If you are traveling to Mongolia, you probably know about the Gobi Desert. Perhaps you are extremely excited to escape into the desert for a few days. Or, if you are like me, you are weary of tourist traps. Last April, I took the plunge and let me say, it was an incredible experience. But, I strongly believe it’s all because of the amazing insight of my local guide, Tume and luck. I think if I had taken a tour from the capitol, Ulaanbaatar, like most people, I wouldn’t have had such a great time. So I present to you, five reasons to hire a local guide in Dalanzadgad and not UB.
1. It’s more expensive. In Khongorin Elis, I met a group of 3 guys from the UK, a driver, and a guide. They told me that they had hired their guide and driver from UB for a 7 day tour. The price: $120 a day. Which means they each paid $40 a day. This price included their transportation, lodging, and food. You may think this doesn’t sound so bad. And if you are doing your research ahead of time, like a good girl, you may think that sounds like the standard standard. But when I arrived in Dalanzadgad, the closest town to the Gobi’s sights, I negotiated for a three day and two night trip for 400,000MNT that included lodging, but not food. Which was perfectly fine with me as I knew it would be hard to find vegetarian food in the Mongolian countryside and already had packed food with me. You might have already done the figures, but I paid about $40 a day as well. The difference though, is that I was one person.
If I had visited Mongolia during the summer, I could have easily found other independent travelers to split the cost. So imagine if there were 3 of us, we would have paid $40 total, or about $13 a day. The other thing to consider is that it takes 10 hours to get to Dalanzadgad. This means that those 3 dudes paid $40 each for a long-ass drive.
The public buses in Mongolia were up to standard and the one to Dalanzadgad from Bayanzurk bus station costs only 12900MNT (about $10). It’s also pretty easy to get to the bus stations in UB. Don’t let your hostel tell you differently. I stayed at Zaya’s Guesthouse and they tried to sell me transportation to the bus station and a bus ticket to UB for $22! Did I mention that the local #4 bus takes you all the way to the Bayanzurk bus station for T500?
2. A guide from UB doesn’t know the Gobi Desert like a local. Tume (my driver) and I took off to Yolin Am, Mukhar Shiver, Khongorin Elis, and Bayanzag. These are the main attractions in the Gobi; although, if you are traveling in summer, there may not be any ice left at Mukhar Shivet. When comparing notes with the UK trio, they asked me if I knew the name of the ICE wall, because their guide didn’t know the name…
If that isn’t alarming enough, another guide I met who was taking around 2 french guys told me that the hike around Bayanzag was short, only 30 minutes. Tume and I spent 3-4 hours in and around Bayanzag. Why? Because he knew all the safe ways to walk around, over and under the cliffs, pointed out to me wild chives and edible roots, and knew all the secret spots where dinosaur fossils still remained. I’m not saying that all guides from UB won’t know the area, but your chances of finding a knowledgeable guide is much better if you look in Dalanzadgad.
3. You’ll more likely to breakdown with a driver from UB. There are no road signs in the desert. Surrounding mountains and the piles of rocks you see off in the far distance are the landmarks by which you navigate in the desert. And let me tell you there is nothing but a few camels or sheep to ask for directions. GPS aside, knowing how to drive in this wild terrain is something I would entrust to a local guide. Tume and I had no problems.
On a bus west to Tariat, I happened to sit next to a young man who drove for his sister, who guided tours. They would pick up people from UB and do the typical Gobi Desert and Kharkhorin Tour. Well, Onno was incredibly nice, and when we arrived to Tariat in the pitch black of night, he gave me a ride to my guesthouse. And let me tell you… those 5 minutes I spent in that car had me feeling like a salt shaker. I never experienced such a rough ride the whole time I was in the Gobi with Tume.
4. Ask yourself if it’s really ethical to hire a guide from UB? You came to a foreign country and now you want to see its rich nature and splendid landscapes. That’s all well and good, but if you visit Dalanzadgad you’ll see that the people there definitely have less money and live in harsher conditions than many of the people in UB. Frankly, you’re being a better person if you give your money to the local residents. Traveling is all well and good, but being an adventurer doesn’t mean you should think about how you, a tourist, affect the place you are touring.
5. You can help teach English to the local community. Perhaps, you want a guide who speaks English. While there are English speaking drivers in Dalanzadgad, you’re more likely to find one in the capitol. And yes, this may seem more convenient, but once again, as a person visiting another country, it’s probably a good idea to ask yourself how you can be a more responsible traveler. And one way to do that is to try speaking the local language and be open to language exchange. Tume couldn’t speak English very well, but once he saw that I was willing to learn and use Mongolian words and phrases, the conversation was never lacking. How did we manage to communicate? The same way I teach my students a foreign language, through gestures, expression, repeating after each other, and when all else fails, a dictionary. I managed to pick up 15 or so words in those three days. More importantly, Tume learned some valuable phrases tourists may use such as, shower, how much longer, how far, what time, how much, take a picture. This experience helped him learn some English, which can help him in his future and his career. Perhaps you can help someone too.