We did it. We went on an incredible road trip in Mongolia. By ourselves and without driver but with a tent, a cooker and a drone. We survived Gobi, worst roads ever, an intense snow storm and some of the strongest rains we’ve had so far. The good news is that we loved our trip. Such mesmerizing landscapes, all the wild animals and friendly nomads. A road trip of a lifetime and some of our best photos and videos ever! Find out more in this blogpost.
The idea for the road trip - all alone through Mongolia
The idea for this road trip was already born back in Germany. We always wanted to go to Mongolia. Many of our friends have traveled in the past but nobody to Mongolia and we wondered why. When you type into Google search ‚Mongolia landscape’ you get an idea why it was on our bucket list for so many years. We wanted to experience the different facets of the country: the softness and the roughness. We could not image that we would get the whole package. So, how did we plan it and did it take us weeks?
After our road trip in Kazakhstan with a driver and guide (we already wrote about this odysseus) and our Kyrgyz road trip by ourself (which was really great but at the end quite exhausting) we wanted to do it better. The thing is: You don’t get too much information regarding road trips without a guide online and elsewhere. Local people were astonished that we wanted to have this adventure without a driver or guide and were a bit worried about us. But we knew that with all our experience (which we really needed on the way) we could make it. And we wanted the freedom to choose where we go, how long we stay, when we eat, what we eat etc. So our planning was quite simple. What we needed was:
- A good car,
- a tent and a stove,
- enough food,
- enough water,
- some wine
- and of course a route.
With the route we had our struggles in the beginning. As already mentioned there is not much information to get. So we tweaked our approach and looked up how planned road trips with guides would go, which routes they would take (some good informations we found at www.escapetomongolia.com where you can also read an article about our tour. But we were never able to really see the exact routes. So we decided to have only a roughly shaped route and go with it. We put some favorite places we wanted to see on our google map and took screenshots of it. After a little fight because Anna was worried that we could die in the Gobi desert we decided that we would try to go there without risking our lives. To save you the curiosity – both of us made it ;) - but it is challenging and you have to take care, estimate risks and trust your experience and gut feeling. Lets directly jump to the end we tell you some learnings of ours.
Important learnings during and after our road trip through beautiful Mongolia
- You need a 4x4 car
- A tent brings you a maximum of flexibility
- You need more water than you think (and it is not often possible in the small villages to get big bottles (=5 liters)
- Accommodations are really (really!) rare and can be hard to find
- All roads lead somewhere (with that we mean, that if there a 3 paths more or less in the same direction they will all lead you to the same place)
- You need to improvise – The roads on maps will not be there anymore sometimes, the internet connection will not work, the road is way way worse than you thought, the wind is to strong to tent and so on...
- Temperature can drop tremendously! We had an over 30 degrees drop in less than 24 hours
- In the nights it gets really cold
- You need good sleeping bags (ours were cheap and bad, so make sure that you bring your own one with you)
- Buy everything basic and especially fresh veggies and fruits in Ulan Bator. In the small villages you will be disappointed by the selection, at least in the south
- Have an eye on your gas – we highly recommend to fill your gas tank when you have the chance, even if your tank is still half full. You never know how it is to the next gas station
- We saw some scorpions and a snake, be aware that they exist and check your shoes in the morning
- You can always ask nomads regarding the way – maybe they will understand you. Having some sentences prepared and translated can be very helpful
- Driver or no driver - Depends on your driving skills and your experience. We can say that it was challenging. Some ‚main roads’ that google showed us where in a dry river bed and you had to drive max speed of 5 km/h and with full focus in order to make it and not destroy the car – and this for hours. So the big question is - freedom or a more convenient trip. Cheap or more expensive. (We heard from some travel couples that even their driver didn’t know the way and had to asked several time – so we choose the adventure)
- Suncream is even more important than we thought. Mongolia is a landlocked country with mountainous terrain. Also in the Gobi you are already quite high and the sun is burning. Lip balsam was our life safer in comparison to Kyrgyzstan
- Our rule of thumb regarding the ‚right road’ was: If you are in a distance of 20 kilometers or less to the ‚official road’ you are ok. We always guided each other in tendencies. From now on always take the roads to the left etc. Until you were back on the road you wanted to be. But sometimes these roads did not exist anymore. Sometimes you needed to find the exact road in order to cross some mountains. That is what we mean with staying flexible. Eventually and with enough gas and hope you will find your way!
