Days 19-20: Hitchhike to the Gobi

While we were in Ulaanbaatar, Javkhlan showed Felix and me some photos of his trip to the Khongor Sand Dunes in the Gobi. These dunes are one of Mongolia’s biggest attractions, so they weren’t originally on our “to-do” list, but after seeing such beautiful pictures, we decided that it would be worth the trip.

The problem with these dunes was that you need a 4WD to get to them, and this, of course, can get quite expensive. People usually hire a car with a driver for $60-100 per day, but our budget was about $10 per day.

We thought about hitchhiking from Dalanzadgad (the city just outside of the desert) to the dunes, but we were worried about getting stuck for a long period of time in the cold (like -20°) and running out of water. The only roads we saw on the maps were dirt roads and we thought that barely any people would be on them in November.

So for safety reasons, we decided to give in and rent a vehicle + driver (renting just the vehicle seemed difficult and just as expensive, if even possible).

The next thing we had in mind was to find other travelers to split the cost of the vehicle. We posted about this on the Mongolian travel forum on Facebook, but nobody replied except for a few Mongolians that wanted to sell us tours. One of these guys, whose name was Baatar, offered us a fair price and accommodation in Dalanzadgad for only $4/night.

We agreed on the accommodation (which was a yurt) and wrote down his phone number, but didn’t make any plans with him in regards to the tour. We decided to first go down to Dalanzadgad to see if we can find more travelers there, and see if we can find a better deal from there.

We left Ulaanbaatar a little bit late and didn’t start hitchhiking until about 2pm. We weren’t exactly sure how to hitch from the city without people asking us for money (because anyone with a car in Ulaanbaatar can morph into a cab driver at any given moment), so we took the public bus as far out of the city as we could, and got off by the airport. From there, we walked down the road going south, and stopped a couple of cars that quickly morphed into cabs. Eventually, we paid one of these cabs to drive us a couple more kilometers out of the city.

It was already getting late so I was sure that we wouldn’t even get halfway to the Gobi that day, but since we had a tent and winter camping gear, it wasn’t a big deal for us to sleep anywhere, whether in the desert or on the side of the highway.

Little did we know, we got two rides straight away. One took us an hour in the right direction, the other one brought us to the doorstep of the Gobi :D

The second ride was another one of those super lucky events- a man in a brand new Landcruiser stopped and offered us a lift. This man was driving at about 200 km/hr., and planned on going to Tsogt-Ovoo, which was 460km in the right direction and just 120km from where we were hoping to get to in two days of hitchhiking (Dalanzadgad).

This man knew a tiny bit of English and was super nice, he even gave us bottled water and candy. It kind of felt like we were his little kids :)

We got off in Tsogt-Ovoo right before sunset. We could have easily caught another lift to Dalanzadgad, but in that case we would have arrived there in the dark. One of the few rules I try to keep when traveling is to not arrive in an unfamiliar city in a poor country in the dark, with all of your stuff. You’re kind of asking for trouble if you do that.

So we looked for a hotel in the tiny village of Tsogt-Ovoo. We walked around in circles for about a half hour before we found the hotel, since it wasn’t so obvious, and then decided to camp when we found out that the cost of the room was $8. Eight dollars was a bit much for our daily budget.

We bought a big bottle of water and walked down the road, away from the village. After a kilometer or so, we took a right onto the flat grassy field and pitched our tent 200 or so meters from the road.

It was another cold, but spectacular starlit night. We cooked dinner, then warmed up under our big puffy sleeping bags. This is what the spot looked like in the morning-

After breakfast and coffee, we had a visitor :). This random little guy drove over to us on his motorcycle, didn’t say a word, just observed us, rolled a cigarette, had a smoke, sat there for a while, and then left when we started packing up our tent. I gave him some of the candy we got from papa driver :).

We walked back onto the road and caught a lift that drove us all the way to Dalanzadgad. There, our mission was to find other travelers and to find out about the cost of renting a vehicle.

We walked around the city for a few hours, didn’t see any tourists. Found out where the Gobi drivers were supposed to hang out, didn’t find any drivers. Went into the tourist information center and found out that their price for a 4WD was higher than Baatar’s. And then eventually, Baatar’s wife found us as we were walking around the city, and brought us back to her yurt! I guess we weren’t too hard to spot since we were like the only white people in the city :). We had no idea she was even looking for us, but she came up to us on the street and showed us the Facebook conversation she was having with Felix. I guess they really didn’t want to let us slip since tourism was so scarce in November…

At that point, we basically caved in and decided to pay Baatar to drive us to the dunes. We agreed on $200 for 3 days in the desert, so it was $100/each. Biggest expense by far in all of Mongolia, but definitely worth it.

We paid for the tour and stocked up on more groceries. Then we spent the night in the yurt and took off for the Gobi in the morning.

It turns out that we (and mapsme) were wrong about some of the dirt roads. There’s actually a paved road and a lot of cars driving between Dalanzadgad and Bayandalai (83km). So if you’re looking for a cheap way to get to the Gobi, I would suggest having a look for a driver in Bayandalai (or even trying to hitch to the desert from there).

The ride to the dunes was pretty amazing. We drove through beautiful fields of nothing, towards sand, small hills and mountain ranges, sprinkled with snow and herds of sheep and camels. We saw some ibex and black-tailed gazelle on the way as well.

The dunes were stunning. I would love to see them in the summertime after a rainstorm, when the grass in front of them is green. Or in the spring, when the Gobi blooms.

Total expenses of Days 19-20 in Mongolia:

$1.00 taxi & bus
$4.00 yurt
$15.00 food (groceries + local eatery that I didn’t mention)
$100.00 4WD to the Gobi
= 120.00

Total expenses so far of 20 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):

$260.00

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