The west is a rugged land of permanently snow-dusted mountains, desert plateaus, huge salt lakes, traditional eagle hunters and a fascinating hotchpotch of contrasting cultures. The towering Altai Mountains (many over 4,000m) are windswept and wild; some are supposedly still-unclimbed. Glaciers shimmer on their shoulders and snowstorms are common in summer. Icy meltwater trickles down and forms powerful rivers that feed a variety of fishable lakes, both saltwater and fresh. The predominantly Kazakh town of Olgii has an airport and is the best base for hiring guides.
Set apart from the main range stands Otgon Tenger (3,095m), Mongolia’s Olympus, where the gods are said to dwell. Although remote, the mountain’s environs offer wonderful hiking or horse treks through the alpine scenery. Being a sacred site, it’s illegal to climb the mountain but it can be circled in a few days. Hire guides in nearby Uliastai (2hr flight from Ulan Bator).
Even citizens of Kazakhstan cite West Mongolia as the best place to see traditional Kazakh customs, dress and sport. Their community centres around Olgii but spreads across the Bayan-Olgii region. The Kazakh are incredibly welcoming; you’ll likely get to see inside their large, richly decorated yurts, which are furnished with a mishmash of Islamic and Central Asian motifs. A great way to experience Kazakh culture up close is the Eagle Festival in Olgii (first weekend in October); see Kazakh men with trained eagles compete in hunting for marmots, foxes and wolves.
Near the Siberian border, the freshwater Uiireg Nuur (lake) nestles at 1,425m with an imposing backdrop of 3,000m peaks. Traditionally Mongolians don’t eat fish so the lake has ample grayling and Altai ide, and provides a rare habitat for swan geese, kestrels and fish eagles.