Updated on 11 July 2018: Added Mongolia itinerary map.
Mongolia has always been on my list of a country I want to visit since I started travelling 3 years ago but due to my work which requires me to be online, I never had a chance to visit the country.. until now. I spent one week travelling independently in the country and one week doing the Gobi desert tour, so 2 weeks in total and if there is one thing I could say about the trip, it would be "Mongolia is one of the best countries I've been to, definitely up there with New Zealand!".
The Gobi desert is a vast region of desolate land covering from northern China to southern Mongolia. Due to its vastness, travelling around the area and seeing all the cool attractions can be quite challenging. It is almost impossible to see the land without going with a tour and within this guide, you will find all the information on how to pack for a trip in the Gobi, what to expect, and all the cool attractions you will see along the way. All I can say is that it will be one of the most unforgettable travelling experience you will ever have and it is important that you start planning it the right way.
Mongolia Itinerary Map
Why Go To Mongolia?
Mongolia is not a popular destination among backpackers compare to places like Thailand or Indonesia because of how expensive it is to fly there and most backpackers don't want to go out of their ways, but it is definitely not because of the lack of beautiful places for them to discover. The benefit from this is that it leaves the country and its nature intact for the rest of us adventurers who don't like to follow the herd to enjoy.
What Mongolia is well known is its varieties of the landscape from steppes, valleys, mountains to deserts. In the Gobi desert, we were able to see a wide range of different landscape like the rainy valleys of Yol, the green rolling hills of Khogno Tarna, and the desolate rock formation of the Flaming Cliffs all in one trip. It was one of the most diverse deserts I have ever witnessed. Not to mention, the century-old nomadic lifestyle they perfected over the years, the mysterious culture of shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism and you will get to experience all of that in the Gobi desert. Mongolia is truly one of its kind.
When to go to Mongolia
The best time to visit is in the summer from June to August. If you can, try to align your visit with their annual Nadaam celebration. The Nadaam celebration is when the whole country erupts with sports competitions from archery to wrestlings and it happens on the 11th of July every year. Mongolia is most active during this time.
One word of warning, stay as far from Mongolia as possible during winter because the temperature can get below -40°C!
How to Get to Mongolia
The best way to get here is to fly into Ulaanbator. There are only a few flights flying into Mongolia and most of which, will either go through Hong Kong, China or Kazakhstan. I would recommend you browse through Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight from where you live to Ulaanbator that best fit your itinerary.
If you are looking for a travel insurance to go along with your trip to Mongolia, I would recommend WorldNomads.com, which is what I use to look for a travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure. They have a simple and flexible search system that allowed me to find the right insurance for the right amount of time at an affordable price in seconds. If you need travel insurance, give WorldNomads.com a try.
Planning a Trip in Mongolia
So you want to start doing some research on the Gobi tour? The best way to look for a tour is to do it when you are in Ulaanbator. The tour you booked from abroad is almost always more expensive then when you book it in Ulaanbator so if you want to get a good deal, don't bother booking it before hand.
I went with the tour organized with the Sun Path Guesthouse. They are extremely reliable and professional. The guide was well-informed and speak excellent English while all the vehicles and gears they provided were reliable and sufficient to make my life quite comfortable. Included in the price was unlimited drinking water, 3 meals per day, transportation, unlimited snacks and sleeping bags provided.
Doljmaa, the owner of the guesthouse, speaks perfect English and she can provide you with any information you need about Mongolia. I booked the tour with her the day before and she was able to put me in one of the ongoing tour the next day by having the her husband drove me all the way to the meetup point 4 hours away from Ulaanbator. I have no idea how she managed all the logistic nightmares while catering to all the customers' needs but she is really good at it and she will find a way for you to have the best trip of your life in Mongolia.
For a 7 days Gobi desert tour visiting Yol Valley, Khongor sand dunes, Flaming cliffs, Bayanzag, horseback riding, staying with nomad families, the Terelj National Park and visiting the Genghis Khan statue, I paid 420 USD.
It may seem expensive but considering I had the next 7 days paid off for me and I didn't have to spend a dime during the week, I think it was reasonable.
