Geography of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan, the ninth largest state in the world, is located in the heart of Eurasia. With a vast area of 2.75 million square kilometers, it occupies a landmass equivalent to that of Western Europe. From the Caspian Sea in the west to the Altai Mountains in the east, and from the northern region of Western Siberia to the southern deserts and mountain ranges of the Northern Tien Shan, Kazakhstan offers a diverse topography. While a small part of Kazakhstan falls under Eastern Europe, the majority of the country is located in Asia.
Kazakhstan is subdivided into 17 regions, with three cities – Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent – holding the status of «City of Republican Significance.» Additionally, Baikonur is a city with a special status. The territory of Baikonur and its cosmodrome are rented by Russia until 2050 and are designated as a city of federal significance in the Russian Federation.
With a population of over 19 million, Kazakhstan has one of the lowest population densities globally, with less than six people per square kilometer. Almaty is the most densely populated city, home to over two million inhabitants.
Kazakhstan shares its borders with Russia to the north and northwest, making it the longest continuous land border in the world. To the south, Kazakhstan shares borders with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, and to the east, it borders China. These countries are linked by road and rail networks of republican significance.
Kazakhstan's central location makes it a crucial link between Europe and Southeast Asia. Historically, it served as the shortest route for the movement of goods and passengers between these two regions via the Silk Road. Today, the international motor vehicle corridor Western Europe – Western China serves as its modern equivalent. Air transportation has also increased significantly in recent years. The cities of Astana and Almaty serve as comfortable stopover hubs for travel between Southeast Asia and Europe.
Kazakhstan's vast territory spans two time zones, with the western region following the fifth time zone (GMT+5) and the central and eastern regions following the sixth time zone (GMT+6). Visitors from other countries may require some time to adjust to the time difference upon arrival.
Kazakh landscapes: steppe, mountains, taiga, and wetlands
Kazakhstan is home to the vast expanse of the Great Kazakh Steppe also known as Saryarka, covering almost one-third of the country's territory. This expansive plain is the largest in the world, covering an area of over 804,500 square kilometers (310.62 sq mi). The Great Kazakh Steppe is several times larger than even the most extensive plains on Earth, including the famous American prairies and African savannahs.
Kazakhstan is a land of diverse landscapes that encompass much more than just the Great Steppe. From the towering mountains of the Northern Tien Shan with their stunning glaciers, snow-capped peaks, and alpine meadows, to the Altai Mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan, the Jungar Alatau Range in the Almaty region, and the Karatau Mountains in the Turkestan and Zhambyl regions, the country offers a variety of breathtaking vistas.
In addition to the mountains, Kazakhstan boasts hot sandy deserts and semi-deserts, such as Betpak-Dala and Moyinkum, complete with towering dunes that rival those of the Sahara. The Altai region even features a real Siberian taiga, adding yet another element to the country's already impressive range of landscapes. Although tropical jungle may be absent, Kazakhstan has much to offer in terms of natural beauty.
Khan Tengri Peak is the highest point in Kazakhstan, situated on the Tengri-Tag Ridge along the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China. The peak stands at a height of 7,010 meters (22,999 ft) including its ice cover, while its elevation without the ice strata is 6,995 meters (22,949 ft). Its name, which translates to «Lord of the sky» in Turkic, is a fitting tribute to this magnificent natural wonder.
Karagiye Trench, situated on the Mangystau Peninsula, is the lowest point in Kazakhstan, dipping to 132 meters (433 ft) below sea level. The country's altitude range is an impressive 7,142 meters (23,432 ft), which stands as one of the most significant differences among all countries in the world.
Kazakhstan is home to diverse wetlands, including the Caspian Sea, the world's largest lake, which borders the country's western region. The southwestern region of Kazakhstan is also home to the unique and well-known Aral Sea, which is currently drying up. The country also has several freshwater lakes such as Balkhash, Zaisan, Alakol, and Markakol, which serve as nature reserves and popular recreational destinations for locals and tourists alike. Additionally, smaller lakes like Kolsay and Kaindy, situated near Almaty, offer unique natural attractions.
Kazakhstan is blessed with a network of rivers that are a special part of the country's natural beauty. The large rivers such as Irtysh, Ishim, Ural, Syr Darya, and Ili, along with many smaller ones, offer excellent opportunities for fishing and water-based adventure sports such as rafting and kayaking.
Among these rivers, the Irtysh is the longest and one of the most significant in Kazakhstan. Originating in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China, the Irtysh meanders through the country before flowing into Russia, where it becomes the main left tributary of the Ob, one of the three largest Siberian rivers. The length of the Irtysh is 4,248 km (2,639 mi), which exceeds the length of the Ob itself. This makes the Irtysh the longest tributary in the world, a remarkable feat of nature.
