Gobi Desert, Mongolia
The silence of the desert engulfs me as I sit alone, atop the highest sand dune I could find. Shades of gold, purple and black paint a picture across the dunes as far as the eye can see. As the sunset unfolds, the picture begins to change, but the silence remains. In the distance, herds of Bactrian camels graze on the vibrant, desert grass. Beyond, more massive towers of sand and black mountains dominate the darkening, blue sky. This place, so remote and so silent, etches itself in my mind forever. Suddenly, I am consumed by thoughts of the arduous journey that lays ahead. It will test all my skills and experience as a traveler. I am about to cross the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia.
Guide to Traveling the Gobi
Planning Where to Go
The Gobi is really big! Planning on where to go and how long it will take can become very confusing. It’s best to do lots of research on the Gobi, and decide what areas interest you the most. The Gobi has everything from motor sports and dinosaurs, to hiking and camel riding. Uncharted adventure will be had. So spend the time before you go to plan things properly, as visiting the Gobi is a unique travel destination unlike anywhere else.
There are a few options for traveling through the Gobi. The first, cheapest option is to take public transport. This isn’t the best idea. Because of the Gobi’s size, public transportation is unreliable and destinations are limited (not to mention its time consuming!).
The second choice is to rent a car and drive yourself. This option is great and will give you the freedom to do whatever you wish. The downside is that road maps are not very detailed (including GPS), making navigation difficult. Very little English is spoken here, so finding accommodation and food can be difficult.
The last option is to rent a van with a driver. This is, by far, the best option. Our driver served as a guide, cook, and translator. We were able to do things no other travelers have done before! Our guide provided us with an inside look at Mongolian culture. Obviously, this is the most expensive option, but with some hard bargaining and some willing friends, you can cut costs very low.
Should I Take a Tour?
Tours are a little misunderstood in Mongolia. They range from full blown, all-inclusive GAP tours, to private, customizable backpacker ventures. Most hostels in Ulaanbaatar act as travel agencies as well. If you are traveling alone, then you have the option of joining other groups to cut costs. However, you might not necessarily get to see everything you want, because you’ll be traveling with strangers. My friends and I used a tour agency to rent our van and driver/guide/cook/translator.
How Much Does it Cost?
We paid about $60 US per day for our Gobi experience. This included the van and all the petrol, as well as an awesome local man named Jugga, who was to be our guide/driver. We drove 200-400 km per day. Aside from the van and driver, we paid, on average, $10 for local food per day, and $10 to stay with local families. All said and done, splitting costs between the three of us, we spent about $30-50 US per day.
Finding accommodation was incredibly easy. Most towns have some sort of a guest house that always has rooms available. They are not luxurious by any means. All of the other sights have gers* for rent, and usually a host family will cook for you. Tour companies will tell you that, without a tour, you will not be able find any of this for yourself. This is, of course, not true, but, it would be more challenging.
*Ger: This circular house is quite possibly the one thing that you will remember most about your trip to Mongolia. Today, most of the population still lives in this fashion. The round, wooden frame is covered in felt and wool. The top of the ger is left open for smoke to escape. These houses can be seen all over the country as they are very transportable. This is essential, because most of the population in Mongolia still lives a nomadic lifestyle.
Many times throughout our journey, when we were in very remote areas, our only option was to stay with local, nomadic families. Thanks to Jugga, we were able to arrange this very easily. Staying with families can be very rough, however. You will sleep on the floor, usually next to curing meats. After the fire burns out, it gets very cold. On the upside, every ger doubles as a distillery, so you usually drink yourself asleep and stop caring about the ger’s cleanliness.
Now I am about to get very real with you. Mongolian food was, by far, the highest hurdle to overcome. Mongols have primarily survived on livestock and hunting. They consume copious amounts of meat and milk.
All beverages, including alcohol and tea, are made from either goat, camel, or horse milk. If you are lactose intolerant, like my friend Adam, then life will be a constant struggle.
