Gobi Desert Travel Guide

Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Introduction

If you truly want to disconnect from the world and reconnect with nature, this is the place to do it. There are not many places that still exist on Earth that compare to the Gobi Desert’s vast remoteness. The word ‘Gobi’ means ‘large and dry’ or ‘waterless place’ in native Mongolian. This famous desert lives up to its name in more ways than one. If you dare to travel to this remote corner of the globe be prepared – the climate and conditions are rough, and even seasoned travellers struggle in this environment. As difficult as it may seem, the Gobi Desert is extremely rewarding, offering incredible sandy views, brilliant blue skies, and wonderful people. The Gobi Desert nomads are among some of the most resilient and independent people in the world, and when you meet them, you’ll never want to leave.

This vast desert is a harsh, raw and barren place. Famous for its soaring sand dunes, rocky landscapes and resilient people, visiting the Gobi is truly a once in a lifetime experience. The desert is a vast and arid region, which spans from the south of Mongolia to the northern reaches of China. This normally inhospitable landscape is actually known for its rare and unique animals, including black-tailed gazelles, marbled polecats, wild Bactrian camels, Mongolian wild ass and sand plovers. The area is also occasionally visited by snow leopards, brown bears, and wolves.

The desert is a sprawling patchwork of desert basins and mountain ranges. High winds pummel through this coarse landscape. Mongolians claim that when the winds whip across the dunes, that they’re singing to the people. The brilliantly star spangled night skies, silent remoteness and genuine people make the Gobi Desert a ‘must-see’ location.

History and Geography

The fifth largest desert in the world, the Gobi was described by one of the first Western explorers many years ago as “a waterless, treeless region that burns your skin in the summer and freezes you to the bone in winter”. Charming description! Temperatures do vary dramatically in Summer and Winter, ranging from -40C to 45C. So be prepared – bring your Winter coat and the sunscreen!

The Gobi gained international attention after dinosaur bones were discovered at the ‘Flaming Cliffs’. It was the first country to find fossilised dinosaur eggs, a fact that renders much pride for the Mongolian people.

Historically, the Gobi Desert played a significant role in the advancement of the great Mongol Empire, the largest continuous empire in history. With the notorious Genghis Khan at the reigns, the empire ruled the world in the 13th and 14th centuries.  It also contains some major sites along the Silk Road, where travellers would stop to rest along the famous route. The famous Italian explorer documented his journey through the Gobi, in his book ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’.

This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.

Marco Polo describing the hardships
of crossing the Gobi Desert in the 13th century

Spanning an area of over 500,000 square miles, the Gobi Desert is home to many nomadic families. The inhabitants are resourceful, resilient and independent. Living in their traditional Mongolian ‘gers’, the people who live here are vastly different to any other region in Mongolia, let alone the world. A major source of income for many families has become the tourism industry, utilising the native camels to run guided tours of the landscapes and sand dunes.

The nomads who live in this area rely on the few natural elements the Gobi has to offer to sustain them. They truly live a rugged existence, living off the land and relying on Mother Nature to provide. Their lives are admirably simple. They have minimal possessions and only take from the land and the animals what they need, when they need it. Close to a million nomads live this lifestyle in the Mongolian wilderness.

The vastness of the Gobi Desert does surprise many travellers, as the distances are significant. You may find yourself driving for hours and hours to travel between towns, or between your destinations each night. Do not let this deter you from a Gobi Desert adventure! The scenery on your drive is absolutely breath-taking, and people you will meet are totally worth it, and let’s face it, telling your mates that you slept out in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia will gain you total travel cred.

Top 5 Things to See and Do in the Gobi

  1. Khongor Sand Dunes

These sand dunes soar up into the brilliant sky, in the heart of the Gobi Desert. The landscape is seemingly vast and flat, until out of nowhere the great dunes appear. You will have the opportunity the scale one of the sand dunes, trudging the 100m high peaks for breath-taking views over the desert. Bring plenty of water and take off your shoes, as you’ll be challenged by the climb. You can then descend the dune, and many choose to run down its side, gaining momentum and tumbling as you run.

  1. The Flaming Cliffs

This area is known as Bayanza, and was given the nickname ‘The Flaming Cliffs’ after the region was excavated in the search for dinosaur eggs. It is world renowned for the first discovery of dinosaur eggs in 1922, and the area was excavated significantly, forming cliff-like structures. The blazing orange cliffs that appear out of nowhere in the stark desert create vivid and unique photos. Keep your eyes on the ground – you may just discover a fossil or two yourself!

  1. Ride a camel

The quintessential Mongolian experience, you can’t miss this one. These one-of-a-kind Bactrian camels, with their iconic two humps, are available throughout the Gobi, and you can ride one as a part of your tour. You will be taken along the bottom of the immense sand dunes, and meander through the desert on these placid creatures.

  1. Trek through the Gurvansaikhan National Park

A stopover in this stunning national park is a must on your adventure through the Gobi Desert. The vast, stark and barren land break momentarily, presenting a rocky and mountainous landscape, filled with green grass in the warmer months. Jump out of the van to discover hidden treks through the mountains, that weave a curl their way through the landscape. Take a moment to soak up this incredible scenery, that perfecting contrasts the bright blue sky.

  1. Traditional Gobi Desert nomadic family

The people in this region are truly resourceful. They make their livelihoods from the desert, and take only what they need to survive. They are truly unique and resilient. While staying with them, you will learn about their lifestyles, and learn to understand how they lie the way they do. You’ll sample the food they make, stay overnight in a traditional ger, and grow to understand the customs and values that make this culture so special. If you’re lucky, the family will have prepared some camel milk tea for you to sample. The milk is quite sweet, but absolutely delicious.

What To Pack

  • Wet wipes (there are no showers – trust us, you’ll need them!)
  • A good quality hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • A sleeping bag (not wise to use the ones provided – not sure where they’ve been)
  • Toilet paper (no toilet paper in the drop toilets – BYO my friend)
  • Headlamp/flashlight (did we mention that the toilet is about 100m away from the gers? Just imagine in the middle of the night…)
  • A deck of cards (to pass the time at night. A great way to meet people and interact with your new tour friends)

Start planning

We hope you enjoyed our guide to the Gobi Desert. Definitely check out our Gobi Desert Odyssey tour, 8 nights of adventure, nature, inspiration and the vastness of Gobi Desert. It certainly is a rough and raw place, but with a little help, a few tips and some fun travel partners, you’ll make it through alive. With thousands of years of history, stunning landscapes, and extremely kind and genuine people, you will never forget your adventure in the vast remoteness that is, the Gobi Desert.

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