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GEOGRAPHY OF KAZAKHSTAN

Text by Vitaliy Shuptar

The Republic of Kazakhstan straddles the boundary between Asia and Europe, lying in the very center of the continent of Eurasia, stretching from 45̊ to 87̊ east and 56̊ to 40̊ north. To the north and north-west Kazakhstan borders on Russia; to the east, on China; and to the south, on Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In the west lies Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast. The Republic’s land borders total 12,187 km in length.
The total area of the Republic is 2,724,900 sq km (1,049,150 sq miles), making it the ninth largest country in the world, after Russia, China, the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and Australia. The territory of Kazakhstan stretches almost 3,000 km from the Volga and the Caspian in the west to the Altai mountains in the east; the distance from the west Siberian plain in the north to the Tien Shan mountains in the south is about 1,700 km. This immense size accommodates a variety of landscapes - mainly forest-steppe, steppe, semi-desert and desert -  mostly within the temperate zone. At the same time, this is a land of contrasts: as well as high mountain areas, there are deep depressions.
Mountains cover less than ten per cent of the territory and are found mainly in the south, the south-east and the east. The highest mountain is Khan-Tengri (6995 m), to which Turkic peoples have traditionally attributed a kind of sanctity. Situated on the border with Kyrgyzstan, Khan-Tengri is in the Saryzhaz range of the central part of the Tien Shan, whose mountains achieve an average height of between 4,000 and 5,000 m. Other ranges in the Tien Shan system include the Zailyiskii Alatau in the northern Tien Shan, whose highest peak is Talgar (4973 m); the Kyrgyz range; the Talas Ala-Too; the Karatau; and the Ketmen. There are others, but they are too small to rate mention here.
North of the Tien Shan is the Jungar Alatau. Its highest peak is Semenov-Tienshanskii, at 4662 m. The Saur and the Tarbagatai mountains, whose height varies between 2,000 and 3,000, are north-east of the Jungar Alatau, between lakes Alakol and Zaisan. The north-eastern part of the country, bordering upon Russia and China, is home to the Altai mountains. Of these, the south Altai and part of the Rudnyi are on Kazakh territory, these mountains achieving an average of between 2,500 and 3,500 m. The biggest of the Altai mountains on Kazakh territory is Belukha, which straddles the border with Russia. Its summit is 4506 m up. Less dauntingly high mountains abound, including the Kazakh Melkosopochnik or Saryarka, the Mugojar mountains separating the Turgai plateau from the Prikaspiiskaya plain, and the Mangystau mountains.
Most of Kazakhstan’s land area is covered by plain, either desert (accounting for 44% of total land area), steppe and forest steppe (26%) or semi-desert (14%). Average elevation varies between 200 and 300 m above sea level. The Kazakh Melkoso-pochnik, or Saryarka, occupies the central part of the Republic’s flatlands. These are immense open steppe lands with, in places, low massifs reaching 1,500 m in height, but usually rather less. The Ulytau mountains, the Bayanaul mountains, the Karkaraly mountains, the Pribalkhash mountains and the Borovoye mountains are probably geologically related to these low massifs.
Moving west from the Kazakh Melkosopochnik come the Turgai plateau, the Turan lowland steppe, and then the Kyzylkum desert. Further westward still the plains descend into the Prikaspiiskaya lowlands, generally at an elevation of between 20 and 70 m below sea level, but at one point, the Karagie depression, reach 132 m below sea level. This is the country’s lowest surface point. In the south-east, the Prikaspiiskaya lowlands rise gradually towards the sweeping majesty of the Ustyurt plateau. South of the Kazakh Melkosopochnik are the deserts of Betpak-Dala and Moyinkum, while to the north lie the southern fringes of the western Siberian plain.
Two major inland seas lie at the edges of Kazakstan’s territories: the Caspian to the west and the Aral in the north. Most of the Caspian’s northern coast and half of the its eastern coast (totalling about 2,340 km of shoreline) belong to Kazakhstan, as does the north-eastern half of the Aral Sea. The area of the Aral Sea, which exceeded 65,000 sq km at the beginning of the 20th century, has fallen to less than half that. The loss of water from the Aral poses a serious ecological threat to Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
The largest rivers in Kazakhstan are the Irtysh (Yertis in Kazakh), the Ural, the Chu, the Syr-Darya, the Ili, the Ishim (Yesil in Kazakh) and the Tobol. The Irtysh and its tributaries, the Ishim and the Tobol, flow from south to north. In Russia the Irtysh flows into the River Ob river and then into the Arctic Ocean. The River Ural, traditionally regarded as one of the boundaries between Europe and Asia, flows into the Caspian Sea. The River Ili, flowing into Lake Balkhash, is one of the many rivers that give the area known as Semirechiye (or Zhetysu in Kazakh - both Russian and Kazakh names translatable as ’land of seven rivers’) its name. The Syr-Darya flows into the Aral Sea. There are more than 8,000 other rivers of various sizes in Kazakhstan.
There are roughly 48,000 lakes in Kazakhstan, covering an area of more than 45,000 sq km. Besides the Caspian and Aral Seas mentioned above, there are four large lakes, namely Balkhash, Alakol, Zaisan and Tengiz. Lake Balkhash is situated in the sands between central and south-eastern Kazakhstan and covers an area of about 18,200 sq km. Half of its water is fresh and half is salty. Further east there are two more large lakes: Alakol in the east and Zaisan in the north-east. Lakes Tengis and Korgalzhyn are in Central Kazakhstan. North Kazakhstan has more lakes than any other region, and justly deserves the title ’Lake Region’.

 

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