- Landscapes are beauty and sceneries are changing very often. As if you were driving in many different countries or even continents, really amazing
- Find a place before it gets dark. That is nothing new but being in these landscapes we had the tendency to drive a bit too long. Either because it was just so beautiful outside and we didn’t wanted to stop or because it was to windy and we had not found the right spot yet
- Have days without driving further – That was our biggest learning from our Kyrgyzstan road trip. When roads are challenging and life good AND exhausted, take a day to just be somewhere. Relax and enjoy the beauty of this country. We stayed for example a whole day at a superb spot in the Gobi. With the perfect view on the dunes, the sunset and the camels. We would not skip this day for anything!
- When you drive during the night be aware, that were sometimes damaged cars on the road, animals crossing by or deep holes. There are some main routes in Mongolia with good streets. But that’s it.
- Plan your trip in a way that you have extra time. It can be, that you need for a certain road 10 times longer due to bad conditions
- Around villages the roads were often in worst conditions and got better after leaving the villages behind you
- Coming back to society is a bit hard afterwards. After having the country ‚for yourself’ it feels weird being back in the city
Learnings for us as a travel couple under extreme circumstances
- We really can trust each other
- Be patient with each other
- Think/ stay constructive in stressful situations
- Take breaks when you need them
- Be the bigger man/ woman if you can
- We can work together as a team
Our road trip route through Mongolia
We had only the rough route planned. From Ulan Bator to the Gobi Desert (we heard that there is one of the few good roads) and from there to the west and back up to Ulan Bator. Of course with individual breakouts of the main route. We actually did it like that. We experienced all four seasons during our road trip. That is why we created our article after it. Such intense weather changes are rare and something special.
Phase one on our road trip: Down south and ‚spring’
After buying everything we wanted and spending more than 100 euros on food and stuff we started during the rush hour in Ulan Bator. Bad idea. Start early if possible! We wanted to make it half the way down that day, but we had no chance. Starting late being and stuck in traffic was reason for that. The weather in Ulan Bator was nice. During our ride down weh ad more the feeling of spring. Some rain, temperate not really high and nature was covered in a nice green color. Different than expected and different than shown on google maps satellite pictures. But we were happy. It was a bit cold in the evening but the rain was gone and the stars were shining bright. For the first time we set up the new Heimplanet tent which we really can recommend. The tent is called ‚the cave’ and it is a wonderful tent. Easy to set up, super strong and futuristic stylish. We cooked and went happy to bed. After a cold night with interesting noises outside of our tent we started with a tea in bed. After that awesome breakfast and packing. This would become our routine for the whole trip. At least on driving days.
Driving down south means that you drive through endless landscapes, beautiful and often only with animals, some gers and nothing more. Nature at its fullest. Second night was even colder but during the day we kept the ‚spring’ feeling. Now, after driving south the whole time we arrived on the second day the biggest city in the south, Dalandsadgad. It really is not big, but the biggest down here. We bought some water (for the first time since we started our world trip a few month ago weh ad to buy water. Normally we don’t do that. We always purify water with our purifier. Here, down in the Gobi region we had no choice. Sadly we bought plastic canisters. From there we knew that we needed. It was already late but didn’t wanted to sleep in a city and pay extra money so we drove further. Now directly to the Gobi. On the way, 2 hours after the town we spend our next night. Only a few minutes before it got dark we finished cooking and celebrated the day with a glass of wine in the car because it was a bit warmer inside. Until now we always knew the exact way and google as well. We knew that from now on we would need to improvise more, because the direction was clear but the roads a bit vage. Coming the village Bayandalai we had to find the unpaved road into the Gobi desert. We found it quickly. It looks like an unpaved autobahn in a way. At least the first hours. Sometimes the car and we as drivers got already challenged. But we made it through. Weather got worse, which means more wind and more clouds. We drove and drove. Sometimes we saw some cars coming fro the opposite directions. And some camels. After a few hours we saw the first sand dunes in the far distance. It took us some more time to come closer to them. When it started to get late and dark soonish were looking for a spot. Of course Nils wanted a spot as close to the sand dunes as possible. Not to ease where we were, but we tried. WE had to drive through some areas where you already have more sand than ERDE beneath your roads. Tricky part was to drive a short part uphill but we managed carefully. 3 meters to the dunes and a happy Nils. Wes et up the tent, cooked and ate. Super hungry and really tired. Weather got worse. We went to bed early. As soon as we were in the tent the wind got stronger and stronger. And it started to rain as if the sky would fall down. And it got worse. Rain got even stronger and thunder and lightning came up. We were clever and had built the tent behind the car (we always to it because it gets less cold in the tent when you are in the slipstream of the car). At some point we questioned our cleverness and thought about the question ‚how much wind does it need to let the car fall on our tent?’. The whole night (!) it went on like crazy. We have both never experienced something like that before. And now, what irony, we experienced this heavy rain in the Gobi. In the GOBI !!! The next morning rain had gone and wind was less. So we were able to pack, eat and sit in the car freezing. Again - in the Gobi!