Mineral resources are a unique feature of Kazakhstan's landscape. Its subsoil contains practically the entire periodic table of elements discovered by Mendeleev. Kazakhstan ranks among the world's ten largest exporters of oil and gas, and has the second-largest reserves of uranium, chromium, lead, and zinc. Additionally, manganese reserves in the country are the third-largest in the world. Kazakhstan is also among the top ten countries in coal, iron, and gold reserves. Surprisingly, not many people know that Kazakhstan is also an exporter of diamonds to the global market.
Kazakhstan's diverse natural landscapes support a rich and varied flora and fauna. With over 6,000 plant species, more than 500 can be found exclusively in Kazakhstan in limited areas. The saxaul (Haloxylon) tree, a characteristic feature of Central Asian deserts, grows here, with wood so dense it sinks in water. The Greig tulip (Tulipa greigii), with petals that can reach 12-15 cm (4.2-5.92 in), is another unique creation of nature. The blue Tien Shan firs and the wild Sivers apple tree (Malus sieversii), considered the progenitor of all modern varieties of apples, are also found here.
Kazakhstan's animal world is equally diverse, with many species included in the Red Book. The snow leopard, saiga antelope, gazelle, and steppe bustard are among the animals that inhabit the country. The Ustyurt mouflon or urial, honey badger, Brandt's (long-needle) hedgehog, and wild cats such as the manul, caracal, sand cat (Felis margarita), and the famous Asian cheetah are rare and fascinating sights to behold in their natural habitats.
Natural Sights of Kazakhstan
In such a huge country like Kazakhstan, there are many beautiful places to go and interesting things to see. Here's a checklist of the country's most interesting natural attractions:
• Burabay, also known as Borovoye, is a resort on the territory of the Burabay National Park. It is a mountainous oasis with numerous lakes in the north of Kazakhstan.
• The Caspian Sea is an inland sea in the west of Kazakhstan, the largest lake in the world.
• Lake Balkhash is a semi-freshwater lake, meaning that it contains both freshwater and saltwater. The lake is divided into two parts by a narrow strait, with the western part being mostly fresh and the eastern part being salty. It is a popular destination for tourists who come to enjoy its natural beauty and diverse ecosystem.
• Lake Alakol is a lake and a resort on the territory of the Alakol Nature Reserve. It is home to many species of rare birds.
• Charyn Canyon, located along the Charyn River, is often compared in beauty to Colorado's famous Grand Canyon by many tourists.
• The Aral Sea is a once-large lake that is now rapidly drying up and disappearing due to unsustainable irrigation practices that divert water from the rivers that feed the sea. Today, the exposed seabed is a desolate landscape of salt flats and rusted ships.
• Ustyurt Plateau features truly otherwordly terrain with towering buttes and vast salt pans. The area is also home to ancient underground mosques cut into limestone rocks.
• The Ile Alatau Mountains that surround the city of Almaty are home to a popular Shymbulak Ski Resort, Medeu Skating Rink, and some of the most fascinating vistas of Kazakhstan.
• The Altai Mountains are the cradle of civilizations. The land of beautiful wildlife, towering mountains, and unique historical sites.
• Kolsay Lakes are three wonderful gems of the Almaty Region. Tucked between snow-capped mountains, they are surrounded by coniferous forests.
• Lake Kaindy is famous for its «sunken forest» – partially submerged trunks of spruce trees that are over 100 years old.
• The Betpak-Dala Desert is a semi-desert area in the south of Kazakhstan. It's the habitat of the endangered saiga antelope.
National Parks of Kazakhstan
- Bayanaul National Park
- Ile-Alatau National Park
- Altyn-Emel National Park
- Kokshetau National Park
- Karkaraly National Park
- Burabay National Park
- Katon-Karagai National Park
- Charyn National Park
- Sairam-Ugam National Park
- Kolsai Lakes National Park
- Zhongar-Alatau National Park
- Buiratau National Park
- Tarbagatai National Park
- Ulytau National Park
- Merke National Park (set to open in 2023)
Nature Reserves of Kazakhstan
- Aksu-Jabagly Nature Reserve
- Almaty Nature Reserve
- Naurzum Nature Reserve
- Barsakelmes Nature Reserve
- Korgaljyn Nature Reserve
- Markakol Nature Reserve
- Ustyurt Nature Reserve
- West-Altai Nature Reserve
- Alakol Nature Reserve
- Karatau Nature Reserve
Read more about Kazakhstan's national parks and nature reserves in this article.
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