“When you push people out of their comfort zone slightly, they start to show their true colours. It’s not that I get a sadistic pleasure out of it.”
Venky, 34, a Mumbaiker, car fanatic and founder of Nomadic Road, a travel company specialising in adventurous off-road driving trips in remote parts of the world, has made sure our comfort zones are breached as soon as we pull out of the car park of the luxurious Blue Sky Hotel in Mongolia's Ulaanbaatar and into rush-hour traffic.
Our group of seven clients and six support staff set off in convoy, beginning a 10-day, 2,250-kilometre loop that will take us down to the Gobi Desert, west to the remote dunes of Khongoryn Els, north to the Orkhon Valley and the ancient capital of Karakoram, and back to the capital. There's no satnav and I'm not sure how to use the walkie talkie, but my "true colours" remain calm. Within an hour we hit the traffic-clogged city's southern outskirts.
I'm driving a hulking Lexus 450 fitted with thick mud tyres, the boot ominously filled with stacks of bottled water, spare tyres, engine oil, brake fluid and a fire extinguisher. Things had been different a few days earlier, when I'd taken an internal flight south to Dalanzadgad, the capital of Mongolia's largest and southernmost province, to spend two nights at Three Camel Lodge. The property was created almost two decades ago by Jalsa Urubshurow, a wealthy and well-connected Mongolian-American whose company specialises in fully chaperoned trips showcasing the country's spectacular landscapes, with any bumps ironed out before they even occur.
For example, you’re met and escorted through Ulaanbaatar airport by your guide, who then travels with you on the flight south, from where you are picked up in a new Lexus 4x4 for a comfortable 90-minute drive north-west on smooth dirt tracks.
Rather than being fully desertified, the landscape, which is on a huge plateau and therefore cooler than you'd expect, is composed mainly of endless green rolling plains studded with rocky outcrops and distant mountain ranges. Guests are assigned luxury solar-powered gers (the Mongolian equivalent of a yurt) complete with en-suite bathrooms, and there's a lovely lounge from which you can look out across the plains. Horseriding and electric motorbike riding are included, the latter of which is particularly satisfying as you can go off by yourself. There's also a spa and video room, and you'll be accompanied on excursions to wherever you fancy.
But back to the reality of driving yourself. It's thrilling. While I had been sceptical about actually enjoying driving a big vehicle for so long (up to 10 hours a day) after the pampering at Three Camel Lodge, it's an incredible feeling to be let loose to tear up the roads in a country so big, so empty, and so, as it turns out, suited to off-roading. For a start, few roads are paved, and those that are, are so full of potholes we frequently have to go off-road to avoid them. And in most of the places we visit, there are no "roads" as such. Just tracks into the emptiness, expertly navigated by our lead driver Anam, a moody, ruggedly good-looking Mongolian – again, seemingly suited to the terrain.
Our first day's drive south to Baga Gazriin Chuluu, a high granite canyon at the heart of the central steppe in Dundgovi province, is 350km. Once we're off the main highway, the vehicles come into themselves, seeming better at high speed than low in dealing with bumps and ruts. Following the tyre ruts in the road, I soon get into a rhythm and, while maintaining a distance from the car in front, let the vehicle follow its momentum rather than braking at every turn. It's fun and the scenery is spectacular, and far from missing company, I revel in having a whole car to myself.
Our ger camp, Erdene Ykhoa at Baga Gazar, is on the edge of a huge, desolate plateau and is clean and comfortable. I sleep well before an 8am departure the next day, when a further 400km needs to be covered. And this sets the pattern for the following nine days, with longer excursions into the Altai mountains for hikes, the dunes for sunset dinners, an evening and moonlight visit to the Flaming Cliffs (also known as Bayanzag), a fossil-filled mass of red sandstone forming a dramatic escarpment with views across a vast plateau, the ruined Ongi monastery, the ethereally beautiful Orkhon Valley, a lush ensemble of mountains, forests, rivers (some of which we drive through) and herder’s camps (several of which we visit), and Karakoram, the historic capital under Genghis Khan.
As a group we get to know each other – there's K K and Suzie, surgeons from the US, Kailash and Chitra, a couple from India, Ram and Sud, an engineer and his consultant nephew, also from India, and Charles, a young French filmmaker. Support staff include translator Tsatsral ("Taggi") and Bagi, our short, plump private chef who is just as happy cooking in a kitchen or out in the open on a propane gas cooker.
Alas, as with all such trips, we’ve only just learnt everyone else’s names when it’s time to head back to smoky Ulaanbaatar, where new apartment blocks and luxury car showrooms have outpaced the infrastructure needed to get to them. Our days of freedom are over, but scored in the memory for life.