The Gobi Desert is one of the remotest places in the world you could think of going to, and when backpacking in Mongolia it was one of the highlights of the trip.
I know the word ‘beautiful’ can get thrown around quite a bit, but in this case it’s very true.
This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
When thinking of a desert you could imagine huge sand-dunes (of which the Gobi Desert has plenty,) but there is so much more than that.
Before you reach those famous sand-dunes travelling from the capital Ulaanbaatar (depending on your route) you pass through rocky terrain with mountains and deep canyons, with scattered camps full of friendly nomads, and an endless horizon.
Those nomad camps are where you will sleep for the night, staying inside traditional ger tents next to the nomadic families. It’s cosy and warm inside these tents from the cold air outside.
As far as camping in Mongolia goes, forget it for the Gobi Desert, just go and stay with the nomads, it’s much more fun.
The families are generally very welcoming with their nomad hospitality, and like so many places it’s the people that make the journey.
The Journey Into The Gobi Desert of Mongolia
The Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park is the official name of where I went.
At the start of the journey from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park are many rocky outcrops that you can see in these next four photos, with an unusual dark sky.
Because Mongolia is known for it’s almost constant blue sky and sunshine.
Hidden amongst these rocky escarpments are nomad camps where they look after mostly goats.
You can also find secret Buddhist ruins with some destroyed from the time of the communist purges of religion, long ago.
Signs of Buddhism on top of these rocks.
If you didn’t know where to look these Buddhist ruins would remain a mystery and far out of sight.
It’s very rare to see trees in the Gobi Desert.
The Mongolian nomads have embraced technology as it obviously makes their lives easier.
Getting around by motorcycle is more common than using the traditional means of horses or camels, although that still goes on.
See the solar charger at this nomad camp in the photo below.
Bactrian camels are the most common camel in Mongolia, and one of the most seen Gobi Desert animals.
This girl was helping the camels settle for the night as the sun was going down in the Gobi Desert.
There are two types of camels in the world – the Bactrian camel (seen in the photo below) which has two humps, whereas the dromedary camel has only one.
Leaving the rocky outcrops you enter into a world of deep canyons, all part of the journey to get deep into the Gobi Desert.
It almost feels like you are entering through a secret gateway into another world.
In this canyon there is ice year round as the sun does not reach it long enough to melt it, and the cold night temperatures (even in summer) keep it frozen.
When staying with these nomads in their tent they showed the utmost hospitality, that’s common there.
The entire time in the Gobi Desert was spent sleeping with different nomad families and is much better than using your own tent.
You will get the real Mongolian experience.
One of my favourite travel quotes:
“Take only memories, leave only footsteps.” – Chief Seattle.
Footsteps in The Sand at Khongoryn Els
You then reach what many people think of when you say ‘Gobi Desert’, as huge sand-dunes rose in the distance.
A big smile came to my face as we got closer and closer at the thought of climbing them.
This is what I had dreamed of as a younger traveller first researching this area over a decade ago, and had finally made it.
The views are stunning.
It’s hard to describe the sheer tranquility and absolute silence of the Khongoryn Els (singing sands) sand-dunes in the Gobi Desert, with just the whisper of the desert wind as company for your ears.
See the two people on the sand-dune in the photo below? That should give you an idea of the scale of these dunes.
There is even more to see past these famous dunes, as you enter into one of the remotest parts of Mongolia.
Want to escape the world? The Gobi Desert is where to go.
This van is the most common mode of transport and is well suited to traversing the tough terrain.
It’s not that fast but it becomes your moving home, and soon takes on a comfortable familiarity in the midst of all the nothingness around you.
Reaching into the farthest reaches of the Gobi Desert the sun sets on the nomadic camp for the night.
Some of the food the nomads share with you will not be to everyones taste, although intestines are surprisingly not that bad, and the meat dumplings are tasty.
One thing almost everyone can get behind however is a good drink, and they are known for their home brewed alcohol, like the woman in this photo is making.
During the evening I helped the family round up the camels.
There had been a strong sand-storm that day, obscuring everything around, but the camels didn’t seem to care.
You can see them relaxing as the horizon vanishes in the storm.
It was great timing when these two Bactrian camels came roaming past at sunset, almost like they were saying:
“Hold up mate we will make your photo look more exotic!”
When the sky clears of cloud and dust, and the sun has completely gone, you can see so many stars.
I didn’t want to leave the Gobi Desert, but it was time.
Headed away from the remotest area the driver took us onwards on the journey, past more beautiful scenery.
