Since the times of Herodotus, people have been aware of a wild mountainous country deep in the continent, with a short and resonant name - Altai. Rising into the skies, Altai is a vast place to the south of the Siberian taiga with scary impenetrability and numerous swamps and rivers. From the south, this mountainous land is girded by sun-scorched deserts of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, with dry winds blowing from Central Asia. Altai, with its wing-like branches, connects and divides Siberia and the heart of Central Asia. The great mountain knot is the source of almost all бranges of Altai. It is a famous part of the world divide between in the inland drainage basin of Central Asia and the waters of the Arctic Ocean.
The highest and most beautiful double peak in Altai is Belukha (Muztau), on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia.
The western part of the Kazakhstani Altai, or Rudnyi Altai, is a world-known depository of ore minerals. This is why the mountains were called the Altai, which means “gold mountains”. The ridges of the Kazakhstani Altai have a complex geological structure: its western peripheral part features gentle rolling plains which in the east turn into medium-high mountains with broad valleys and deep and narrow gorges in the mountainous parts. In some places, the mountains and plains of Altai are overshadowed by groups of dented rocky ridges, ranges and peaks which are sources of modern glaciation.
The climate of Altai is strongly continental, with a big amplitude of daily, seasonal and average annual fluctuations of the air temperature, which owes to the intracontinental location of this mountainous land. Altai is the meeting spot for the strongly continental Mongolian climate, the steppe and semi-desert climate of Central Asia, and the continental climate of Western Siberia .
The coldest months are January and February, with a monthly average temperature of -17°Сto -23.8°Сin the northern Rudnyi Altai and high-altitude basins, and -14.1°Сto -16.6 °Сin the southern part. July is the warmest month, with the monthly average temperature of + 14°Сto + 16°С, and about zero at 1,000 to 1,500 m above sea level. The temperature is a bit higher in the foothills and on the plains.
Glaciers are the feeding source for Altai’s water bodies. In Altai, the glaciers usually go down to 2,600 m above sea level. The severe highland climate affects the adjacent area, too. The total area of the permafrost in Altai is estimated to be 5,670 km2, and its lowest line is at 2,000 m .
As an irriguous high-mountain area, Altai features a dense drainage network. The most profluent stream in Kazakhstan is the Irtysh River , with a total length of 4,248 km (of which 1,400 km flow within Kazakhstan ). It starts in western slopes of the Mongolian Altai at 2,500 m and is called the Kara Yertis (Black Irtysh) there. The Black Irtysh flows in Lake Zaisan and goes out as the Irtysh River . Currently, the lake has been dammed with the Bukhtarma Reservoir. Lake Maloye Irtyshskoye (over 70 km long) and the Ust-Kamenogorsk hydroelectric power station are situated below. The Irtysh is 120to 150 m wide.
At 1,495 m above sea level, between Sarytau and Azutau ranges, there is a most beautiful alpine lake of Altai – Markakol. It occupies a deep tectonic excavation in branches of the Kurchum Range and is located at 1,485 m above sea level. It is the largest lake in Altai, with 27 big and small creeks and rivers flowing into it, and only one (Kaldzhir) flowing out. The lake is 27 m deep, and 6 to 7 m transparent. It has the Markakol State Reserve.
The 364-km-long Bukhtarma, a tributary of the Irtysh , is one of the biggest rivers in Altai. Wood is rafted along this ancient river, and water tourists enjoy having time here. The other big river in Southern Altai is the 100-km-long Narym, which flows into the Bukhtarma Reservoir. The Narym is a significant irrigation river.
Lake Maralye (Chaban-Bai) is on the southern slope of the Listvyaga Range . The Belaya River goes out of it to flow in the Bukhtarma. Lake Yazovoye (Kara-Kul) is in the wooded area. Lake Rakhmanovskoye is strikingly beautiful. It is located amongst steep wooded slopes at 1,760 m above sea level. It has thermal water outlets with a temperature of + 22 to 3°С. It ssanative properties are close to the water of Tskhaltubo and Belpkurikha. A small river of Arasan ( 2.6 km long,about 600 m wide, 30 m deep) flows in the lake. The color of all these lakes is variable depending on the weather. The lead-grey tint of the water caused by clouds changes into bright ultramarine colors when the sun goes out.
The forest belt of Southern Altai is in the upper limits, 2,300 to 2,400 m above sea level. The Siberian larch is the main species here. Common cedar and larch forests with the Siberian fir, common spruce and broad-leaved trees (birch, aspen and poplar) are very beautiful.
The wildlife of Southern Altai is rich and versatile. A lot of rare and extinct species live here. For example, Lake Markakol has endemic forms of lenok, grayling and gudgeon. A striped racer was once caught at the foothills of the southern part of the Kurchum Range – a snake whose habitat is in Manchuria and Korea. There are 250 species of birds here, many of which are ecologically linked with either inland water bodies or dry rocky mountains e.g., white-tailed eagle and osprey – big fish-eating birds of prey. The black stork is common here, too. The Markakol Reserve has the great black-headed gull – the biggest gull ever, as well as goldeneye, red-breasted merganser and tufted duck. Dry slopes are inhabited by chuckors, hill pigeons, rock swallows, and Mongolian finches. The Altai snowcock, listed in the Red Book, inhabits the uplands. There are a lot of mammals here. For example, Southern Altai is abundant in Siberian deer (numerous enough to hunt). The Kuchum, Southern Altai, Tarbagatai and Narym ranges are inhabited by at least ten snow leopards. The red dog is rarely seen. Cliffs are inhabited by the Alpine ibex, and gorges, by the tek (a mountain goat). The argali live on the steppe slopes. The taiga and the alpine belt have groups of rock outbreaks the home of the smallest tusky deer – the musk deer. Its population grows every year. Sometimes, the wild boar and moose visit the southern mountains from the Zaisan Depression.
The flora of Western Altai is rich and versatile: over 1,000 species. Western peripheral branches are covered with steppe vegetation. In the spring and summer, the mountains are covered with red and crimson colors of blooming peonies, the blue of ixilirions and pasque flower, the bright yellow of the Altai leontissa, Siberian chorispora, and Altai tulips.