As for eating with the locals, the usual meal consists of cured goat meat, and usually fried noodles or rice. Every so often, we would see dumplings or empanada-like things filled with goat fat…. Yes, I am warning you, the food here is something else. The odd time we would find spicy ketchup; that was an absolute treat.
“What’s a vegetable? It’s like a goat that grows in the ground.” – Adam Delman
Entering a Ger
The first thing you must know before entering a ger is that you must be wary of the dogs. Yell out for residents to hold the dogs before leaving your vehicle. When it’s safe and you are ushered to enter the ger, the first thing you should do is greet everyone in Mongolian by saying “Sain Bain uu.” The elder will usually will break out the snuff bottles – powdered tobacco which you snort up your nose. It gives you quite the buzz!!
The next step is to eat the dried meat they hand you. It’s usually goat meat or organs that have been fermenting. If you cannot do this, then I suggest you don’t visit Mongolia. Respect the culture. Next, tea is served and food will be cooked. Sometimes the tea is left out and instead hard alcohol is substituted. Getting extremely intoxicated with your host is not just good manners, but is expected!
Getting to the Gobi
From Central Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley, the dirt road winds through the sunlit, bare, green hills south. My crew which consisted of my two friends, Jacob and Adam, from British Colombia. Our driver Jugga, a Mongol crazy enough to tag along for the epic journey that lay ahead, was gearing up in the early hours of the morning.
Our plan was to drive our old Soviet van through the Gobi desert, all the way to Western Mongolia. This is not a journey that is to be taken lightly. After the first part of the journey the road ends abruptly. So does all forms of modern civilisation.
Van fully loaded, we said goodbye to our Nomadic home stay in the Orkhon and headed south. As the hours passed by, we forded rivers, twisted along muddy roads in dense forests, and eventually came to a bare, lunar like landscape. The road ended. Every so often, some horses could be seen; grazing on the shrubs that miraculously grow in this inhospitable place. Four hours of being thrown around like a rag doll in the van passed before we finally found the tarmac.
It wasn’t even an hour after that before we hit the first city, Arvaikheer, en route to the Gobi. Arvaikheer consisted of a few restaurants and hotels, but the rest of the city was made up of groupings of family gers.
Heading south from Arvaikheer, the roads quickly became very rough. The landscape flattened out and was completely bare. Abruptly, we entered the Gobi Desert. Atop a hill that overlooks a sandy plain as far as the eye can see, there was a white Buddhist Stupa. This Stupa signifies the beginning of the Gobi. The desolate plain looks endless. Seldom grows or lives here. The real adventure was just beginning.
Welcome to the Moon
Many hours passed by as we drove through the nothingness. Time ceased to exist here. Everywhere we looked was flat, desolate plains. The sand and dust filled the air inside the van. Every so often, we saw the skull of a lost horse along the dirt tracks that made this “road.”
The heat waves intensified in the late afternoon, creating false mirage images in the distance. How our driver, Jugga, kept his cool, I am not sure. All of us were hungry and exhausted from the day.
Just then Jugga said, “Here Is food, we stop here.”
Bizarrely enough, we pulled over to a ger in the middle of nowhere. This ger’s isolated location makes one wonder how people can reside here and still be sane. Entering the ger, we found a family of four, which consisted of a young man, his two parents, and their grandmother. The ger’s smoky interior had strips of goat meat hanging to dry, and a corner full of mysterious, white jugs.
Jugga requested that the father cook us some of the goat meat, while the son and mother brought my friends and I out to get milk. To our surprise, we were to get the milk ourselves… from the horses the family owned. If you are wondering, yes, milking a horse is just as strange as it sounds. Even stranger was drinking the milk in the ger, while waiting for our fried strips of old goat meat.
