The Urban Gypsy is delighted to have its first guest post from Tom and Katherine of The Travelators. I met this amazing Aussie couple back in 2013 when I was traveling through Central America. We instantly clicked and have been friends ever since. This kind and hilarious couple have traveled the far corners of the earth and you can follow them on their website and read more about them in the bio below. In this post you will discover Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
For us, the Gobi Desert conjured up all sorts of Marco Polo fantasies that involved a lot of sand and riding camels. The inhospitable and isolated landscape attracts its fair share of adventure travellers, and we certainly were not disappointed. While our week-long trip across the Gobi Desert involved both sand and camels, there were many other spectacular places to see along the way. For travellers who truly want a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience during their trip to Mongolia, then look no further than the Gobi Desert. Here are 6 amazing places you can’t miss during your trip.
- The White Stupa
The White Stupa isn’t actually white, but it’s still incredible! This huge rock formation sharply rises out of the vast surrounding steppe, which was once an ancient sea bed. The White Stupa is 40 metres high at its highest point, and its beautiful red and white colouring makes it a travel photographer’s paradise. You can stay nearby at a local family’s ger and experience traditional life for an evening. The ger camp is surrounded by the family’s herd of goats and camels. You can spend the night in a ger, where you can enjoy the absolute silence of the desert for a night.
- Gurvan Saikhan National Park
Your next stop is Gurvan Saikhan National Park, which is the largest national park in Mongolia at nearly 27,000 square kilometres. One of the most popular destinations in the park is the beautiful Eagle Valley. A short one hour walk along the lush valley give you the chance to see local wildlife and hike amongst sheer rock. If you’re not in the mood for walking, you can also hire horses at the entrance. There is minimal sunlight in the valley, so there are ice formations in the valley until July. Incredible!
- Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes
The Khongoryn Els sand dunes are a pristine stretch of sand dunes that start from nothing but reach up to 300 metres in height and are over 100 kilometres in length. The dunes are a highlight of any trip to the Gobi Desert, and climbing the dunes is an awesome experience. The Khongor dunes are also known as the ‘Singing Sands’ as you can hear the movement of the sand as the wind blows over the dunes. When climbing to the top, you will understand why. The climb to the top takes a breathless 45 minutes with fierce winds stinging your face with sand. The climb is absolutely worth it though when you see the spectacular panoramic views over the dunes at the top. You can also ride camels at the sand dunes – if visiting with a tour this will usually be included in your trip.
The sand cliffs of Bayanzag are more commonly known as the ‘Flaming Cliffs’, thanks to their stunning red ochre colour. A walk amongst the cliffs offers fantastic views over the surrounding steppe, and there are plenty of great photo opportunities. There have also been a number of important fossil finds nearby. There are a few ger camps within walking distance of the cliffs, so if you’re feeling energetic you can climb down the cliffs and walk across the steppe to your camp. At our ger camp we spent most of the night star gazing. The beauty of a desert night sky is something that is difficult to describe, but we promise you will never forget it.
- Ongiin Khiid Monastery
The Ongiin Khiid monastery is a change of pace from the serenity of the desert. The deserted monastery was once home to over 1000 monks, with temples, administrative buildings, lodgings and universities. Sadly, the monastery was destroyed in 1939 during the Communist Party reign in Mongolia. Around 200 monks were killed, while others were sent to labour camps and the army. There are attempts to revive the monastery, but the costs of restoration are high (particularly given its isolation) so it will probably take some time to restore it to its former glory. In the meantime, you can still walk around the complex and imagine how life once was here. There is a small museum now at the complex, but you will learn far more from your guide, there are guides on site who will ask for a small tip in exchange for a tour.
- Orkhon Khurkhree Waterfall
You will notice a big change of scenery as you head into the Orkhon valley, as treeless steppe and sand dunes gives way to grassy hills and forest. Although the Orkhon valley is in central Mongolia, it is often included in Gobi Desert tours in the loop back to Ulaanbaator. One of the highlights of a visit to the Orkhon valley is visiting the Orkhon Khurkhree waterfall on horseback. This is Mongolia’s tallest waterfall at 22 metres in height, and is popular with local tourists. You can also hop off your horse and climb to the bottom of the gorge to admire the waterfall from a different angle. Horse riding in the Orkhon valley is great fun, and the horses are pretty small and quiet so even first time riders will be able to enjoy the ride. It’s an incredible way to see the Mongolian country side.
Your last stop is the old capital of Mongolia, Karakorum. In the 13th century this was the place from which Ghengis Khan’s son ruled his vast empire. Karakorum was home to the capital for around 40 years, until the capital was moved to Beijing. The city was eventually abandoned after the fall of the Mongol empire, which occurred not long after the move to Beijing. The main attraction in Karakorum is the Erdene Zuu Khiid monastery, which was built from the city’s ashes in the 16th century. The monastery was heavily damaged during the Communist era, but is still worth a visit.
Organising your trip to the Gobi Desert
Most visitors arrange a tour through one of the guesthouses in Ulaanbaator, Mongolia’s capital. As tourist numbers increase in Mongolia, so do the number of dodgy operators so do your research. We recommend speaking to other travellers and reading reviews online before booking your trip. We organised our tour on arrival in Ulaanbaator, which seemed cheaper than arranging it before arrival. We were able to depart two days later, but in low and shoulder seasons you may be waiting longer.
Expect to pay between US$50-70 per person per day for an all-inclusive tour. In this price range, food and accommodation will be fairly basic as you will be staying in family ger camps. Transport is usually in old Russian vans, which fit four travellers comfortably. There is a lot of driving (6-8 hours per day) so bring your iPod.
We organised our tour through Sunpath Guesthouse and Tours, which we would highly recommend. The hostel accommodation here is also great value. While you often don’t need to book tours ahead of time (Sunpath have tours leaving daily), you should book your bed in advance as the hostel often books out. Sunpath can also arrange cheap tickets to the Naadam Festival.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Hi there! We are Tom and Katherine, a couple from Australia. We have been backpacking the world together on-and-off since 2007, juggling our love of travel with study and work at home. Our blog is all about taking career breaks to travel, and exploring the world on a budget. We have visited over 60 countries so far across Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Asia – and we are still counting!