The northern part of Tian Shan massif consists of 2 main ridges called Zailisky (Trans-Ili) Alatau and Kungey Alatau. Excluding the Caucasus, the Zailisky Alatau (Alatau means “multicolored mountains” in Kazak) was the most significant center of mountaineering in the former Soviet Union.Its peaks, covered with snow and ice, reach up as a high ragged wall to the south of the sun-scorched Ili Valley . The Chu River serves as the western border of the ridge, the Charyn River being its eastern edge. The Kungei Alatau Ridge, parallel to the Zailiiski Alatau, lies in the south behind deep lateral valleys of the Chon-Kemin and Chilik rivers. In the middle, both ranges are bridged together to form the Chilik-Kemin knot.
The versatile nature and coloring of these mountains are striking. That is why local residents nicknamed them “Alatau”, or “multicolored mountains”.
The name Zailisky appeared later in the 19th century, when first Russian military units, marching from the north-east, saw the mountains across the Ili River, looking as a marvelous oasis amongst the steppes.
The central and highest part of the range, the Zailiiski Alatau per se, is sandwiched between the Kastekskiy Pass ( 2,825 m ) in the west and the Amanzhol Pass (3,510 m ) in the east, and is about 170 km long. Here, right on the Almaty meridian, the Zailiiski Alatau is bridged with the parallel Kungei Alatau Range to the south. Between them, in deep structural valleys, glacial rivers flow – Chon-Kemin to the west and Chilik to the east of the bridge.
There are 370 glaciers in the central part of the Zailisky Alatau, with a total area of 540 sq. m . In this the central part, the height of the range exceeds 3,200 m anywhere, and it reaches its maximum ( 5,017 m ) in the Talgar Massif, in the Sredniy Talgar River head.
The powerful Maloalmatinsky Branch forks out to the north from the main Zailisky Alatau Range , near the city. A few kilometers away, it further splits into two braches – the eastern and the western. Between them, the Malaya Almatinka River flows in the woodlands. The high eastern branch, more than 30 km long, is capped with a series of beautiful peaks: Ordzhonikidze ( 4,440 m ), Mayakovskogo ( 4,200 m ), Manshuk Mametovoi ( 4,100 m ), Abaya ( 4,080 m ), etc. To the north of the Talgar Pass ( 3,200 m ), the Maloalmatinsky Branch declines sharply, loses its glaciation and forks out into a few edges, covered with a bristle of Tien Shan fur trees. This branch serves as a basin divide of the Malaya Almatinka River and the Levyi Talgar River.
The other, western, part of the Maloalmatinsky Branch is known as the Kumbel Range, which means “the sandy pass”. It separates the Malaya Almatinka River from the Bolshaya Almatinka River. A few fan-shaped side edges, known as the Term-Butak, branch off the Kumbel Peak (3,200m).
Snowfields and their glaciers are available only in the highest central part of the Zailisky Alatau, stretched for 120 km from the west to the east. The Zailiiski Alatau has more than 190 glaciers, with a total glaciation area of about 400 sq. km.
On the northern slopes, the glaciers are in the heads of the rivers Uzun-Kargala, Chimalgan, Kaskelen, Aksai, Bolshaya Almatinka, Malaya Almatinka, Talgar, Issyk, and Turgen.
The maximum glaciation is on top of the range in the heads of the Talgar River , where ice and snow cover at least 150 sq. km. There are valley and kettle-hole glaciers here - Dmitriyeva, Konstitutsii, Toguzak, Kalesnika, and Shokalskogo, 4 to 6 km long. Glaciation of the southern slope is less intensive and is mainly concentrated in the heads of the rivers B. Kemin and Chilik, especially to the east of the Chilik-Kemin Bridge . The 12-km-long Korzhnevskogo Glacier, the biggest one in the Zailiiski Alatau, crawls down from the southern slopes of the Talgar Massif. Other big glaciers – Bogatyr and Dzhangyrak – are to the west.
The snow line on the northern slopes is at about 3,700 to 3,900 m , increasing eastward, depending on the direction of slopes. There is hardly any snow cover on the southern side of the range, even at 4,000 to 4,200 m .
Many valleys in their upper part are partitioned with strong ancient and modern terminal moraines which impede access to the upper valleys. For instance, the terminal moraine of Tuyk-Su Glacier is almost 300 m high. The upper valleys of the Bolshaya Almatinka, Talgar, Issyk and other rivers are similar.
The climate in Kazakhstan is dry and strongly continental as the country is far away from oceans and open to cold north and north-east winds. However, the climate of the Zailiiski Alatau sharply differs (for the better) from that of the plains at its piedmont.
Precipitation includes heavy rainfall at the foothills, and snow up in the mountains. This solid precipitation feeds numerous glaciers whence most streams and rivers originate to irrigate blooming foothills. At 3,050 m , the coldest air temperature was recorded in January, dropping down to -30°. In the summer, the temperature sometimes goes up to+ 17°.
