To the Gobi! Our review of Golden Gobi Tours in Ulaanbaatar

Planning for a trip to Mongolia? You’ll want to book a tour, as it’s tough to get around the country on your own. We went with Golden Gobi Hostel and Tours – here’s our Golden Gobi review!

Having done no research on Mongolia (of course), we hopped on our 30 hour train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. When we arrived, the tour manager from Golden Gobi hostel, where we were staying, was there to meet us – and in an old Soviet army truck no less! Off to a good start already.

Our solid Soviet army truck for touring Mongolia!
Our (very) solid truck – bounced along for 5 days with only one breakdown!

We had about 7 days in Mongolia and were planning on booking a tour once we got there. But given our time constraint, we were a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to find one on short notice that matched our dates. But, lucky for us, that turned out to be no problem at all.

Golden Gobi seemed to have lots of tours leaving for various parts of Mongolia (Gobi, Central, Western, etc) every few days, and the tour manager sat down with us and showed us the options. Amazingly, they had a 5 day tour to the Gobi desert leaving on exactly the dates that we wanted — too easy. With our tour booked within an hour of arriving, we could enjoy Ulaanbaatar for a couple of days!

On the day of our tour, we met the other 3 people we’d be traveling with (tours seem to be a maximum of 6 people, but we only had 5), and all piled into our truck. Since we were on a short 5 day tour, we had to make the long, 650km drive from Ulaanbaatar south to the Gobi on the first day – about 10 hours. Apart from some interrupting sheep and goats crossing the road, we had nice drive watching the landscape change from the rolling green hills around Ulaanbaatar to the arid scrub further south.

Our trusty Soviet truck somewhere in south-central Mongolia
Our trusty Soviet truck somewhere in Mongolia

Our first destination was the Yolyn Am canyon in the Gobi. This small but quite nice canyon is part of a Mongolian national park, and seemed to be popular with Mongolian families hiking, riding horses, and camping. We trekked (in the rain) to the end of the canyon, where there was still some ice from the previous winter (in mid-July!), and then headed back to our truck. We set up camp in a field nearby – there were some Mongolian families camping as well, all spaced out maybe a mile apart. Our guide cooked a tasty noodle soup for dinner in the back of the truck, we set up our tents (2 people per tent), and went to sleep.

One of the most unique parts about any trip through Mongolia is the total silence. For people like us who live in cities, or even outside of them in the US, there’s always some noise, whether cars, construction, talking, or airplanes overhead. If you stand still in the Gobi, there’s none of that, and it’s great.

The next morning we had breakfast (again cooked on stoves in the back of the truck), and drove a few bouncy hours to a family’s ger camp near the Khongoryn Els (“singing sands”), a strip of sand dunes almost 200km long and up to 200m high.

Ger camp near the singing sands (with a thunderstorm in the background!)

The five of us shared a ger, which is basically just like a hostel dorm except in a much cooler building. The family had about 20 camels, which we rode – a slow and not very comfortable experience! We were sad to see that the camels had their legs tied to their nose and to the ground, which made some of them unable to stand up!

That evening we drove to the sand dunes and hiked 200m up to the top, which is surprisingly difficult as every time you step you slide backwards in the sand! We were also dragging along sleds (yes, like for snow), which would come in handy on the way down. The climb was very worth it – from the top we had a view out over the whole chain of sand dunes, as well as out over the Gobi desert in front of them. We found the steepest part of the dune, and put our sleds to use – it took 30 minutes to climb up, but maybe 30 seconds to sled down!

Singing sands - a steep 200m climb!
Steep singing sand dunes!

The next day we drove to the flaming cliffs, strange rock formation in the otherwise featureless desert. Sadly that night the weather was a bit nasty – cold and rainy, bad for hiking the cliffs. So we decided to play card games for the evening and get up at 4am to do the hike instead. Turns out, that was a great decision. When we left the next morning, the horizon was just starting to glow, and the sun was rising as we got to the cliffs 30 minutes later.

Flaming cliffs at sunrise
Flaming cliffs at sunrise

After hiking around the cliffs for a few hours, we got back to our ger, had breakfast, and started a long drive to the sacred mountain, which is relatively close to Ulaanbaatar. We got there in the evening, set up camp (accompanied by a friendly stray dog), and played some Mongolian card games.

At some point, a motorbike pulled up with an old, very drunk Mongolian man, who had been looking for his horses and seemed quite amused to find tourists playing cards in the Mongolian countryside. He joined our game for a few rounds, then got back on his bike and rode off to his ger!

Sadly, that was our last day – after camping by the mountain, we drove back to Ulaanbaatar in the morning. We loved our short trip, and now want to go back and do one of the 20 or 30 day tours that lots of people at the hostel seemed to be doing. While obviously we have no experience with other tour operators in Mongolia, we had a great experience with Golden Gobi and would strongly recommend them if you’re thinking of heading to the Gobi or elsewhere in Mongolia!

There’s not much information about these trips, so we have a few tips that we would have liked to know beforehand below.

What to bring on a Golden Gobi tour

While Golden Gobi provides the basics (tent, sleeping bag, 3 meals a day), you’ll want to bring some supplies. Here’s what we’d recommend:

  • Toilet paper (don’t be without it anywhere in Mongolia).
  • Soap or hand sanitizer (there’s none available almost anywhere). Don’t bother with shampoo, you won’t be showering.
  • Some food – we brought lots of peanuts and museli, easy to eat in a bouncy car.
  • Water – you’ll only get about 1L/day on the tour. We brought an additional 10L or so, and we bought more along the way. We usually stopped at a market once per day, so you’ll probably be able to buy more water. But we’d suggest bringing a bunch just in case.
  • Battery pack for your phone – this might come in handy on longer trips, but we were able to recharge our phones in the truck while driving.
  • Small flashlight or headlamp – makes finding your way to the drop toilet easier at night, and you won’t risk dropping your phone in the …hole.
  • Jacket – it gets cold in the desert at night!

Have you been to Mongolia? Let us know!

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