From Terelj National Park to the depths of the Gobi desert – what to expect from a Gobi desert van tour in the winter
I was so excited to be out in the Mongolian countryside at last. I’d just experienced five days in Ulaanbaatar, a city on virtual lockdown due to government coronovirus precautions. So far there had been no cases in Mongolia (this was to change around ten days later) and the government was working hard to keep it that way. Have a look here at how I passed five days sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar when nothing was open and the streets were empty!
I’d roped in two guys I met at my hostel and we were lucky enough to find a tour operator that had special permission to leave Ulaanbaatar, despite travel restrictions in place across Mongolia. A Gobi desert tour was high on my must-see list and the easiest way to maximise my time there was on a tour.
Seven day Gobi desert tour
Mongolian tour agencies all offer a similar tour itinerary in the Gobi desert, with up to eight hours of driving per day. It’s a massive area to cover with the majority off-road on hardpacked jeep trails. Usually a seven day itinerary is enough to see the major sights and to get fed up of being in the van!
It’s definitely possible to see some of the Gobi independently. For example, taking a nine hour bus ride to Dalanzadgad, the largest town in the south of the Gobi and then negotiating with taxi drivers to get rides out to local sights, with waiting times. However this way, you’d still only see a fraction of the Gobi compared to being on a tour.
So I decided to swallow my fears of being on a multi-day tour, something I’ve never done before, cough up the dollars and finally get out of Ulaanbaatar! And I’m glad I did, because it truly was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had.
Day one – Terelj National Park, the giant Genghis Khan statue and a pony ride
Connected to Ulaanbaatar by a paved road, some 66km away lies the protected zone of Terelj National Park. Only a small fraction of the park is developed for tourists, which is home to brown bears and over 250 species of birds.
After several police checkpoints, involving a temperature check each time to ensure no-one had a fever, we arrived at the huge 40m tall, stainless steel, Genghis Khan statue that looks over the surrounding countryside and Tuul river. Of course it was shut, so we couldn’t climb to the horse’s head through the interior of the statue nor see the world’s largest giant boot that lives inside.
Just before entering Terelj we stopped at an ovoo, a sacred rock pile, to do the customary three circles and make an offering, before descending a very snowy road into the valley. We all piled out of the van to marvel at Turtle Rock, actually quite impressive, and have a quick play in the snow. Then, excitingly it was time for lunch in an actual ger!
It was my first time inside a real Mongolian ger and Bobby our guide explained ger etiquette to us. Firstly, never step on the door frame as you enter as this is disrespectful to the ger spirits. Upon entering always go left, as this is the section for guests. Family always sit on the right. In the centre of the ger are two supporting pillars and the fireplace between them. This is a sacred area and you should never walk between them or pass anything to someone through them.
A few kilometres away we found our homestay for the night. Many nomad families have a guest ger, which is rented out to tourists. Our guide always cooked for us and brought us meals in our ger, explaining that the ger family have meagre supplies. They usually live on meat in the winter, from a cow and sheep slaughtered in the autumn and frozen, then dairy products in the summer.
The eldest son of our nomad host family saddled up some sturdy looking Mongolian ponies and we all bundled up warmly for an hour’s ride across the steppes. I was grateful for the reindeer fur boots the family lent me and my long blue deel, a traditional Mongolian coat that the your agency had lent each of us for the tour.
Day two – snowdrifts, wild gazelles and the surreal Rocky Mountain
Our little wood fire had kept toasty overnight and at dawn one of the family came in and loaded it up with more fuel. At 8.30am when Bobby came in with eggs and toast we were all dressed and excited to start the day.
It was to be a long day of driving Bobby warned us, to reach the Rocky Mountain at Baga Gazryn Chuluu by sunset. We’d also be driving through snowdrifts, with low visibility slowing us down. Ulzii, our ever-smiling driver, would have his work cut out.
We followed a paved road for most of the morning, with Bobby and Ulzii hopping out a few times to check the height of the snow. The boys and I were huddled in the back of the van under our deels, chilly but glued to the window watching the scenery pass by. Most of the time it was just never-changing grass plains covered in snow but now and again a herd of wild gazelles would skitter away or a group of camels would stare balefully at us from the roadside.
Lunch was in a roadside diner and we were the only customers. It was meat dumplings, known as buuz, for the boys and fried tsuivan noodles for me, the veggie. Despite Mongolians being unable to comprehend a meal without meat, I didn’t have the same meal twice during the whole trip.