After we choked down more horse milk and our host’s generous goat meat, we were given airag*. When the Airag began to take effect, we were served its stronger, distilled cousin. This clear, petrol-tasting version of airag brings a surprisingly comforting effect. It helped take our minds off the fact we just milked a horse in the middle of nowhere.
*Airag: Fermented milk alcohol that is created in the ger. Every ger doubles as a distillery and can make Airag from many kinds of milk: goat, camel, and horse being the most popular. Airag has a frothy, fermented taste and is usually no more than 5% alcohol. There is also a distilled version of Airag that is clear and tastes like petrol. Its alcohol content is a mystery.
From the strange, horse milk nomads, we continued into the flat, sandy, never ending abyss. When the town we were to stay in finally emerged from another heat wave, we were all in disbelief (we were all kind of drunk as well).
This town, which I still don’t know the name of, was another a strange experience. Jugga brought us to the local gym where we were forced into playing the local women’s volley ball team. After these women massacred us, we were brought to the ger in which we were to sleep. This ger was used for fermenting cheese balls. So there we were, beaten from the roads, airag, and women’s volley ball team, laying cuddled up, surrounded by fermenting cheese.
Ongiin Khiid Monastery
The next morning, we drove to the two Buddhist monasteries of Ongiin Khiid. The two monasteries, Bari Lam Khiid and Khutagt Lam Khiid, are collectively known as Ongiin Khiid. Built in 1760, they were once the largest Buddhist monasteries in all of Mongolia. In 1937, the Soviets came and levelled the complex, killing over 200 monks. These days, a small community of monks have begun piecing the temples back together.
Entering the grounds feels a bit spooky. Mounds of rubble are strewn about all over the hills and valley bottom. Looking closer at the broken stones, you will find Sanskrit script, swastikas* and other Buddhist symbols. Its best to delve deep into the remote valleys near the monasteries, as there is plenty of hidden treasures here.
*Many people don’t know that the swastika is actually a Buddhist symbol that means “wellbeing.” The ancient symbol was corrupted by the Nazi party in the 1930’s.
The museum here is also worth a look. It houses some interesting artefacts that survived the communist purge. My favorite was the wine cups made from elder monk human skulls!
Hunting for Fossils at Bayanzag
The strange hills of Bayanzag are famed for the discovery of dinosaur relics. It was here that palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews first started excavations, searching for dinosaur bones and eggs in 1922. Today, you can see many of his findings in museums all over the world!
If you’re not into dinosaurs, Bayanzag is still worth the visit, as its natural desert beauty is unlike the rest of the Gobi. Vibrant colours swirl around the cliff side, and tall peaks provide views of amazing desert vistas.
Approaching the fiery hills of Bayanzag is an epic experience. From the flat, sandy, desolate desert, giant red, orange and yellow hills emerge from out of nowhere. Getting here from Ongiin Khiid took several hours, but it was well worth the stop.
We spent several hours hiking around the cliffs, exploring new, exciting angles of the rock formations. In the belly of the valley, we found several potential dinosaur bones and eggs. There were plenty of interesting rocks for us three geeks to collect. After three hours of dinosaur hunting, we drove to the nearby ger camp for the night. At night, the stars here are amazing!
Dalanzadgad and Hiking through the Yolyn Am Valley
The next day, we drove to the capital of the Gobi region. After about a week of sleeping in gers and not showering, we were looking forward to some civilization. Unfortunately, we didn’t find it here. Dalanzadgad’s dusty, barren streets are home to a few restaurants, broken ATM’s and 70’s era dinosaur statues. It resembles a ghost town.
We did, however get to finally shower. The “showers” are located in a public bath house. Even though it was dirty and felt a bit like a brothel, I will never forget the feeling of that hot shower and being clean once again.
Fresh, and plenty excited to leave Dalanzadgad, we ventured into the mountains of the Gobi.
