Chara Sands

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Federal Region: Siberian

Administrative region: Trans-Baikal

Nearest settlement: Chara, Kalarsky District, Trans-Baikal Region

Description: sand dunes, geological site, virgin landscape, sands, prehistoric site

Accessibility: general

Recreation type: scientific, learning, family, sports, tourism

This amazing miniature desert is located just 40 kilometres from the modern Kodar Glaciers: a striking yellow spot among snow-covered rocky ridges, thick larch taiga, numerous lakes and tussock bogs.

The sands area is 10 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide. Some of the dunes (which make several chains) are as high as 15 – 30 metres. Against the background of the larch taiga, the Chara Sands area looks truly unique – and very beautiful.

The Upper Chara hollow is situated between the Kodar and Udokan ridges (Stanovoye Upland). The hollow’s bottom lies at 700 – 900 metres above the sea level. In its middle, a large area of blown sands was formed – along the left side of the Chara river valley in the interfluve of the Upper and Middle Sakukans. No other hollow in the Stanovoye Upland – or indeed anywhere in Transbaikalia – can boast a blown sands area that large.

The terrain here is so pronounced, it could go straight into a textbook. Furthermore, just about everything is unusual here: a desert in the middle of mountainous tundra! From south-west to north-east, Chara Sands is 10.5 kilometres, and about 3-4 kilometres wide. It lies 80 metres above the river Chara; the highest point is 793 metres above the sea level.

Meso- and micro-terrain is very diverse: sand dunes, dune chains, hilly sands, blown hollows, sand ridges. All these forms are made even more complex by ripples and cells. The sands are fine- and medium-grained quartz and potassium feldspar, light-yellow in colour. In blown hollows the sand is frequently enriched with iron oxides, which makes it ochre. Clay and silt impurities content is very low.

Despite the sands area’s small size, the terrain is quite uneven here. In the central (highest) part it’s mostly dunes and dune chains, interspersed with blown hollows and hilly sands. In the outskirts, it’s sand ridges. Large dune chains are very impressive – between 150 and 700 metres long! And the whole chain stretches for 2.5 kilometres, 15-30 metres high. Furthermore, in the central part of the massif there’s a 40-50-metre high ledge integrated into the dune chain’s slope. In the south-west the dune chains get thicker, and are the highest. The windward dune slopes are gentle (10-15°), while the lee ones are steep (30-35°), covered with eolian ripples.

Chara Sands is a truly amazing place. It’s like a real desert, but with features you won’t see anywhere else except in Transbaikalia. Cold blue icing right next to warm yellow sand; instead of camels, a reindeer caravan treads across the sands, tended by an Evenk driver. You might stumble upon an oasis among the sand ridges where palms gave way to northern larches. The desert is surrounded by mountains covered with snow even during the summer; the dunes run into bogs or lakes.

If you cross the Middle Sakukan – capricious like all northern rivers, – it wouldn’t be hard to reach the Sands along a decent road from Chara. There’s no intermediate zone: a minute ago you were walking through a swampy wetland, then you step right into a desert. Huge vistas of fine and medium blown quartz sands, superbly rounded and yellowish, of glacial outwash origin.

Moving across the mini-desert isn’t easy: it’s criss-crossed by two- and three-kilometre ridges and dune sands. The most powerful ones are in the middle; they look like frozen waves. Make the effort to climb one of them, and you’ll enjoy a wonderful view of sand dunes stretching all the way to the horizon.

Now a breeze starts blowing, and the tops of the dunes get clouded with faint “smoke”; thin flows of sand coil and crawl around as if they were alive. The wind gets stronger and a trail of sand tens of metres high rises above the dunes. The sands seem to live a life of their own.

And next to the dunes there’re snow-capped mountains and the limitless sea of centuries-old taiga spotted with blue saucers of lakes. Even in the middle of summer there are huge ice fields on the lush green meadows. The contrasts seem to be impossible: as if an incredible open-air museum was set up, displaying natural curiosities of the north and the south next to each other.

In the south-eastern part of Chara Sands a Neolithic prehistoric site was discovered (stone artefacts, ceramics).

How it was formed

Chara Sands is a large outwash terrain which formed during the Muruktin (Zyrian) glaciation period (about 100 – 55 thousand years ago) as a lake delta at the front zone of the Sakukan glacier, when Chara hollow was filled with water. Eolian activities during the Holocene era affected the top 20 metres of the massif producing the ripples, dunes, blown sands etc., mostly stretched in the north-western direction.

How to get there

Chara Sands is 6 kilometres from the district capital Chara; you can get there by plane or by train. Then walk the 6 kilometres along the unsurfaced road (it takes 2 or 3 hours depending on the group). It’s not a hard route. The main obstacle is fording the Middle Sakukan, so make sure you have adequate equipment (at least a good rope), or hire an all-terrain.

There are flights to Chara from Chita (650 kilometres), or trains (16 kilometres from the railway station, scheduled buses available).

Photographs by Alexander Savchenko

Translated into English by Vsevolod Korolev

Russian Geographical Society