Phase two on our road trip: Gobi desert and ‚summer’
Luckily weather got better. We drove further, amazed by the landscapes without knowing exactly what would come. One thing we knew for sure: At some point we would need to go back or find a way out south to make it with our gas. Weh ad researched but we weren’t sure. 50:50 chance that there would be a way out south were we needed it to go on. After being totally disappointed by the ‚big singing dune’ we saw on google maps and in some reports we decided to drive further. The original idea was to sleep here for two nights. But it was just not ‚wow’ enough for us. So we drove and drove and came close to the point where we had to decide – going further and finding a way through the dunes down south or turning back having a way longer journey afterwards (more than one day would be possible to safe here). After not catching up with the first car we saw (the locals were driving in an empty river and were way faster than crazy Nils in that moment we drove slower and started to wonder what would happen. Then we saw another car while we were taking on of our beloved and sacred coffee breaks. We stopped it and tried to explain what we desperately needed to find out – is there a way down south through the dunes. As so often we did not know if they understand us or not. In case it was way more important than normally though. They showed us via hand signs to follow them so we did. Way to fast on really bad roads. Stressful and crazy. We were full of adrenalin. Good that we did not drink the coffee before. At some point, somewhere in nowhere in the Gobi they stopped and showed in the direction of the dunes (which were still more than 15 minutes away). We saw of course nothing there, only endless sand dunes. I guess we expressed concern. After a short discussion the told us to follow them for the second time. We did. And they brought us to a ger camp. But also here nobody could understand a word. With the help of our friend Khulan who translated for us (we were lucky – the only time in the desert where we actually had a mobile connection) we find out where to go – at least roughly. She was worried. We were happy. We did know know that somewhere here would be one small way- the only way – down south. After doing some business mails and even one business deal somewhere in the Gobi we drove and after some time saw the sign the talked about. Here you see a picture of it!
If you find these sacred stones, you know you can make it. We were more than happy. Still super tired after last night but more happy than tired. We drove to the road, took awesome pictures, ate something after being already way to hungry and got into a huge fight. The biggest on our whole trip so far. We don’t know why. Maybe because we were exhausted, tired, happy and glad that we could make it through the dunes (if the car and our driving skills would be good enough). While fighting over nothing and everything at the same time we drove through the dunes. What a pity to not enjoy this. But even if it was very difficult we made it through. We stopped, separated and had both the chance to calm down. Important and really needed. Anna was sitting in the car, relieving stress, Nils was walking around and on a rocky hill with high cliffs. Because of the fight between us we found the perfect spot. Difficult to get there by car but beautiful. Full view over the Gobi dunes, perfect sunset spot with fireplace. But would we make it up there? We kissed, calmed down and were ok with each other again. Then we tried it. And did not make it. The car got stuck in the sand. Trying to get out there made it worse. But we were able with good teamwork to get the car out on the way back we got stuck again. This time more and deeper. But we managed it again after finding clever solutions how to get the car out of the sand. But not enough for us. Second round up the hill and we made it! Almost we would have gotten stuck again but by an inch or two we made it up there. Super happy about the good weather, the perfect place and finding the one way through the sand dunes we settled here for the night – knowing both that we would not leave the next day if we don’t need. Of course we stayed!
Photo Session in the Gobi – having a good time and enjoying life to the fullest
Here you get some impressions of our photo shooting we had in the Gobi. We enjoyed every single bit of it. After the last days this was so nice and felt well deserved. Good food and good wine was a pleasure we celebrated afterwards!
Out of the dunes and into new amazing landscapes
We were a bit sad to leave the big dunes behind us. Knowing that this was the highlight we were hoping for. But the sadness kept not too long. Besides really bad roads (and no paved roads anymore at all) the landscapes stayed super beautiful and changed so often that we got more and more amazed. Here you see an overview of landscapes we saw the next days. And even some lonely dunes somewhere in nowhere arises at some point – the perfect place for a break and some amazing pictures!
We saw so many beautiful flowers - we did not expect that at all. But the summer had more rain than many years before and we were quite lucky to see all these colors in places where normally only sand and stones are.
We met very friendly people on our way. Nomads have rough faces and big hearts. One woman offered us food and drinks (all tasted very interesting) as we were asking for the way. We got invited into her ger and were quite humbled about her hospitality.
