Chuya Steppe

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Federal district: Siberian

Administrative district: Kosh-Agachsky district, Republic of Altai

Nearest settlement: village of Kosh-Agach

Description: virgin landscape, cultural and historic site

Accessibility: low

Recreation type: sports and eco-tourism

On the way from the district centre, the village of Kosh-Agach, towards the Russian-Mongolian border, one can’t help noticing that the higher you go, the more colourful and vivid the surrounding landscape becomes. Scorched shrubbery is gleaming yellow under the dazzling sun, hazy mountains are towering above the horizon, and the azure sky is reflected in countless steppe lakes. A sudden gust of wind lifts up a cloud of dust from an ancient mound and carries it across the deserted motorway, along the old wooden poles carrying electric power lines and past the lopsided, flat-roofed huts and Kazakh yurts.

A local shepherd, riding a short-legged horse with an air of self-importance, covers his smoking pipe with the palm of a hand, protecting it from dust, which is not the best additive to tobacco. The large herd he is tending to is trampling on the dry ground. A black grunting ox, known as sarlyk in the local language, appears to be in sharp focus against the blurry background of cows. Its thick and shining fur is long enough to reach its hoofs and its long horns are a conspicuous signal for aliens to keep out of its way. Surrounded by a boisterous flock of sheep, a “ship of the desert” is proudly sailing along the Chuya Steppe, which is the only place in Russia where camels are bred in the wild.

The Chuya Steppe is a unique natural landscape. It’s about 70 km long and from 10 to 40 km wide. Actually, this intermountain hollow, located 1,700-2,000 metres above sea level, is frost-bound for most of the year. The climate in the region is acutely continental, with winter temperatures dropping to minus 50 degrees Celsius , and summer temperatures rising to over 30 degrees Celsius. If you decide to visit this harsh region, the best time is late August-early September, as you will avoid both dust storms and severe frosts.

Flora and fauna

The Chuya Steppe is the most arid part of Altai, as it gets the most sunshine in the region. The area rarely receives more than 150 mm of precipitation per year (to put this in perspective, the northern Sahara receives some 200 mm of precipitation per year). The region is mostly covered with drought-resistant plants: wormwood shrubs and dry feather grass can be seen here and there; ears of sheep’s fescue swing gently in the wind; Alpine edelweiss grows in abundance in river valleys.

The region’s fauna is remarkably varied. Ground squirrels and marmots build labyrinths of underground passages – darting out of one burrow, they make a headlong plunge into another. Mouse hares and voles are hardly visible against the ochrous-brown background. The Chuya Steppe is one of the few regions that give shelter to wild corsac foxes and manuls. Herds of black-tailed gazelles, traditionally roaming from place to place within the confines of the steppe, disappeared as far back as the 1980s. Now they can only be seen during their migration, with sightings of them becoming increasingly rare. Colourful and glossy backs of vipers can be seen in cracks between stones; above them, speedy lizards move to and fro. The steppe lakes are home to ruddy shelducks. Bar-headed geese and common cranes can be spotted sometimes. A black silhouette of a soaring golden eagle stands out on the dazzling blue background of the sky. Flocks of vultures fly in circles over cattle carcasses.

The Chuya Steppe got its name from the Chuya River flowing across its territory. Apart from the Chuya River, the steppe landscape is dissected by the Yustyd and Bar-Barguzy rivers and numerous lakes. These rivers and lakes are a fish lover’s paradise – they teem with grayling and Altai osman, a species found exclusively in the Altai Mountains and northwest Mongolia. The average depth of Chuya lakes doesn’t exceed five metres. Lacking any outflowing rivers, many of the lakes resemble small mirrors, dotting the steppe. The absence of rivers coupled with cryogenic soils has provoked the emergence of so called stone swamps. Consisting of large chunks of rock, the structure of the stone swamps resembles that of quick sand. At a depth of 15 to 90 metres lies a permafrost layer. With the arrival of warm weather, the soil above the permafrost layer thaws, creating a mixture of stones, silt, sand, organic substances and water.

Cultural heritage

The Chuya Steppe can be compared to a huge open air museum. It boasts so many archeological landmarks that even the vast collections at the  Museum of the Telengit people in the neighbouring village of Kokorya pale beside it. The steppe archaeological landmarks span the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages. Quite typical are mounds of large stones – kereksurs – encircled by stone walls. Stone rays composed of smaller stones stretch from the centre of each mound towards the wall. As no burials have been found in the central part of these mounds, many archeologists believe that they were constructed to worship the Sun and didn’t fulfill any sepulchral functions. Few kereksurs are found outside the Chuya region.

Another archaeological landmark found in the Chuya Steppe is rock pillars that can reach over two metres in height. The most famous of such pillars, going by the name of Shaman, stands in the Yustyd River valley. It is a vertical chunk of rock, possibly designating the burial site of a shaman. Scientists call these megaliths “deer stones” – very often their surfaces are carved with images of deer.

In fact, petroglyphs are far from rare in the region. A large petrophyphic complex, extending for almost 20 km, has been discovered at the western edge of the Chuya Steppe, in the Yelangash River valley. Numerous images depict people, animals, carts and scenes of everyday life.

Research carried out in the region has revealed that the Chuya culture was one of the richest in Altai, as it was part of a cross-cultural community spanning southeast Altai, Tuva, the Transbaikal region, Kazakhstan and northwestern Mongolia.

How it emerged

The most recent geological research has definitely proven that almost all intermountain hollows in southern Siberia and northern Mongolia turned into glacier-dammed lakes during glacial periods. As a result of climate change, the ice dams creating these lakes melted and the water was released, leaving the hollows drained. This process repeated itself systematically over time, as glaciers would melt and flood the hollows. Further, glacier dams would sometimes burst spontaneously, releasing hundreds of cubic kilometres of water. In line with this theory, the present-day Chuya and Kuray steppes were submerged in a large cool lake – a perfect evidence of which is to be found in the bed deposits and tidal marks (the so-called current-ripple marks), which are particularly noticeable in the Kuray steppe. The large rock chunks, scattered around the steppe at a distance from the mountains, were carried to their present-day location by floating ice, which is a further evidence supporting the lake hypothesis.

In addition, there are theories stipulating that intermountain lakes in southern Siberia existed in preglacial and interglacial periods as well. This suggests that long before the last glacial period, the present-day Chuya steppe had been submerged in a warm lake – this is evidenced by shell and clay deposits. As a result of gradual climate cooling, the indigenous broad-leaved forests were replaced by the steppe-like vegetation. Now, as the region receives very little precipitation, the only thing that prevents the Chuya Steppe from desertification is a very low amount of evaporation.

How to get there

Take the M52 motorway and drive from the village of Kosh-Agach in the direction of Tashanta village and the Russian-Mongolian border.

Russian text and photos by Yevgeni Alexandrov

Translated into English by Nadezhda Tsyba

Russian Geographical Society