributed to heat, weather conditions, a thin surface coating of slate and the avalanche effect of grains moving in harmony. Rising before us, the dune’s massive bulk loomed large, an impressive physical presence, surface whipped into curved perfectly sharp edges by the wind. As sunset neared, we climbed its steep flank, legs burning, some on all fours, sliding back with each step. It was 30 or 40 minutes to the top, where the ridge snaked off in each direction. The world lay below us, golden, and the sun’s light broke through shadowed clouds in wide beams. The wind blew stinging sand, then calmed. Exhilaration was replaced by calm peacefulness and contentment. At last, the sun was gone, and we skipped down the long slope in dim twilight, the sand singing beneath our plunging feet.
Sitting on top of Khongoryn Els
We drove back to camp in the dark, headlights illuminating an almost imperceptible light rain. Inside our ger, we collapsed wearily into bed, bone tired and ready for sleep after the perfect Gobi day.
Petroglyphs, Clean Bodies and Flaming Cliffs
On a perfectly still morning, the three of us from our ger were up and out for sunrise. We stood in shorts and t-shirt, the temperature perfect. Every sound was magnified. A trio of birds flew by, the rush of wind from rapidly beating wings like a heartbeat – clear and close. On the far side of the gers, goats played their special symphony, farting rhythmically. After a while, others stirred and the spell was broken. Soon the kids were out, herding the goats back in their pen – an excuse to get on their backs.
The Land of the Big Sky
After breakfast our host bid us a warm farewell, and soon we were underway, heading north through the low mountain ridge, sharp-edged rocks lining the ground like the gargantuan remains of long dead beasts. Down from the hills we carried on across a flat, dry plain – sandy and rocky – past wandering camels, under big blue skies and long trails of wispy cloud, the horizon stretching beyond sight.
By late morning we’d arrived at the base of another mountain range, ready to see the Khavtsgait petroglyphs. Slapping on extra suncream and grabbing some water, we made the short hike up to the top. The reward: spectacular views back out from where we came, and some of the most impressive petroglyphs you’re likely to see. These rock carvings are around 30,000 years old – incredibly stylistic pictures of horseback archers, battles and hunted animals.
Petroglyphs and incredible views
Detail of a petroglyph, dated to around 30,000 years ago
From here it was just a short ride to a nearby town and a little battle of our own – The Battle Of The Sockets. We’d anticipated being able to charge everything over a two hour spell, but lunch at this small homely place (serving only meat dumplings and pastries) was the quickest yet. The young girl fished out an extra adaptor, the mother seemed less pleased.
With lunch done it was off to the much anticipated showers. With limited rooms and everyone showering it took a while. As before we went in as a couple, and this time we also had two showers in a big room, so no waiting on the other. The water was piping hot but the pressure was a tad low. Still, we managed to get clean and even washed a few items in our faithful Scrubba.
After we had a little time to wait, so we grabbed a rubbish local beer (name unremembered), cleansed the palette with an icecream, charged our unfinished batteries in the bathhouse office and dried our towels in the hot sun.
By late afternoon we were back on the road for the short drive to camp, this time a dedicated tourist camp run by our tour company, Sunpath. It was a nice place with clean modern gers and comfortable beds, but lacking the character of nomad family gers.
A storm brewing over Bayanzag
After a brief rest and an early dinner, we set off on the short drive to Bayanzag – or the ‘Flaming Cliffs’ – so named by palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s. These red sandstone cliffs are famous for their fiery sunset glow, but there was a storm gathering on the horizon and the sky looked primal. The multi-shaded petrol blue sky and windborne sand cast an otherworldly light. Still, we admired the wondrously shaped cliffs and the vast plain stretching out beneath the angry sky. We battled the wind, protecting faces and cameras from stinging sand, enjoyed a period of calm, then fought the wind again. At last, the sun produced a dazzling display on the horizon as it dipped behind the cliffs.
The day wasn’t over yet. Back at camp, the multi-hued blue twilight sky was a delight, and after dark, the starry sky lit up with the milky way in prime position, as clear as we’d seen it with the naked eye. From Khongoryn Els to Bayanzag, it had been a day of changing landscapes, each as impressive as the last, nature producing again and again.
Blue hour back at camp
The milky way on display
Driving north and a visit to Ongi Monastery
After another beautifully still morning we drove on, along more dirt roads criss-crossing the land. We stopped in a small town, the streets empty – a ‘walking dead town’ – the heat an oppressive force. As we lingered, a few locals went about their business and curious kids came to see what was what.
A mini pal in small town Gobi
Driving on, the landscape changed, rolling and rising as we headed north into Middle Gobi. We had a picnic lunch of tuna salad before walking round to the mostly ruined Ongi Monastery.
Ongi is actually the name of two monasteries facing each other across the Ongi River, Barlim and Khutagt. Sitting on the northern slope of the wide valley, we visited Barlim Monastery. At its peak it was one of the largest monasteries in Mongolia, with 17 temples housing over 1000 monks. It was levelled to the ground in 1939 by the Communist Party of Mongolia, the monks killed, driven into forced labour or conscripted into the army. The decision to rebuild was made in 1990 and the first temple was completed in 2004. Monks have been returning but few locals remain, the river bed having almost entirely dried up in recent years.
The new entrance gate at Ongi Monastery
We wandered through the ruins to the rebuilt temple, looking inside it and the small ger museum outside. Hiking to the top of a hill overlooking the monastery took us to a golden Buddha, draped in fluttering blue flags. A commanding view of the valley stretched out before us, all the way to the luxury tourist ger camp in the distance. The hill was covered in sharp, angular toffee brown and slate grey rocks, bursting from the ground like spikes on a stegosaurus.