Phase three on our road trip: ‚Winter’ is coming
After amazing days and wonderful sceneries, difficult roads and breathtaking places to sleep something changed. The weather had been really good. Really warm. In the nights it was freaking cold. Way to cold for our cheap sleeping bags. But we managed somehow with all the clothes we had. We survived the worst road ever (on google maps this was a main road back north). We saw only one car the whole way and we have to say: That was extreme. It challenged Nils as much as no road before. Anna was doing a good job jumping out of the car all the time to check if we really can make it through the next difficult situation. Only drive here when you are really experienced. Otherwise you will have a dangerous problem! After surviving the canyon which was our ‚street’ for almost one day it get windier and winder, colder and colder. And later and later. We drove, found no place to stay and had to continue. We wanted to find a place early that day. Around five. We drove until 9 pm that day. It started to rain and we decided to driver even a bit longer and to the only city in the middle of Mongolia, Bayanchongor. We finally got gas and found a cheap but clean hotel. First night since ever (at least it felt like that) in a bed. With a warm shower. And some people even cooked for us (restaurants can be amazing :)). Next day was planned as our lazy day. Finding a beautiful place, relax the whole day, doing only things we want like landart, cooking, sleeping etc. But the day started way colder than the last ones. When you are outside for a while you get a feeling about temperature, weather conditions and the environment. We started to drive with a weird feeling. Twenty minutes later we did know why. Winter was there. After more than 30° the day before we now had 0°, hail and later snow. Temperature had dropped more than 30° in 24 hours. And it stayed like that. The whole day. We drove and drove, without seeing anything from the landscapes around us due to clouds and snow. We did one short and really cold photo session with the car, that’s all. Our plan had been to drive to Chanch Chiid. But we knew that it was an unpaved road and we had to make the tough decision to not go there. It seemed under these weather conditions way to dangerous. Driving in the snow storm somewhere in mountains on unpaved roads which were already hard to find under normal conditions. It was a good decision! Adventure yes, risking our lives in these freezing environments – no!
Even boiling water was not an option. We tried with all tricks. So we drove and drove and decided to find a hotel, motel or hostel on the way. But it also got later and later and it was not main season anymore. At nine we saw the first motel. It looked bad. We stopped anyway, exhausted from the cold day, the exhausted eyes and very hungry. One other car was outside of the hotel. People came out of the house. The looked frustrated and we asked them why. These friendly and english speaking french travelers wanted to stay there as well but told us that the rooms were not only freezing cold but also full of bird poo. Even though we wanted to stop driving we couldn’t. That was too much for us.
So we had to make the tough decision to go on and towards Ulan Bator. We drove for many hours. Nothing had open, no free beds if something was open. In the end we arrived Ulan Bator, after driving for 15 hours through the snow storm, managing difficult situations with broken cars you could not see on the streets, maximum speed of sometimes 20 km/h and no food besides some snacks. But we survived. We worked as a team. We made it together. We found a hotel in Ulan Bator, drank a coffee and slept as deep as never before. What a ride. What an adventure. What a change of plans. Happy and humbled we had arrived.
Phase four on our road trip: ‚Autumn’ and the surrounding of Ulan Bator
After being back in Ulan Bator we had mixed feelings. Super happy about all the things we experienced. A little sad about our unplanned trip back to the city. But happiness won and we enjoyed a few days in our cozy Airbnb flat while the weather got better. Than the sun came back and with it the good weather. So we decided that we wanted a nice end of our trip. We drove north-east of Ulan Bator in the direction of the turtle rock. We had an amazing time. Leaves had started to turn yellow and red, autumn was there. We both love autumn and having it after experiencing strong winter for a few days was great! We had the chance to make some great pictures, see the turtle rock (nice, impressive but we love nature without other people even more!) fixing our flat tire with improvised skills because the car-jack was the wrong one for the huge car. Coming back to Ulan Bator and giving the car back was now possible without bad feelings. We had our happy ending.
Our conclusion after the roadtrip through Mongolia
Happy, grown as a team and couple, with so many new impressions and more ‚wow moments than you can count we finished this amazing road trip. Being on our world trip, experiencing so many new things, living life to the fullest – we are damn happy about that! Doing a road trip through Mongolia without driver and guide is challenging. But we think it is worth it. But you have to know where you limits are. Skillwise, comfort zone wise, uncertainty wise. The country has way more to offer than we were able to see. We will come back for sure. Discovering the north west (Altai) and the far north of Mongolia. It is an incredible country, a hidden gem, a place worth going!
Some hard facts abut our road trip
- Costs: Around 1000 euros (costs are only that low because we had a cooperation with Sixt mongolia)
- Costs gas: 240 euros
- Time: 12 days
- Distance: ‚Only’ around 1500 km, but due to sometimes super bad roads it felt like 5000 at least (in comparison for example to Scandinavia road trips we already did)