An important feature for the climate is the number of clear days, with thunderstorms and precipitation. September has most clear days (oftentimes 20), and May has most days with precipitation (as many as 24). Absolute humidity is higher in the summer and less in the winter. In the summer afternoons, clouds oftentimes cover the tops, with precipitation at higher altitudes.
Thunderstorms occur in April through September. Most days with thunderstorms are in June (7 on average, however, there were 15 thunderstorms in 1953), and in July (5 on average).
The Kaskelenskoye Gorge is 27 km to the west of Almaty. The Kaskelen River flows along a vast valley and is formed of two sources. The smaller left source originates from a group of glaciers near the Kaskelen Pass ( 3,715 m ). In the upper reaches of the right and main source, flowing alongside the range, the Zailiiski Alatau sharply turns north. There are a number of high peaks here, at the range bend: Kulakbashi ( 3,920 m ), Akkum ( 4,098 m ) and Tur ( 4,350 m ). In 1938, members of the expedition of the Moscow House of Scientists climbed these peaks for the first time.
The side branch which goes off the main ridge has a rock peak, Okzhetpes ( 4,100 m ).
It takes one or two days to get to the upper reaches of the Kaskelen Valley from Almaty. The paths in the gorge are pretty good, and rivers have bridges. You can get to the Chon-Kemin River valley (at the foothills of the Kungei Alatau Range , in front of the majestic Chotkala Group) from the upper gorge via Kaskelen and Dzhaya passes, or to Lake Issyk-Kul via the Dyure Pass (3,733m).
The Aksai River Valley
The next big valley to the east of the Kaskelen River is the Aksai River Gorge. There are more than 15 small glaciers in its upper course (Shnitnikova Glacier being the biggest, not more than 3 km ).
Between the Aksai and Bolshaya Almatinka valleys, the Zailiiski Alatau has an offset to the north, and the deep wooded valley of the Kargalinka River wedges into its top. The snow-covered crest of the dividing ridge in the upper course is crowned with three snow-capped peaks, whence the Kargalinskiy Glacier crawls down.
Good paths go up to the valley. The highest tops are mainly in the upper course of the Levyi Aksai, reaching 4,500 meters . A small Kargalinka gorge lies behind the Aksai Valley and is of no interest for mountain climbers.
The Bolshaya Almatinka River flows in western outskirts of Almaty and originates from two sources separated with a branch which has a majestic pyramid of the Bolshoi Almatinskiy Peak at the edge. The Prokhodnaya River goes to the west of this branch, and the Ozyornaya River flows to the east. They merge in the piedmont to form the Bolshaya Almatinka.
The Prokhodnoye Gorge is about 19 km long. The Prokhodnoi Pass ( 3,609 m ) is in its upper part just slightly covered with snow. It is the shortest and most convenient way from Almaty to the upper reaches of the Chon-Kemin River . For the first 25 km from the city to Alma-Arasan Rest House, the highway goes along the Bolshaya Almatinka Valley , and after it branches off, along the Prokhodnaya River valley. Then, a difficult road goes along the valley which allows to go up the Prokhodnoi Pass. Then, you begin to descend southward along the Almaty River until it merges into the Chon-Kemin River ( 13 km ).
There are no significant peaks near the Prokhodnaya River . About a dozen of glaciers are not longer than 1- 1.5 km . This area is first of all interesting for mountain tourists.
The Ozyornaya River has two sources fed by glaciers going down from the northern slopes of the Zailiiski Alatau Range and its side branches.
The main ridge in the upper part of this area is about 20 km long, with an average height of 4,100 m . There are a number of peaks of up to 4,500 m above its crest in places where side ridges branch off, including the Legostayeva Peak ( 4,468 m ) in the head of the Chernogo Glacier.
The Sovetov Peak ( 4,100 m ) is widely known as it is a beautiful and easy peak in one of the side ridges of the Maloalmatinskiy Branch.
The Ozyornaya River basin has more than 20 glaciers, the biggest one being the Gorodetskogo Glacier (about 5 km).
There are 12 glaciers in the upper reaches of the Malaya Almatinka RIver . The central 4-km-long glacier is of the valley type and called Tuyuk-Su (“locked water”). The main glacier is surrounded by fan-shaped smaller ones located only on the northern slopes. In the past, they were connected to the main one and formed a complex valley glacier.
A big and picturesque valley of the Issyk River is in the eastern part of the Zailiiski Alatau Range . The western border goes along the Talgar Branch. In the upper reaches of the Issyk River , the Zailiiski Alatau Range curves to the south to form a vast cirque separated into three big chambers occupied with glacier groups (eastward): Bos-Kulskaya , Ak -Kulskaya and Kassinskaya. The main range, as well as the Talgar and Issyk Branches, also have a lot of different peaks.
The biggest glaciers in the Issyk River basin , 3 to 4 km long, include: Zharsai, Grigoryeva, Palgova, and Kassina. There are more than twenty smaller glaciers here. The Issyk Valley is rightfully known as one of the most beautiful spots in Kazakhstan.