Our van hopped along the bumpy road across the landscape of rural Mongolia. Our driver, Jagah, with his dark tanned and weathered skin, tinted glasses and light-blue fisherman’s hat, turned toward me. “Dondereh!” he said in a jovial voice as he points to the radio, blasting the same Mongolian song that we had heard a thousand times.

“Dondereh!” he says again. He’s half-jokingly trying to get me to sing along. Jagah only knows a few phrases in English – yes, no, good morning, thank you, let’s go and vodka – so we find other ways of communicating.

The unstopable 4x4 that got us all over Mongolia

Its day 14 of our 18 day tour across Mongolia. Starting in Ulaanbaatar with its’ no-nonsense Soviet architecture, the road quickly gave way to something much more interesting. These landscapes are gorgeous and yet extremely sparsely populated. So sparsely populated, in fact, that you rarely see another soul until you’ve arrived in a city or reached your ger camp destination.

Our journey takes us from the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert – which blow dust into your tent, dry out your eyes and throat, and burn the most sun tanned skin – to the mountains of Central Mongolia, with their wild horses, deep freezing lakes, tall coniferous trees, and farms of yaks, sheep, and adorable baby goats.

Jagah is the man to get us there. He knows these roads like no other, navigating by sight alone. Armed with what can only be a Soviet-made 4×4 van which began life as a tank, he climbs up mountains, through forests, and across streams. There are very few paved roads outside of UB, and when you manage to find them they’re little more than a dirt track through the grass. Long distances between camp sites mean long days in the car, which are often slow and bumpy. 100kms can be traveled in as little as two hours or as many as five. Mongolians prefer not to tell you how long they think it will take to get somewhere. They believe that it brings bad luck. There’s something satisfying about knowing that we’ll be there when we get there.

Long rides in the van are often accompanied by Jagah’s choice of Mongolian classics. I don’t know any of the words, but could hum the tune to several hundred Mongolian songs at this point.

Mongolia is a desolate, unforgiving place. As often as you get beautiful landscapes and sunsets you also get frigid cold winds, scorching hot sun, and unbelievable downpours. I expected that camping in Mongolia in July would be a similar experience to camping in Canada. I expected wrong. Temperatures get down to ungodly cold temperatures at night. Wearing every article of clothing that I own I could probably count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had a comfortable night outside of the Gobi Desert. Weather blows in and can change in an instant. Many days that start warm and sunny are nightmares by 10am. Expect the worst, hope for the best, and make many sacrifices to the weather gods.

Ger camp in Central Mongolia

Being disconnected from civilization for 18 days has given me the opportunity to clear my mind. It’s almost like entering a meditative state. Long van rides give me time to make big life plans. When I’m home my life is completely bombarded by things like Facebook, advertising, loud city streets, pubs and television. Mongolia throws away all of those distractions. Here the most stimulating thing is yet another gorgeous sunset. I feel like I do my best thinking here, with my head clear and my body tired from a day in the outdoors. Maybe disconnecting from the world is something that we could all use every now and then.

Sunset on Khustain Park, Mongolia