The Russian ALTAY
, Mongolian ALTAYN NURUU, Chinese (Wade-Giles romanization) A-ERH-T'AI SHAN represents a complex mountain system of Central Asia extending approximately 1,200 miles (2,000 km) in a southeast-northwest direction from the Gobi (Desert) to the West Siberian Plain, through Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, and Kazak territory. The jagged mountain ridges, the name of which originated from the Turkic-Mongolian word altan, meaning "golden," separate the waters of such great rivers as the Ob (flowing north to the Arctic Ocean) and its major tributary, the Irtysh, from the rivers draining into the vast Central Asian basin. The system has three main prongs: the Altai proper (formerly called the Soviet Altai) and the Mongolian Altai Mountains, and its lesser range known the Gobi Altai Mountains. A peak in the main prong, Belukha - at an elevation of 14,783 feet (4,506 meters) - is the range's highest point. In the past these mountains were remote and sparsely populated; but in the 20th century they have been opened to extensive resource exploitation, and the ancient ways of life of the local people have been rapidly transformed.
The Altai proper lie in the Gorno-Altay sector of Russian Asia and in extreme eastern Kazakhstan. A belt of northern foothills separates them from the West Siberian Plain, while in the northeast the Altai border the Western (Zapadny) Sayan Mountains. The Mongolian Altai (Mongol Altayn Nuruu), rising to Nayramdalyn (Huyten) Peak (14,350 feet or 4, 374 meters), thrust away to the southeast and then to the east. The Gobi Altai (Govi Altayn Nuruu) begins some 300 miles southwest of Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital city, and occupies the country's southern portions, towering over the Gobi expanses.
The Altai were formed during the great orogenic (mountain-building) upthrusts occurring between 500 and 300 million years ago and were worn down, over geologic time, into a peneplain, a plateau with generally accordant summit heights. Beginning in the Quaternary Period (the past 1.6 million years), new upheavals thrust up magnificent peaks of considerable size. Earthquakes are still common in the region along a fault zone in the Earth's crust; among the most recent quakes are those that occurred near Bayanbulag in 1957 and 1958 and in the vicinity of Lake Zaysan in 1990. Quaternary glaciations scoured the mountains, carving them into rugged shapes, and changed valleys from a V- to a U-shaped cross section; river erosion was also intensive and left its marks on the landscape. As a result of these differential geologic forces, the highest ridges in the contemporary Altai-notably the Katun, North (Severo) Chu, and the South (Yuzhno) Chu-tower more than 13,000 feet, running latitudinally in the central and eastern portions of the sector of the system within the Gorno-Altay. The Tavan Bogd Uul, Munh Hayrhan Uul, and other western ridges of the Mongol Altai are somewhat lower. The highest peaks are much steeper and rockier than their Alpine equivalents, but the ranges and massifs of the middle Altai, to the north and west, have ridges of about 8,200 feet, whose softer outlines betray their origins in presenting ancient, smoothed surfaces. Valleys are nevertheless jagged and gorgelike. The ridges are separated by structural hollows (notably the Chu, Kuray, Uymon, and Kansk), which are filled with crumbly deposits forming steppe landscapes. Elevations range from 1,600 to 6,600 feet above sea level.
The extreme dislocations suffered by the Altai over the course of geologic time have occasioned a variety of rock types, many of them altered by magmatic and volcanic activity. There are large accumulations of geologically young, crumbly sediments in numerous intermontane depressions. The tectonic structures bear commercially exploitable deposits of iron, of such nonferrous and rare metals as mercury, gold, manganese, and tungsten, and of marble.
