Raw, rugged and remote, this region has for centuries been isolated – both geographically and culturally – from the Mongolian heartland. With its glacier-wrapped mountains, shimmering salt lakes and hardy culture of nomads, falconry and horsemanship, western Mongolia is a timeless slice of Central Asia.
The Gobi reveals itself in pockets of amazing scenery, bridged by vast stretches of desolation where smartphone signals die and silence saturates. It can be daunting to be this far out in such harsh conditions, but this is where desert foliage shimmers in greens and golds, and where Tibetan lamas etched ancient messages on red rock cliffs.
When we open our Mongolian compass and check the cardinal directions, we see the desert in the south, and the great, grassy steppe to the east. What lies around the northern aimags? The taiga, a pine-scented quilt of coniferous forest that blankets the boggy ground from northern Mongolia to the edge of the Arctic circle. But it's not only forest here.
Travelling to Mongolia’s westernmost aimag gives one the distinct feeling of having reached the end of the road, if not the end of the earth. High, dry and wild, the isolated, oddly shaped Bayan-Ölgii (Баян-Өлгий) follows the arc of the Mongol Altai Nuruu as it rolls out of Central Asia towards the barren wastes of the Dzungarian Basin.
The southern edge of Siberia kisses the northern mountains of Mongolia in Khövsgöl (Хөвсгөл), and the resulting marriage is a sweep of dark pine forests, snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes, wet bogs and icy winds that could have been imagined by a fantasy author on a productive day.
Uvs (Увс) aimag is a land of extremes, a little-visited region bordering Russia to the north where desert steppes and great lakes collide. Here you'll find some of the world's most northerly sand dunes, Mongolia's largest lake by area, the country's lowest winter temperatures and a whole lot of high desert.
Khovd (Ховд) aimag has long been a centre for trade, business and administration in western Mongolia, a status that began during the Qing dynasty when the Manchus built a military garrison here. The aimag still does robust trade with China through the border at Bulgan. Its agricultural university is the largest of its kind in Mongolia outside Ulaanbaatar.
Ömnögovi (Өмнөговь; 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 just 130mm a year, and summer temperatures reaching an average of 38°C, this is the driest, hottest and harshest region in the entire country.
Most visitors to northern Mongolia charge through Bulgan (Булган) 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 beautiful scenery that makes for nice cycle touring.
In a nation of nomads, Selenge (Сэлэнгэ) stands out as an agricultural breadbasket. Throughout most of Mongolia, the land has a distinctly wild cast; on the steppe, the grass has been grazed, but rarely has the soil been tilled. Not so in Selenge. Here, you'll pass rolling wheat fields and shady apple orchards, rows of cabins and relatively few gers.