I am writing this here as there is not an option to review tour companies and it's an obvious place to start when looking for tours to the Gobi.
The score of average is for the tour company not the Gobi desert which is a great experience.
Let me start with the reasons why we booked a tour with Ganzo at Travel Gobi Mongolia (TGM). We had only planned to spend 7 days in Mongolia while passing through on the Trans Siberian and given our time was limited I wanted to have a tour booked before we left the UK rather than spend time in Ulaan Baatar trying to piece something together. TGM's website was very informative if a little busy. Ganzo was the first person to respond to us and answered our questions promptly. Although, we did find him a little pushy when it came to paying!
We are backpacking for six months so we were keen to keep the cost down. Looking at the prices of other tour companies, advertised online, TGM's price seemed competitive.
We booked the South Gobi 4D3N budget (backpacker) arrangement. The standard arrangement where you stay in tourist camps rather than with herder families is not available towards the end of September when the main tourist season closes.
We booked our flights between Ulaan Baatar and Dalanzadgad independently with Hunnu Air as this worked out cheaper compared to what TGM were charging. The flight was on time and a very pleasant trip.
We visited Bayan Zag (Flaming Cliffs), the Khongor Sands and Yol Am Valley over the three days. A highlight for us was Khongor Sands, a difficult climb up the dunes but so worth it when you get to the top for sunset. We also just enjoyed travelling across the vast plains (or steppe) with nothing in site. The camel ride at the Khongor Sands was a fun experience but two hours is too long (see if you can bargain for a shorter and cheaper ride).
With this package a horse ride through Yol Am valley is included. This is a bit of a catch 22, the ponies (not horses) don't look very well cared for and are left all day with their front legs tied together but by riding the ponies you are giving money to a family who needs it. We chose not to ride and to walk instead, no mention was made of the money to pay for the pony ride and I'm sure our guide happily pocketed it.
On the backpacker arrangement, you stay with herder families in their traditional gers (yurts). They cook lunch and dinner for you and you pay for this separately (arranged through your guide). We took oats for breakfast and were given a flask of boiling water. The experience is rustic but interesting. There are no showers and the toilet is a little tin shack with hole in the ground.
With regards to meals. If you are vegetarian, or fussy and not prepared to take your own cooking equipment and food then the backpacker arrangement is not suitable for you. The food is basic and mostly consists of gristly meat (mutton, goat or horse) and noodles/dumplings.
The positives of our trip with TGM:
• Our transfer between U.B. And the airport was on time both leaving and arriving.
• Our guide and driver were waiting when we arrived in Dalanzadgad.
• Everything seemed to run quite smoothly.
• We always had a ger to ourselves unlike other tour groups who sometimes shared with the family or driver.
• Our driver was pleasant and very helpful.
• While our guide was pleasant and her English was basic but understandable, she was not very knowledgeable. She spent a lot of time gossiping with the families and we felt like we were in the way.
• As mentioned above, food is not included in the backpacker arrangement and your guide organises meals with the families. You pay for this separately. The guide and driver should pay for their own food. This worked out to be quite expensive and we felt that we were paying for all the guide and driver's meals as well. Eg. Bowl of noodle soup cost us 9,000 tugriks / c. $5 US which is double what you'd expect to pay (hence the guide insisted we pay her directly and we guess we paid double to cover her and the driver)
• The cost of this package is not comparable to other backpacker groups doing similar trips. We chatted to a few other backpackers we met en route who were paying half of what we did, doing the same thing and had food included!
We finished the tour pleased we'd experienced genuine Gobi desert but feeling like we'd been ripped off. So a few tips.
• If you do book the same trip, make sure you insist on a fixed price for meals in advance (around 4000 and 6000 Tugriks per meal) with Ganzo, not the local guide.
• If you're not interested in riding any of the animals, negotiate with Ganzo to have this charge taken off your fee.
• If you have time (a spare day) in UB organise the trip from there. In September it is reasonably quiet and tours are available. Plus you'll meet other people happy to share the trip and make it cheaper. The average price other backpackers we spoke to were paying was between $55 and $88 per day depending on the length of the trip with meals included. Sun Path, Zaya's hostel and Mongolia Sun? were some of the companies we came across. Most hostels arrange tours.
Lastly take warm clothes and a good sleeping bag. We weren't provided with blankets but fortunately had our own sleeping bags. If you're a coffee drinker, take your own coffee. Buy lots of water in Dalanzadgad before you head out and take wet wipes!
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