The regional climate is severely continental: because of the influence of the great Asiatic anticyclone, or high-pressure area, the winter is long and bitterly cold. January temperatures range from 70 F (-140 C) in the foothills to -260 F (-320 C) in the sheltered hollows of the east, while in the Chu steppes temperatures can plunge to a bitter -760 F (-600 C). There are occasional tracts of the permafrost (permanently frozen soil) that coats great stretches of northern Siberia. July temperatures are warm and even hot-daytime highs often reach 750 F (240 C), sometimes up to 1040 F (400 C) on the lower slopes-but summers are short and cool in the majority of the higher portions. In the west, particularly at elevations between 5,000 and 6,500 feet, precipitation is high: 20 to 40 inches (about 500 to 1,000 millimeters) and as much as 80 inches may fall throughout the year. The total decreases to one-third that amount farther east, and some areas have no snow at all. Glaciers coat the flanks of the highest peaks: some 1,500 in number, they cover an area of roughly 250 square miles.
The Altai proper and the Mongol Altai are crisscrossed by a network of turbulent, youthful rivers fed mainly by melted snow and summer rains, which occasion spring and summer floods. The Katun, Bukhtarma, and Biya are among the biggest. Rivers of the Gobi Altai are shorter, shallower, and often frozen in winter and dry in summer. There are more than 3,500 lakes, most of structural or glacial origin. Those of the Gobi Altai are often bitterly salty.
Four fairly distinct vegetation zones can be discerned in the Altai: mountain subdesert, mountain steppe, mountain forest, and the Alpine regions. The first, found on lower slopes and in hollows of the Mongol Altai, and its lesser range, known as the Gobi Altai, reflects the high summer temperatures and low rainfall: the sparse life includes xerophytic (drought-tolerant) and halophytic (salt-tolerant) plants. The mountain steppe zone rises to about 2,000 feet in the north and to 6,600 feet in the south and east. Meadows and mixed-grass steppes are characterized by sod grasses, forb species, and steppe shrubs. The mountain forest zone, consisting of taiga (swampy coniferous forest), is most characteristic of the Altai proper; it covers about seven-tenths of the territory, mostly in the low and medium mountain regions. Forests reach up to elevations of 6,500 feet but climb to about 8,000 feet on the drier slopes of the central and eastern Altai. Most prevalent are coniferous species-larches, firs, and pines (including the Siberian stone pine)-but there are also large areas covered by secondary birch and aspen forests. A forest belt is practically nonexistent in the Mongol Altai and Gobi Altai, but isolated clumps of coniferous trees grow in river valleys. Alpine vegetation-subalpine shrubs giving way to meadows widely used for summer pasture and then to mosses and bare rock and ice-is found only on the highest ridges.
Animal life follows vegetation patterns. Various rodents populate the mountainous semideserts and steppes, while birdlife includes eagles, hawks, and kestrels. Most species are of Mongolian origin-e.g., marmot, jerboa (a jumping rodent), and antelope. Siberian mammals (bears, lynx, musk deer, and squirrels) and birds (hazel grouse and woodpeckers) frequent the moist coniferous forests. Alpine animal life includes the mountain goat, snow leopard, and mountain ram.
The people and economy.
The Altai proper are settled by people of Altaic origin, Russians, and Kazaks. Indigenous tribes of Altaic people (such as the Altai-Kizhi) account for a sizable proportion of the population in Gorno-Altay. Their principal occupation is livestock raising, including the breeding of cattle, sheep, and horses. Russians and Kazaks are mostly engaged in agriculture and livestock raising, or in mining. Large mines and nonferrous metal smelters (for copper, lead, and zinc) are concentrated in the Rudnyy ("Ore") Altai in Kazakhstan and Gorno-Altay. The Gorno-Altay region has a fairly well-developed forestry and wood-products industry and light industries, including food processing. The Mongol Altai and its lesser range, the Gobi Altai are populated by Khalkha Mongols and Kazaks. Horse breeding is ubiquitous in the region. In the north cattle and yaks are the mainstays, while the drier south is better suited for sheep, goats, and camels. Southern cattle herders must conduct extensive drives in order to compensate for water and fodder shortages. These nomadic pastoralists erect dwellings ger-round structures consisting of felt and hides lashed to lattice frames-in their destination areas. Traditional herding patterns are rapidly giving way to a more sedentary way of life.