THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO A BUDGET GOBI DESERT TOUR
Just the name ‘Gobi’ rouses a sense of excitement, of mystery and intrigue. Vast expanses of empty desert spring to mind, driving for days through dry, dusty land. The reality? Nothing like it. Sometimes our perceived images of a place are proven completely wrong only by seeing it for ourselves. This is one of those places. And given the complete lack of public transport infrastructure, the best way to see it is on a tour.
To help you plan and prepare for your desert adventure we’ve put together this essential guide to a budget Gobi Desert tour.
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GOBI DESERT TOUR HIGHLIGHTS & EXPERIENCES
Our expectations for our Gobi Desert tour were fairly low. Ploughing the same old tourist route, with a group of people we’d never met, and guides unknown to us until the moment of departure certainly made us wary.
The reality blew us away.
The Gobi itself is of course the outstanding highlight. The variety of scenery is incredible, the journey each day just as spectacular as the destination. The Flaming Cliffs, White Stupa, Yolyn Am valley and Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes can’t fail to impress.
Sunset from the top of Khongoryn Els
The warm welcome from nomad hosts along the way turn an already exciting trip into a special experience. Often you’ll be invited into the family ger and presented with milk tea or airag (fermented mare’s milk), biscuits and snuff. Photo albums may be passed around and conversation exchanged, with the help of your guide.
Everyone’s favourite Granny
While camel riding wasn’t really for us (we found it pretty uncomfortable and a little dull!), horse riding in Mongolia is a pleasure. Sure, you’ll be a bit sore for a couple of days after, but riding across the vast lands, your deel clad horseman leading the way, is an experience you won’t forget.
WHO’LL BE ON YOUR BUDGET GOBI TOUR?
Budget Gobi Desert tours tend to appeal to those, well, on a budget. Generally speaking this means backpackers in their twenties and thirties. Some may be in Mongolia for a month or more, others might just be stopping off for a week or so on their Trans-Mongolian Railway journey. Travellers from all over the world visit Mongolia, with many from Europe, South Korea, North America and Australia. Our group of nine included people from Scotland, Finland, the Philippines, Germany and Spain. A mix of solo travellers and couples/friends are likely to make up your group.
ACCOMMODATION & FACILITIES ON A GOBI TOUR
Staying in a ger is a classic Mongolian experience and you’ll be doing plenty of it on your Gobi Desert tour!
Most nights are spent at nomad camps, hosted by families who welcome tourists and put you up in gers next to their own. You might also stay in a dedicated ger tourist camp, which tends to have a few more facilities (like power and comfier beds), but lacks the charm of the nomad camps.
The set up is generally the same, with a few beds in each ger, a table, stools, and sometimes a strip light powered by a huge battery. There may or may not be blankets and/or pillows. If there are, don’t expect them to be freshly laundered! The beds are usually rock solid.
Hanging out over breakfast in our ger
The number of people you share with will depend on how many gers the family has and will probably change each night. Our gers slept between three and six people. There was even a night with a private double bed on offer at Sunpath’s own tourist camp!
The gers are warm enough in summer and in colder months a central stove keeps it nice and cosy. If it’s warm and dry, the roof will be left part open, but if it rains this will be closed over and everything stays dry inside (for the most part anyway).
A moody morning at our final ger camp
How about the toilet situation on your Gobi tour? A basic pit toilet will be set a little away from the camp. These can smell pretty bad, but they’re often doorless so at least you get a view and some fresh air. For an even better view and no stink, just wander far enough from camp and dig a little hole with your shoe. Be sure to take a little bag or such like to put your dirty toilet paper in and put it in the bin, don’t leave it on the ground! Biodegradable nappy bags do the trick nicely.
The toilets at one of our ger camps
There are no shower facilities at the ger camps. Instead you can scrub up at the public showers in local villages along the way. Don’t expect this every day though, we were able to shower on days 2 and 4 only on our 7 day trip. The showers are decent, with hot water (sometimes a little too hot) and fairly good water pressure. You can shower privately in your own cubicle, or go in as a couple if you want. Some places have bigger shower rooms with two showers for families/couples. You can buy soap, shampoo etc there if you don’t have any with you.
TRANSPORT ON A GOBI TOUR
Nothing screams Mongolia more than tearing across the land in an old Russian army van, trails of dust flying in your wake. Ubiquitous across the country, these sturdy brutes are well suited to the bumpy Mongolian landscape. And should something go wrong, a spare part is never hard to find.