Quick Notes about the tours:
- You will be staying in a ger with the nomad families everyday in the middle of nowhere so don't expect to have access to power outlets, showers, and Internet.
- The tour I took stopped at a proper restaurant with power outlets every 2 - 3 days so you can also charge your stuff there but don't rely on them too much.
- Seven days in the desert, we only had access to warm shower once so don't expect your hygiene to be at their best all the time. Plus, no one in the tour will care at that point.
What to Pack to Mongolia
If you go with the Sunpath Guesthouse's tours, your backpack will be much lighter since water, sleeping bags, and food are all provided. What you have to pack yourself are:
- Clothes for the whole trip: Pack some layers (1 fleece jacket and outer shell jacket) as well since the desert can get real cold sometimes.
- Snacks for the ride: Keep in mind that every day you will be riding the jeep for at least 5 hours to prepare your food intake accordingly.
- Toilet paper: This is very important because, in the Gobi desert, a proper toilet is a luxury and you will most likely be shitting in holes for the rest of the trip so prepare your own toilet papers!
- Sunscreen: because you are in a god damn desert!
- Headlamps: because you do NOT want to tip a cow when you want to go to the outdoor toilet at night!
- Power Bank: I have a 20,000 mA power bank to keep all my electronics charged up and ready to go every morning. Even though they usually stop at a proper restaurant with power outlets every 2 days, you bet there will be a lot of people trying to charge their stuff as well so it's better to have a backup.
- Camera: to capture the best landscape you will ever see!
- Wet wipes: because that is the next best thing from actually showering.
- Books and Music: Or any past time activities you would like to do because you will be on the jeep most of your days.
Where to Stay in Mongolia
Sunpath Guesthouse - 7 USD/night (Excellent hostel with the most kind owner ever. She can help you organize your trip in Mongolia and organize a tour in the Gobi and else where in Mongolia. She is like a one stop shop.)
As mentioned before, you will be spending your time in a ger with the nomad families so your version of basic needs and theirs may not coincide. That said, what they provide in the ger is more than enough to make your trip comfortable and fun. The sleeping bags are in good condition and extra blankets are provided when required. But there is no internet access and no power outlets whatsoever so.. talk to each other!
Also, brace yourself for the shittiest toilet you will ever see. Prepare for a long drop hole with broken wood between you and your (shitty) demise, located a million miles away from your ger (not really but it felt like it sometimes!). The plus side is that you are guaranteed to have the best view ever for a toilet!
This place is cheaper than most countries but not dirt cheap. Expect to pay around 30 - 50 USD per day per person including accommodation and food.
Keep in mind that this is just a suggested daily budget based on my style of traveling, which is leaning more toward the budget side of things. If you want to stick to this budget, expect to sleep in dorms, eat out only a few times, and be comfortable using the cheapest and most convenient way of transportation, which often times involves walking.
One Week Itinerary in Mongolia
Ulaanbator (1 day)
Ulaanbator is a great city to learn about the modern Mongolian culture. First off, go check out the Sukhbaatar Square and all the museums around the area to learn more about the country. On a Sunday evening, you maybe able to see some concerts or cultural events happening in the square. I was there when they held a break dance battle. Who would have thought I would be seeing that in Mongolia!
Go into the national museum and you will learn that there was once a Mongolian cosmonaut that went to space! I never knew that before! You will also see how big the actual Mongolian empire was.
Once you are done with the museums, hail a cab, and by that I mean hail at every car on the road and don't hesitate to get on the car that stops for you because that is how taxi works in Ulaanbator. Any car is a taxi and they will charge you according to the kilometers on the car's dashboard. Bizarre right? But it works quite efficiently!
After you get a cab, head over to the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan in the south to get a glimpse of what the Tibetan religion is like.
After you walked around the palace, grab another taxi outside and head south to the Zaisan Monument and climb to the top.
The Zaisan Monument is my favorite spot in Ulaanbator. The soviet-era monument depicted a beautiful illustration of the camaraderie between soldiers who fought in wars. The monument is located on top of a mountain which gives you the best view of all Ulaanbator.
The colorful illustration and the concrete structure really shows the aesthetics of the people of Mongolia during the soviet era.
From behind the monument, you can also see the mountains that surrounded Ulaanbator protecting it from invaders for many centuries.