Hidden deep in a canyon is Yolyn Am. Originally created to protect wildlife, this park has now become famed for its hiking and ice filled caverns. From the entrance, you can hike deeper into the canyon. You will have to cross frigid rivers, crackling ice, and beautiful fields of green grass surrounded by the tall, black mountains of Yolyn Am. The full circuit is about 10km and takes 5-6 hours. We spent about 3 hours just walking about halfway through and back.
Outside of Yolyn Am is a taxidermy museum. I know what you are thinking; who wants to go see some stuffed animals? But, this sight is a must! The animals are very poorly stuffed, giving them an almost comedic look to them! You also can get a close up look at some of the rarer species here without having to spend weeks looking for them (they might not look quite like what you were expecting!).
Nearby to the taxidermy museum is a group of gers owned by an elderly Mongol women. She was the only person in this country who provided us with something other than goat meat. She made us elbow pasta with Russian goulash; it was a gift from God.
Stepping Into the Past – Khavtsgait Petroglyphs
On the way to Khongoryn Els is, quite possibly, the highlight of the entire Gobi. Hidden high above in the hills are the Khavtsgait Petroglyphs. Finding them was not easy. Our driver stopped at another nomadic family home. Here, we had the ubiquitous Mongolian milk tea, snorted some snuff, and ate a few goat made products. After conversing with them, they agreed to show us were the Petroglyphs were located.
We drove for about one hour, high into the hills. These roads look as if they have not been used in years. Our new guide directed us through they hill valleys up onto a desert plateau. Odd piles of black rocks dotted the horizon. Our guide brought us to different groups of these rocks and then we walked up onto them.
Walking off alone, I stumbled across a few scratches in the rocks. I followed these to larger ones until, finally, I was confronted with an entire boulder covered in stories of the past. The desert wind blew across my face, whispering with ancient voices of the people who were here long ago. The rock carvings depicted ancient homes, hunting, and the people who once called this place home. There are plenty of ibex and deer carvings, but the best one is of a two humped camel. These petroglyphs date back anywhere from 3000 to 8000BC!
Further along from these carvings were more recent ones done by Buddhist monks from Tibet traveling through here. They carved Sanskrit, the language of the Buddha, onto the rocks; to guide future monks on their rite of passage.
The Sands of Khongoryn Els
Blown away by the Petroglyphs, we pushed on towards the heart of the Gobi. It doesn’t take long traveling on this road for you to realise its remoteness. Here, Jugga asked if we could pick his brother up. It was a strange question, as we were in the middle of nowhere. Sure enough, the exact DNA copy of Jugga was standing on the sand road in the middle of the desert. Adia, Jugga’s brother now joined our motley crew.
Sand dunes in the distance grow larger and larger as you approach Khongoryn Els. These are not the sand dunes you picture from the Sahara, they are very different. Fluorescent green pastures of grass sit at the foot of these massive, golden dunes. Behind the sand are large, black mountains of jagged rock. The scene is beautiful and surreal.
As we approached our ger camp, hundreds of Bactrian (two humped) camels appeared. They grazed in the fields of grass, adding another element to this fairy tale like picture. When we arrived, the first thing my friends and I did was run to the dunes.
Climbing them is a brutal task. For every step we took up towards the summits, we sank back a few inches. It takes lots of stamina to finally ascend these monsters. After the first summit, you see an even bigger one in front of it. It became an obsession of ours to climb the biggest ones. When we finally found the biggest one and summited it, we sat down and everything became silent.
The setting sun dropped shades of purple and black, pairing with the golden rays bouncing off the dunes. In the distance, a man walked with his camels through the sand, painting a picturesque scene. The silence took hold of us. Nothing on this earth will ever compare to the silent beauty of this place.
The next day, we donned our Mongol Del jackets and climbed aboard our ships of the desert (camels). A local guide took us deeper into the sands of Khongoryn Els. We drifted past wild Mongolian horses, though sandy, trickling streams, and traversed more massive dunes; a true nomadic experience of the Gobi.
That night, we ascended another massive dune and star gazed into, yet again, one of the most amazingly lit skies I have ever seen!