Inside the van the most common set up is to have two rows of three seats, facing each other. This means travelling backwards for some passengers, depending on your group size. Not all are like this though, and seats can usually spin around to face forward or backwards. We travelled in a van with two seats in the front row, and four in the back row, with the driver and guide in the very front. With just three people, this was really spacious and we had great views out the front window.
Inside our Russian van. The front seats can turn around and face forwards or backwards.
Comfort wise, it’s not bad but don’t expect too much. The suspension handles the bumps well, but with no seatbelts or handles to hold onto you do get tossed around a fair bit. There’s no air conditioning and you might not be able to charge things from the cigarette charger, even if there is one. Top speed on paved roads is about 80KPH, dropping down to around 60KPH off road. What these vans lack in comfort they more than make up for in style though and it’s our transport of choice for a classic Gobi Desert experience!
What a beauty!
If you’re Gobi Desert tour has 6 or more people, then you’ll have more than one vehicle. Our group of nine travelled in three vehicles altogether; one Russian van and two Toyota Landcruisers. We swapped about daily, allowing us to try out the different cars. The Landcruisers offer a bit of a smoother ride, although you can still expect plenty of bumps on the off-road sections. These 4WDs are less spacious, but do have air con, more reliable charging ports and seatbelts here and there. You also get a great view out the front window if you’re sitting in the middle. Landcruisers are definitely faster too, going at about 100KPH on paved roads and 80KPH off road.
The ruins of Ongi Monastery
Some companies may charge more for a Landcruiser (or equivalent) as they are considered more luxurious than the Russian vans. Personally, if we had to choose only one vehicle, we’d stick with the van and this was the general consensus among our group.
On average you’ll drive for around 4-5 hours a day, with plenty stops, activities and breaks along the way. Although we covered a lot of ground, we didn’t find it to be too much driving. Our drivers were happy to stop whenever we wanted for photos or the toilet, and we used the time to chat with our guides and learn more about Mongolia and each other.
FOOD ON A GOBI TOUR
All meals should be included in the cost of your budget Gobi tour. Lunch is usually eaten at a local restaurant in villages along the way, while breakfast and dinner are served at your nomad camp. In groups of 6 or more a dedicated cook travels with you, otherwise your guide will double up as chef for smaller groups. The food prepared by our cook was surprisingly good, knocking the socks off the standard Mongolian fayre offered at the lunch stop restaurants.
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A typical breakfast includes bread, fruit, cucumber, tomato, sometimes an egg or a sausage, plus a sweet biscuit, cake or yoghurt. A thermos with hot water will always appear alongside the box of tea, jams, instant coffee and some chocolate spread if you’re lucky. We don’t like to go without a good cup of coffee in the morning so we took along our X-Brew which works a treat.
Breakfast at our ger camp
Dinners incorporate Mongolian and western influences, with things like spaghetti bolognese, hearty noodle soups, rice and meat dishes, bbq meat and veggies and so on. If you’re vegetarian just let the guide know at the start. The cook will generally just prepare the same meal for you but without meat.
Bottled water is included and you should check that this is unlimited. Some companies might limit it to 1.5 litres a day but this isn’t enough! Unfortunately there aren’t many opportunities to fill up your own water bottle along the way.
You can stock up on snacks, beer, vodka, toilet paper and various bits and bobs at mini markets in the villages you stop at for lunch. Options are fairly limited so if there’s something specific you want, make sure you get it in UB beforehand.
WHAT TO TAKE ON A GOBI TOUR
Weather in the Gobi changes quickly and often. In July we experienced blazing hot sun, rain, strong winds, thunderstorms, chilly mornings and evenings, and even a sandstorm. Outside of summer temperatures can really plummet at night. The terrain is rough and dusty, with goat, camel, horse, sheep and cow poo everywhere! Activities on the trip include hikes, camel and horse riding and at certain times of year even an ice walk. Facilities and amenities are basic to non existent. Here are the things you should take to ensure you have a good time.