In the valley below, a few cows grazed on the fringes of grass along the river, the only places where water remained. Kids passed on bikes, a few walking, carrying 5L plastic water bottles, calling out ‘hi’ and ‘hello’.
A rare patch of grass by the river at Ongi Monastery
Tour of the ruins done, we still had a bit more driving to do. We stopped in a town for water, snacks and a few cold beers – reliable Heineken this time – then it was a short drive out to the ger camp. This one was a host family, but most of the family had moved elsewhere because of the drought. A woman was there with a little boy toddler, managing the camp of four gers. The land was already a little greener here, with small tufts of grass dotting the ground – in the distance, each one blending into the other, the land looked green.
Our host family and evening entertainment
Dinner arrived in the form of a delicious bowl of something reminiscent of Korean ‘juk’. We ate outside the gers, sitting on low stools in the late warm sun. You could tell the group had reached a certain familiarity as poop stories started flying around. After, we spread out on the stony ground for a drone shot – not exactly comfortable but everyone was game and happy to take part. We were treated to another beautiful sunset but not many stars this night, the clouds gathering and stretching across the wide open sky.
Kharkhorin and the Khögnö Khan Mountains
It was an early rise, breakfast, then off by 8:30. Heading towards Central Mongolia, the land changed quickly. We started to see pools of water, it became more hilly and the land was actually covered in green grass. Cows, goats, sheep and horses became a more frequent sight. So did gers, often two together, pairs of giant mushrooms shining brightly in the morning sun. The ground was covered in sprigs of a small green plant, giving off a pleasant minty smell carried on the breeze.
A pair of gers shining in the sun
Arriving in Kharkhorin early afternoon, we had lunch then spent a couple of hours wandering around the Erdene Zuu Monastery, believed to be the oldest surviving one in Mongolia. Built around 1585 after the declaration of Tibetan Buddhism as the state religion, stones from the ruins of ancient Mongol capital Karakorum were used in the process. In its time it was damaged in wars, dismantled, and rebuilt. It managed to somewhat survive the 1939 Communist religious purge, and in 1944, Stalin apparently persuaded the Mongolian leader to keep it as an example for foreign visitors, proving that the party allowed religious freedom. Today it’s seemingly flourishing as a functioning monastery once again, as well as operating as a major tourist attraction in the heart of the country. Indeed on the day we visited, the grounds were busy, filled with far more tourists than we’d yet seen on the entire trip.
Erdene Zuu Monastery
Back on the road, another 50 km or so took us up to Dorio’s ger camp, a beautiful place on the slopes of a wide green valley, at the foot of a jagged low ridge in the Khögnö Khan Mountains. We received a wonderful welcome in the family ger, asking and answering questions about job, country, etc. The spritely granny’s thick lined face beamed at us, her bright eyes full of delight as she gave up her seat despite huge protestation. Our host Dorio excitedly showed us photos of the family and previous guests.
A herder family, as well as hosting tourists in their gers they also offer horse riding. While Dorio headed out with the first group of three riders, the rest of us watched with interest as dinner was cooked in an iron stove outside, played football with the kids, and enjoyed the magic hour light and camp atmosphere. The granny had put on a beautiful, decorative red coat, trimmed in swirling gold patterns. She was sitting on an upturned crate, watching the goats in the distance through binoculars, held in a peculiar vertical fashion, looking through just one eye. We gathered round to take pictures and she performed like a star actress for us, naturally, without a hint of awkwardness or annoyance.
Everyone’s favourite granny
As usual, the nine of us ate dinner in one ger. The meat was delicious and tender, the potatoes and vegetables flavourful and perfectly cooked. A cracking meal for our last night all together. The temperature had dropped considerably below what we’d been used to, and as we chatted over dinner, a violent storm brewed outside. Ready for bed, we dashed back to our ger through the driving rain, glad to climb into our warm sleeping bags and settle in for sleep.
Horse riding and a long drive back to UB
After the stormy night, the day started cool and misty – grass damp underfoot, goat shit soft and squidgy – very different from the Gobi’s dry heat. Dorio readied the horses for the first group, and while they rode, the rest of us ate breakfast and packed.
A misty morning in Central Mongolia
At nine, the last to go, we climbed in the saddle and set off across the pastures. Past healthy looking cows and multi-hued rocky cliffs we rode, the patterned browns, yellows and oranges looking like an elaborate rock painting. We exchanged some simple Mongolian and English words with Dorio, but as we passed a multitude of healthy cows, he jabbed a thumb into his chest and grunted a thickly accented word we couldn’t quite catch. Smiling, nodding and saying ‘cow’ in return, we complimented him on his fine looking animals.
Turned back a little early by light rain, we cantered back, finished our packing and loaded up the vehicles. Sitting in the ger with his son, watching us pack, Dorio asked for a photo. We took a few, and through Uyanga, he asked for them printed, with a big one of the four of us for the wall.
Printed and sent back to Dorio and his family – if you ever visit look out for us on the wall!
Outside, we had time for one big group photo before saying our goodbyes, climbing in the Russian van, and starting the long journey back towards UB.
Our group and local family on the last day of our Gobi trip
Our Gobi tour had come to an end. It had been a week of stunning landscapes and interesting cultural experiences, all done with just about as good a group as you could hope for. Our guides had looked after us and provided great detail along the way, our cook had served up tasty grub, and the drivers never put a foot wrong. Our 7 days in the Gobi go down as a fantastic tour – one of the best, most memorable organised trips we’ve ever done, and a real highlight of our time in Mongolia.
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7 days in the gobi
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