After lunch we were well and truly off road trundling along a bumpy jeep track at breakneck speeds. Luckily the snow storm had passed and we arrived safely at the Rocky Mountain after a couple of hours. We just had time for a ramble around the rocks and to explore the ruins of an old temple, before arriving at our homestay around sunset.
We were immediately ushered into the family ger for the traditional visitors welcome. Milk tea is served in small ceramic bowls, which you accept with both hands and it’s respectful to take a sip immediately before setting it down. Being the Lunar New Year period, every family we stayed with also offered their plate of holiday biscuits, decorated with sweets and dried curd shapes.
We were also honoured by receiving a taste of airag, the fermented mare’s milk that is an important, lightly alcoholic drink in Mongolia. Traditionally the milk is filtered through a cloth, poured into a leather sack and suspended next to the entrance of the yurt to be stirred by each visitor. Dried yeast and constant churning or stirring ferments the milk.
Our host poured a large silver bowl full of airag which our guide drank straight down. Each family has a ceremonial silver bowl, which the airag is usually served in. It was refilled and offered next to me. It’s always rude to refuse anything offered to you in a ger, so I took a token couple of sips then passed it on. It tasted like vinegary milk, not entirely unpleasant, but after an afternoon of jolting around in the back of the van I wasn’t risking drinking anymore!
Day three – the White Stupa cliffs and vodka shots with our nomad host family
It was another long day of driving. Off-road to start with for a couple of hours, until the town of Delgertsogt appeared dramatically before us over the brow of a hill. We stopped briefly for petrol then got back on the paved main road before halting again at a busy roadside diner for lunch.
It was the first day of no travel restrictions and a lot of people were back on the move. I had an enormous plate of fried vegetable rice that Bobby had to order specially for me – there were no veggie options on the menu!
After lunch we arrived at the White Stupa or Tsagaan Suvarga. The 400m long whitesand cliffs appeared on the horizon before us and soon we were parked on top exploring the strange rock formations of this ancient seabed. A stupa is a triangular or dome shaped burial mound in Buddhism, usually painted white. It is said that from a distance the cliffs resemble stupas – I’m not sure I could see this but I enjoyed being out of the van for a while!
A short drive took us to our third homestay of the trip where we had the customary milk tea welcome. Then, our hostess brought out a tray of meat fried dumplings and a plate of lamb pieces, complete with the fat from a lamb’s tail, apparently super good for you as it contains no cholesterol. I contented myself with another biscuit from the Lunar New Year pile, while the others dug in.
Next our hostess poured us each a shot of vodka and for some reason both myself and Ulzii also received a glass of chocolate wine. One more round of vodka shots and we stumbled off to move into our ger for the night, then I hurried up a nearby hill to watch my first Gobi desert sunset.
Day four – a shower at the town public baths and gawping at Mukhart Shivery ice waterfall
First stop around mid-morning was Dalanzadgad public baths for our only shower of the week. They are present in most Mongolian towns as the ger communities don’t have running water. It was really nice inside with individual shower pods and private changing areas.
After a quick lunch at a busy town restaurant, we were off to an ice waterfall in the heart of the Gurvan Saikhan National Park, which at 27,000 square kilometres is the largest national park in Mongolia.
We left Ulzii guarding the van and trekked the kilometre or so up to the waterfall at Mukhart Shivery. Before long we were half-skating along on a bed of ice as the gorge narrowed then dead-ended at a spectacular ice ‘waterfall’.
I found it pretty impressive, almost as cool as frozen Lake Baikal in Russia. Read here about our great day at the world’s deepest lake, during our Trans Mongolia train journey from St Petersburg to Ulaanbaatar.
If that wasn’t enough excitement for the day we still had the Flaming Cliffs to see, with a mad dash cross-country to get there by sunset when they light up in shades of red. The steppes here were a warren of jeep tracks and more than once we started following one track only for Ulzii to change his mind and veer into a wild circle to follow a different one instead. Camels, horses, gazelles and sheep scattered from our path as we raced across the desert.
The Flaming Cliffs were named by an American adventurer who not only discovered the world’s first dinosaur eggs here in the 1920s but also inspired the creation of Indiana Jones. Life in the Gobi in the Cretaceous period must have been awesome – one of the famous fossils, discovered here in the 1970s, is of a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor locked in battle. They were possibly entombed for eternity due to a massive sandstorm.