A pair of flip flops and a nice dress ain’t gonna cut it. Be sure to take a decent pair of walking shoes with you, at the very least a pair of trainers if you haven’t got hiking shoes. General ‘outdoor gear’ is best. I’d also recommend a sports bra for all those bumpy roads and the horse riding. We took our Scrubba and did a quick wash at the shower stop half way through to freshen up our merino wool T-shirts and underwear. This saved us from having to pack T-shirts and underwear for a whole week.
T-Shirts x 3 / 4 (ideally merino wool as they are no-stink ) His/Hers
Down Jacket His/Hers
Rain Jacket His/Hers
Outdoor trousers (ideally ones that zip off to shorts) His/Hers
Change of clothes for sleeping
Socks x 2/3 His/Hers
Underwear x 3 / 4 & Sports Bra x 2
Hiking Shoes His/Hers
Flip flops His/Hers
In colder months add:
And in really cold months, just take all the warm clothes you possibly can!
Storm on the horizon at the Flaming Cliffs. A sandstorm came out of nowhere moments later.
You can borrow a sleeping bag from your tour company, but if you have your own you may prefer to take it. Whether it’s hot or cold, a silk liner is useful to sleep in by itself in summer, or to provide you with an extra layer in colder months. If you have a packable pillow take it, pillows are few and far between at the ger camps.
A headtorch is much easier to handle than the torch on your phone. An eye mask and ear plugs are also useful for blocking out snorers and the early morning light shining through the roof of your ger.
Take a travel towel and toiletries for showering. For non shower days you’ll need plenty of wet wipes! There’s no toilet paper, so take a roll with you and a small bottle of sanitiser hand gel to avoid germs.
Although you’ll be fed well, some snacks won’t go amiss. You can pick stuff up at small shops along the way, but you’ll have a bigger choice if you stock up in UB before heading off on your trip.
A small day bag for short hikes is useful, plus a water bottle or water bladder to save you carrying around the big plastic bottles provided by your guide. Don’t forget your sunglasses and sun cream too, the sun can be harsh out there!
HOW TO BOOK A BUDGET GOBI TOUR
Many guesthouses in UB organise budget Gobi Desert tours, some better than others. We went with Sunpath and based on our experience and others who we spoke to at our hostel, can definitely recommend them. They have an outline of tour options on their website so you can read up and see what suits you. If you want to join a group tour they have set departure dates. Otherwise, you can decide your own dates and travel with your own group. We crossed paths with a couple of other Sunpath tours in the Gobi, one a group of four friends travelling in a Russian van for two weeks, the other a couple in a Landcruiser on an express five day trip.
Afternoon tea time at one of our ger camps
As we were flexible with dates we just turned up at the hostel, asked about the next available trip and booked onto a 7 day tour departing a couple of days later. If you have set dates or a limited time frame then booking in advance is a good idea. You can organise things easily over email and even arrange to be picked up at the train station and on your way to the Gobi Desert a few hours later like a couple of guys on our trip!
GOBI TOUR BUDGET & INCLUSIONS
The overall cost of your budget Gobi Desert tour will be determined by a few factors, most notably your group size. It goes without saying that the per person price for a group of two is going to be higher than that of a group of four or eight. Some companies may charge more for a Landcruiser versus a Russian van, and staying at tourist camps is more expensive than nomad family camps.
First day in the Gobi, admiring the White Stupa
With a few people in your group you should expect to pay around $60 per person per day. We travelled with Sunpath and this included all transport (mix of Russian van and Landcruisers), accommodation (mostly family camps), meals, unlimited water, entry fees to the places visited as per the itinerary and camel and horse riding. We had three people per vehicle (plus driver and guide/cook up front).
If you’re shopping around and comparing tours the initial price may be similar but be sure to check exactly what this includes, how many people in a vehicle etc. Three in a van is considerably more comfortable than five or six!
Monks at Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin
When you’re in the Gobi you’ll hardly spend anything. A shower will cost you ₮3,000. Toilets in the local villages cost ₮500. If you want to order beer or extra food at lunch you’ll need to cover this cost. In total we spent about ₮40,000 over the seven days on snacks, beers and showers.
Your Budget Gobi Desert Tour
A trip to the Gobi is an experience to remember, with an incredible array of landscapes and warm nomadic hospitality. The Gobi is so much more than just desert, with green valleys, lunar landscapes, soaring sand dunes and breathtakingly starry nights. It was a highlight of our time in Mongolia and we’re sure it will be for you too!
Trekking past a yak in the lush Yolyn Am valley
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