Crossing the Beast
This is what we came for. Take any tour into the Gobi and they stop at Khongoryn Els. The roads go no further, only the emptiness of the desert lies ahead. This is exactly where we intended to go. Our plan was to put the van into 4×4 and cross the entire uncharted section of the Gobi to Altai in Western Mongolia.
We equipped our van with plenty of food, tools, and petrol for the long desert journey. Jugga had never been through here before either, so it was to be an adventure of a lifetime.
The roads ended at the tallest dune in the area, which was 300 meters high. As my friends and I had now become dune summiting junkies, we could not resist the urge to climb this one. It was a long, 1 hour sweaty climb up the 90 degree side of this monstrous sand dune.
At road’s end, Jugga looked nervous. He slammed the van into 4×4 and we pushed onwards. We used GPS, maps, and local mountains as landmarks in an effort not to get lost. The landscape changes quick the further you go; from deep sand, to shrubs and then barren, cracking earth, covered in glass like rocks.
It’s an eerie feeling, not knowing what lays ahead. Everyone stayed fairly silent, giving me time to think and gaze out into the emptiness.
Our first stop was a nomadic ger in the middle of nowhere. We stopped because we were curious the people who would try to make a life out in this place. As it turned out, the family who resided here has been raising camels for generations. They were almost completely cut off from the outside world. That is, until we showed up.
After a camel inspired lunch with the family, we continued on into uncharted territory. The sky was a shade of blue I have never seen. The eerie, translucent moon was in front of us during the middle of the day. In the distance, black, tall mountains with flat peaks soared above the shifting desert sands, from which rose heat waves that played tricks on our eyes. Ahead was only emptiness. Our van left tracks that cut into the earth for hundreds of kilometres.
After seven hours of driving, we entered the black mountains. We followed an ancient, dried up river bed that led us higher into them. The black cliffs closed us in. They created fortress like walls high above.
After climbing for a few hours, the mountains opened up into rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Here, the first signs of life emerged. The odd ger was erected in the crevasse of the hills. It was at one of these gers that we approached and asked the residents if we could stay. Our new host family was delighted to have us. We spent the night drinking and laughing about this chaotic adventure we found ourselves in.
In the morning, our host family directed us to some ancient caves. They were hidden in a valley, but there were signs that were possibly as old as the caves themselves that helped guide us. Cavemen used to dwell in these caves 25,000 years ago. Deep inside the cavern, you will find a crude statue of one of these cavemen and discover a cavern in which the walls are covered in clear crystals. The place’s history, beauty and remoteness gave it a somewhat magical feeling.
After five hours of driving through the rolling hills, the desert began to change. Bodies of water appeared and the desolate, dead land began to change into one dotted with grass and flowers. The black mountains of the Gobi loomed behind us in the distance. It was here we found a dirt track that lead us to a small, name-unknown town. Here we found a guesthouse – in an actual house!
The entire town came out to see the crazy five who just drove across one of the most remote corners of the planet.
We awoke early in the morning. We had an approximately nine hour journey left before we would find the tarmac and drive into Western Mongolia. The further we pushed on, the less the landscape looked like the merciless Gobi desert. Right before we found the highway, two large, red mountains emerged, as if signaling the end of the Gobi. We hit the tarmac shortly after these landmarks. The thrill of surviving this journey brought an incredible cheer into the van! Vodka was consumed, packaged noodles were eaten, and we all had the biggest grins, realizing the difficulty of the task we had just completed.
The second leg of our Mongolia journey was now finished, Western Mongolia lay ahead.
Location: Gobi Desert. Mongolia
Daily Costs: 40-70 dollars per day, if sharing costs
Recommended Guide Book: Lonely Planet Mongolia
Gear: Mongolian Del, Life Straw, Nomad Solar Panel, Sony A7, GoPro Hero 4 Black. Bring warm clothes as it gets very cold in the desert.