We had barely been in Ulaanbaatar (UB) for 12 hours when we sat down to breakfast with three ladies that said they were going on a Gobi Desert tour that day. They tried to convince us to go with them – the price of the tour is dependent on how many people go, so it’d be a win-win for everyone.
We told them no, we wanted to take things easy that day and we already put down a deposit for another tour.
We knew we wanted to go to the Gobi, but we were originally planning to go to Northern Mongolia first because we knew it would only get colder as the weeks went by in September. BUT we calculated that going on the tour with three other people meant that we would save almost $500 between the two of us…that’s a good chunk of change on our budget!
They seemed like nice people, but spending 7 days straight with anyone can be a bit much, let alone strangers! But there was no guarantee that we would be able to get a group to go on the day we wanted after we came back from Northern Mongolia.
Should we go now and risk it getting really cold up north or stick with our original plan and risk having to fork over the extra $500 later?
They were leaving in a half an hour from when we talked to them. We went back and forth with the decision. Leaving that day for the Gobi seemed crazy! But it did make financial sense. With 20 minutes left before they were leaving, we decided to pull the trigger and join the tour!
I hopped in the shower knowing it would be my last for possibly the full week and we rushed to pack our things. In a matter of minutes we were off on our first Mongolian adventure!
Day 1 – Erdenedalai Village
The first day was a lot of driving…well, really all days were a lot of driving. On bumpy roads. VERY bumpy roads. Outside UB, there are very few paved roads, however the country is working on constructing roads connecting UB with all main towns in each of the 21 provinces.
There are plenty of other dirt roads or paths to follow made from other vehicles, but they go through all sorts of terrain. We traveled by Russian van which can pretty much roll through anything – streams, marshy bogs, sand, even very steep inclines.
Highlights of the day included the market we stopped at just outside the city to stock up on food. We got beer and asked if we could make it cold and our guide, Zola said yes. However, we later found out that it would be a challenge most places we stayed! One thing was for sure, it was always nice and cold in the morning after the temperature drop at night!
We stopped in a ger for lunch and had our first taste of REAL Mongolian food. We tried the noodle soup that came complete with chunks of fat and mare’s milk. We thought this is what we would be eating for the next week, so we were all very relieved when Zola made us a very tasty vegetable soup that night for dinner!
We stayed in a one room house that night, on the floor. The house didn’t have any insulation and our sleeping bags were not all that warm, so we learned quickly how cold it gets at night. After that, we made sure to buy warmer socks for sleeping in!
Day 2 – Bayanzag Saxual Forest
We saw wild camels for the first time on our drive that morning. It was really exciting, especially after seeing a whole lot of nothing for hours. We even hopped out of the van for a photo shoot that probably lasted a good 20 minutes.
It’s funny how you get used to seeing something and it just becomes normal because after that camel sightings weren’t NEARLY as exciting as that first one.
We arrived at Bayanzag in the late afternoon, which is an area where a lot of dinosaur bones have been discovered. The area was discovered by an American named Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s. Allegedly Indiana Jones was patterned after. This guy sounds pretty awesome.
Day 3 – Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs, Khongor Sand Dunes & Camel Ride
Jan and I woke up before sunrise to hike around the forest area. The sunrise was gorgeous – pictures speak for themselves.
We headed to the nearby Flaming Cliffs after breakfast. We saw our first souvenir shop there, but thankfully the vendors weren’t pushy at all. They just had their goods to sell and if you wanted to buy then great. It was quite refreshing compared to a lot of other touristy sites around the world with vendors in your face.
We drove to the Sand Dunes after that, which was quite a sight to see. They are 100 KMs long, 20 KMs wide, and 800 meters high. They are absolutely massive and beautiful.
Shortly after we arrived, we rode a camel to the edge of the sand dunes. Getting on a camel is a bit of a challenge, but thankfully Mongolian camels have two humps so you sit between them. When the camel stands up you lurch forward and then backward as its legs straighten up. My camel was a little fiesty and wouldn’t stop scratching its head on other camels, my leg and other peoples’ legs. Camels are much more uncomfortable to ride than horses since they are so wide. By the end of an hour we were all ready to be off them! But it was an unreal experience to see the dunes up close from high atop a camel.
It was a clear night and a new moon, so the night sky exploded with stars. We could even see the Milky Way galaxy. It was amazing and by far the most stars we have ever seen in our lives. Too bad we couldn’t capture it on film, but no picture could really do it justice anyway!
Day 4 – Sand Dune Climb & Yol Valley (Yolyn Am)
This was my favorite day of the trip. We woke up before daybreak again this morning to climb the sand dunes at sunrise. The views were stunning. It was a really big challenge to get up the sand dunes, but totally worth the effort. It was Pascale’s birthday that day and she celebrated by climbing all the way to the top of the dunes. We were content hiking to the top of one tall mound. We knew we wouldn’t be able to get up and back down before we had to return for breakfast!
We drove to Yol Valley that day and stopped in a canyon for lunch and did a little hike around after eating. We did a bit more driving before a two hour trek through the Valley. We saw waterfalls and wild mountain goats scaling the mountains.
Day 5 – Shower & White Stupa (Tsagaan Suvarga)
Aside from seeing and hiking around on the White Stupa rock formations, the highlight of the day was a shower! We went to a bath house in Dalanzadgad. The shower and changing room was much bigger than we expected. They had hot water and good water pressure – we were in heaven!
The White Stupa was incredible – it felt like we were walking on Mars or some other planet!
Day 6 – Rock Formations
We stopped for the day near other rock formations and did a hike around the hills. It got pretty cold that afternoon, so most of our time was spent playing cards inside the ger. We introduced the game Bullshit to the others and they loved it.
Day 7 – Baga Gazariin Chuluu Ruins & Back to UB
On the way back to UB that day we stopped at the Baga Gazarlin Chuluu ruins. It was one of the thousands of monasteries destroyed in the 1930s during the Stalinist repressions in Mongolia.
After our last long stretch of driving (yay!) we had lunch at Zola and Togoo’s house. It was fun to meet Zola’s parents and see wedding pictures and more pictures of their son.
The reason we went to their house was because our van had a license plate that was prohibited to go into UB that day. UB traffic has become so bad due to the recent influx of cars that they put a law in place that prevents people from driving in the city one weekday a week based on the last number of their license plate. If you are caught driving on a day you aren’t permitted, your license is cut up and suspended for 1-2 years!
So all 7 of us piled in their Rav 4 to return to the city! The other interesting thing we found is that although Mongolians drive on the right side of the road, depending on where they get their cars, their steering wheels could be on either side!
By the end of the trip 7 strangers turned into friends and had plenty of shared memories!