If you are looking for a great night out with the locals, head over to the LUX club around midnight and party your way through the city until the morning.
Yol Valley (1 day)
The first stop for the 7-day Gobi desert tour is the Yol Valley. Prepare to get really cold and wet hiking this bad boy.
The valley is located and structured in a way that ice blocks can still be seen intact deep in the valley. This is the kind of place I did not expect to see in a desert.
It should take you around an hour walking through the beautiful green valley until you will have to walk on ice allowing you to explore all the ice tunnels and streams up close.
Khongor Sand Dunes (1 day)
It takes around 8 hours to get from Yol Valley to the sand dunes and once you arrive, you can take a camel for a ride around the desert and get familiar with the land.
In the evening, right before sunset, head over to the sand dunes and hike up to the top to watch the sunset. This was one of the most surreal experience from the entire trip, hands down.
As the sun dipped further on the horizon, you will witness the sand dunes turning gold while the sky turned purple.
The sand dunes may seem small from afar but trust me, it was a bitch to climb up it. Walking on the beach is difficult enough but now imagine the beach on a freaking mountain and you have to climb the sand up.
But the view was totally worth the sweat!
It is also quite rewarding to run down the sand dunes.
The Flaming Cliffs (1 day)
The Flaming Cliffs has found its popularity due to the important fossil discovery here when the American palaeontologist discovered the first dinosaur eggs.
Other fossils were found here as well like the specimens of Velociraptor and eutherian mammals.
The sandstone cliffs will turn bright orange when the sun is setting, hence the name, the Flaming Cliffs.
When you are back at the ger, go for a walk to one of the few green area in the desert located on the cliff nearby the ger and go enjoy the sunset from up there.
At night wake up around 4 AM while the moon is setting and you will greeted with the glimpse of the Milky Way for a while until the sun comes up at 5 AM.
The Saikhan Ruin (1 day)
The Saikhan ruin was once a grand buddhist temple until the Soviet came and turned it to ashes and forcing all the monks to forget their religion and believe in the states only.
Behind the temple is a small hill you can climb to get the view of the landscape around the temple.
In the evening, go back to the ger and participate in the nomad family's activities like helping them milk their goats etc. This girl you see above was a bad ass by the way, wrestling with goats like a real champ.
Kharkorin (1 day)
Kharkorin was once the capital of the Mongol Empire before it falls and what was left was the beautiful temple complex with a massive wall surrounding it. Spend some time and talk to the guide to learn more about how important this religious site was back in the days.
There was a glimpse of Tibetan style architecture in some of the temple's building such as the one shown above.
The iconic wall of Kharkorin was built after the death of Genghis Khan to protect his city from invaders.
Khogno Tarna National Park (1 day)
After traveling in the desolate desert of the Gobi for a few days, a little green hills and rocky mountains was a welcomed change. The Khogno Tarna park is filled with stunning rocky mountains that begs you to climb and green rolling hills as far as the eyes can see.
This is one of my favorite place in Mongolia. You can really see how vast Mongolia is from one of the mountain peaks here.
Go on a horse and ride around the park like Genghis Khan and enjoy the sunset while galloping into the Land of the Blue Sky. I actually did imagined myself that when I was riding a horse in Mongolia.
Terelj national park (1 day)
The Terelj national park is a change of pace from living in a ger with the minimum basic needs to staying in a nice ger converted into a hotel.
Not just that but since the park is so close to Ulaanbator, it attracts many locals which made the place seems a little too crowded for my liking. I personally prefer living in nature before but a little comfort was good too.
Hike up to one of the temple on the side of the cliff to get the view of the whole park.
Also, if you like rock climbing, go and climb the iconic turtle rock. We didn't do that because it was pouring all day that day.
Last but not least, drop by at this massive Genghis Khan statue and go up on his horse and to the lookout point to see the beautiful landscape of Mongolia before you go back to Ulaanbator.
Fun fact: The statue is the tallest man-on-a-horse statue in the world, 40 metres from the ground up.
And there you have it, all the information you need to make your one week trip in the Gobi desert amazing. What do you think about the itinerary? Do you have any suggestion? Do let me know if I miss anything in the comments below.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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