Day five – climbing Khongoryn sand dunes and meeting my first Bactrian two humped camel
Today was our shortest driving day. By 12.30 we’d reached our new ger amidst the Khongoryn Els sand dunes and were drinking milk tea with our host. This was the poshest ger we’d stayed in so far and was actually more of a small tourist camp, although we were the only guests.
The family were currently living in their winter camp on the southern side of the sand dunes and the father had come over especially to open up for us. He asked Bobby ‘where did you find these rare tourists?’, explaining that he hadn’t had any guests for a while and was quite surprised to see us.
This was to be our camel riding afternoon, however unfortunately our host had no idea where his camels were. Nomads let their animals roam free in the winters, riding out in spring to find them and herd them closer to home for summer milking. A few phone calls later though and another nomad family had been located who had clear sight of their camels and we arranged to meet them after lunch.
I had time for a wander on my own and found a striking frozen river running in front of the sand dunes which I followed for a kilometre or two, relishing being alone for the first time in days.
Around two-thirds of the 260,000 camels in Mongolia are found in the Gobi (who counts them I wonder?!). Mongolian camels are two humped, Bactrian camels, different to the single humped dromedary camel found in the west. I enjoyed the one hour camel ride across the steppes but was sad to realise today should have been the Gobi Bactrian Camel Festival that I’d organised my original trip around. Sadly both this and the Golden Eagle festival outside Ulaanbaatar were cancelled due to government coronovirus containment regulations.
Our last activity of the day was an energetic hike to the top of the sand dunes. A haze had now descended and there was no dramatic sunset tonight but the views were breathtaking from the top nonetheless. The dunes are over 100km long, up to 12km wide and around 300m high.
Day six – hiking Yol Am ice canyon, probably one of the coolest hikes I’ve ever done
Sadly this was our last proper day on the tour. I wasn’t counting tomorrow which Bobby told us would be around ten hours of straight driving.
Excitingly though we’d had a light snow overnight and the sand dunes were topped with white. I was up in time for sunrise and it was actually warm enough to stay outside and watch it (firmly bundled up in several layers of course).
By 9am we were off, following the line of sand dunes east. As we drove the rising sun started to melt the snow on the dunes, creating beautiful patterns of orange, gold and white.
At a desert village, a strange mix of concrete buildings and gers inside a fenced square compound, we had lunch. Bobby had to call the number posted outside the restaurant for the owner to come over and open up. She arrived clutching supplies from the corner grocery shop. My lunch was the most interesting so far, a third fried vegetables, a third pickled vegetables from a jar and a third sliced cucumber. It was delicious though!
From a morning of snow-capped sand dunes to an afternoon of snow-capped black rocky crags! The scenery today was great and I was so excited to get to our final destination of Yol Am, which translates as Vulture’s Mouth and is also known as the Ice Canyon.
We stopped to change the van to four wheel drive before tackling 10km of steep snow covered track. From here we were on foot, hiking through the snow drifts into the ice canyon.
I was far ahead of the others when I noticed peculiar ice pyramids jutting up from the snow. I stopped to admire them and as Bobby caught up I asked what they were caused by. In answer he swept away the snow below his feet to reveal a sheet of ice – we were walking on a frozen river!!
We followed the river for around an hour, having great fun skating, sliding and shrieking whenever the ice cracked and moved under our feet. As we went deeper into the canyon the mountains rose high above our heads blocking out the sunlight. I kept my eyes peeled hoping for a glance of ibex, mountain goat, but they were proving elusive.
Eventually the boys had had enough although I think I could have carried on following the canyon for the full 8 kilometres. Reluctantly I followed them back and we headed back down to our ger camp. It was only 5.30pm so I decided to hike up the hillside for some great views while dinner was cooking. Our last ger and our last meal cooked by the talented Bobby – we were all feeling pretty sad.
Day seven – ten hours drive back to Ulaanbaatar
There’s not much to say about today. We were up and out by 7am on the road to Ulaanbaatar. Apart from a quick lunch stop at a surprisingly posh restaurant in Mandalgovi, we were driving continuously until we reached the city at 7.30pm. We said our goodbyes then trudged into our hostel a bit shell shocked to be back in civilisation.
I’m definitely placing this into my top ten travel experiences. Although a guided tour isn’t really my style and the cost represented a usual two week travel budget, I’m still glad I chose to do it. Staying with nomads, being the only tourists around and every sight we stopped at being empty apart from us was amazing. Mongolia in winter is a pretty special place.