Adding something different to the surroundings was the occasional Buddhist stupa, with bright coloured flags contrasted against the stark terrain.
Buddhism is the main religion of Mongolia.
The land starts to become more fertile the further away you get from the sand-dunes.
This is good grazing ground for cattle.
Again you can see how remote these nomad camps are.
Then it all came to an end as the Gobi Desert was replaced by the concrete jungle of the capital Ulaanbaatar.
I should mention this trip is not for those who like to always be clean.
There are no showers to use for a week and you have to live with all the dirt and sand on your body. It feels like sand is in every part of your body (and most likely is.)
There are also no toilets and squatting in nature or the occasional hole in the ground is what you would have to do.
Between certain parts of the Gobi Desert there are some very small provincial towns that have bath-houses where nomads come in to bathe.
However they tend to be broken a lot (from my experience), so don’t get your hopes up on them for getting clean.
Having gone without a shower, internet access, and other things that we take for granted, upon arriving back in UlaanBaatar felt a little strange, with all the people and technology around.
But it always feels like that when you have been somewhere remote for a while.
Going into the Gobi Desert is one of the best things I have done, and fulfilled a big dream on my to-do list of travel destinations.
How to Visit The Gobi Desert on a Tour
As you can see from this post the Gobi Desert is very remote which can cause problems for a visit, especially if you’re short on time.
The following information is for those interested in the best way to go on a budget tour.
Many people stop in Mongolia for just a week en-route between Russia and China on the Trans-Mongolian train and generally don’t have time to wait around.
In that case your best option is to book a cheap tour through any of the budget guesthouses in UlaanBaatar, they are all very similar.
I stayed at the Golden Gobi Guesthouse (find it and book it through that link) and booked the tour through them. You can find plenty of Mongolian tour companies in Ulaanbaatar though, so shop around.
You will get a four wheel drive van like the one seen in this article. Make sure to check on the condition of the van before going.
The more people you put in the van, the cheaper the price, but also you will have less comfort.
I had two other travellers with me and was comfortable as each of us was able to sit facing forward and stretch our legs.
You can get up to six people in, or seven at a tight squeeze.
With the tour you will get an experienced driver and guide who will look after you.
Make sure your guide is reputable and good as that will make all the difference when it comes to talking with the nomads and being social.
The scenery in the Gobi Desert is absolutely stunning but the best part was meeting with the local nomads. If you have a bad guide who is lazy to chat and translate, then you will have a big language barrier talking to them.
Talk to other travellers in your guesthouse who have come back from a tour to see how it was with that particular company.
If there is not enough people to join for a tour in your guesthouse then your best bet is to go around the other guesthouses and ask. Hell do that anyway to see what best price you can get.
Don’t forget to bargain as no price is set.
For those with more time on their hands the best thing you could do is wait around for a few days until you get enough travellers together and rent a private car.
This way there is no set schedule and you can take your time and stop where you want.
You could take your own tents for camping but you can generally show up to a nomads camp and ask if you can sleep the night there, for payment of course.
You will get to sleep in the main ger tent most of the time, sleeping on the floor on a thin mattress. Some ger camps will have proper beds you can use.
Your other option is to try and hitch-hike through the Gobi Desert and stay at nomad camps, but you will need a lot of time and luck due to the remoteness.
We went an entire day and only saw two other vehicles. But then again we were there in low season.
I personally try to avoid tours as much as possible preferring the freedom to do things by myself, as is the backpacking lifestyle, and backpacking in Mongolia I was hoping to do the same.
The problem was that I arrived towards the end of October. Winter in Mongolia was coming and things were getting cold, which also meant less travellers. I decided to go out on a tour just because it made sense at that particular time.
If I went in high season (June to September) I would have tried hitch-hiking as the weather would be warmer and I would have a lot more time to spare.
I’m talking cheap tours here as generally this site is for the budget traveller, such as myself.
If you do want to book a more upmarket tour do not take this advice!
Go Backpacking in Mongolia
Mongolia is the perfect backpackers destination.
It’s got friendly nomads in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and on top of that is dirt cheap to travel around making it great for the budget traveller.
The Gobi Desert is a highlight of any travel to Mongolia.
Useful links for backpacking in Mongolia:
If you want to know what I pack for my travels like I did to the Gobi Desert then read my post where I recommend what to pack for traveling light.
A good guide for backpacking in Mongolia is the Lonely Planet Mongolia.
And take travel insurance for any kind of adventure travel. I use WorldNomads.
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