Raw, rugged and remote, this off-the-beaten-track region has for centuries been isolated – both geographically and culturally – from the Mongol heartland. With its glacier-wrapped mountains, shimmering salt lakes and the hardy culture of nomads, falconry and cattle rustling, western Mongolia is, in many ways, a timeless slice of Central Asia.
Eastern Mongolia is where heaven and earth fuse into one part – a boundless blue sky colliding with an equally limitless sea of green. The occasional wooden shack or ger reminds you that humans do inhabit this enormous landscape, but for the most part it’s an unspoilt amphitheatre of bounding gazelle, scurrying marmots and jeep tracks that squiggle endlessly into the distance.
If Switzerland and Montana were to have a love child, Khövsgöl would be it. It is a land of thick forests, rushing rivers, sparkling lakes, rugged mountains. and endless taiga. It does rain a lot during summer, but this only adds to the scenery: rainbows hang over meadows dotted with white gers, grazing horses and yaks.
Travelling to Mongolia’s westernmost aimag gives one the distinct feeling of reaching the end of the road, if not the end of the earth. High, dry, rugged and raw, the isolated, oddly shaped aimag follows the arc of the Mongol Altai Nuruu as it rolls out of Central Asia towards the barren wastes of the Dzungarian Basin.
Ömnögov (southern Gobi) is the largest aimag in Mongolia, and has a population density of only 0.4 people per square kilometre. With an average annual precipitation of only 130mm a year, and summer temperatures reaching an average of 38°C, this is the driest, hottest and harshest region in the entire country; it’s not hard to see why humans prefer to live elsewhere.
The ‘Central’ province surrounds Ulaanbaatar (UB) and its forested mountains offer a welcome escape from the city. Popular but picturesque Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is great for horse-trekking, hiking and camping, and it's only an hour or so away by bus! Further afield, you can spot takhi (wild horses) at Khustain National Park.
Most visitors to northern Mongolia charge through Bulgan aimag en route to more popular sights such as Khövsgöl Nuur and Amarbayasgalant Khiid, but travellers with a bit of time on their hands can find some interesting, rarely visited sights in Bulgan, as well as some beautiful scenery that makes for nice cycle touring.