Mongolian geography and nature

Chantsaldulam |

Encircled by mountains and deserts near the top of the globe, Mongolia stands in a marvelously uncrowded and unique world of its own. Heightened by its clear air low population, Mongolia offers a breathtaking variety of scenery under its legendary bright blue sky, its people’s original deity and their totem colour. With their ubiquitous blue silk scarves, or hadag, Mongolians actively worship nature as part of themselves.

Mongolia – and the people who live here – is a land of constant surprises. Snow-capped peaks soar from grassy, flower-covered steppe and sandy dunes; bare hills, badlands and gorges rise from flat desert floors; and in constant refrain, wide valleys sprawl out into enormous vistas. Waterfalls, lakes, rivers and oases refresh the eye; dense forests and marshy swamps enclose you; and the classic steppe goes on forever. Animals, both wild and domestic, abound, and there is drama too from Mongolia’s extremes of climate, especially the blinding dust storms, blizzards and flash floods of spring. Quite simply, Mongolia is Nature on massive scale.

Located at the eastern end of the Central Asian Plateau between China and Russia, Mongolia is a landlocked country more than 1,000kilometers (620 miles) from the nearest ocean and covering an area of 1,566,500 square kilometers (604,829 square miles). This is roughly the size of Western Europe, the US state of Alaska or Australia’s Queensland. Mongolia is seventh largest Asian country and 18th in the world.

Known as Outer Mongolia until the mid-1920s, this independent country stretches about 2,400 kilometers (1,490 miles) from east to west and some 1,260 kilometers (783 miles) from north to south. Mongolia’s northern border with Russia’s Siberia runs for almost 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles). Its southern border along the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang stretches over 4,600 kilometers (2,860 miles).

Interestingly, Mongolia’s overall latitude – 42 to 52 degrees north – is actually lower than Scandinavia, the Russian heartland and even Britain. The country’s width would straddle the US-Canadian border and cover northern Japan, including Hokkaido, and Russia’s Sakhalin Island. Besides the giant neighbors already mentioned, Mongolia is not that far from Korean, whose border is only 1, 000 kilometers (620 miles) to the southeast. (Mongolia’s “seaport” is China’s Tianjin and the country even has a merchant navy). With its long time cultural influence on Mongolia, Tibet lies 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) due south. Immediately to the west lie the now-independent nations of Central Asia with whom Mongolia shares a long – and often tumultuous – history. But for a 60 kilometers (37mile) strip of Russia and China in the far northwest, Mongolia and Kazakhstan would be able to shake hands.

Despite its modest latitude , however, Mongolia boast extremes of climate that stem from its far inland position and high elevation, with any ocean-generated moisture blocked by surrounding mountains. Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, covers more that 60 percent of the country. Visitors will often read or hear the expression “extreme continental climate” which means, quite simply, short hot summers and long, very cold winters. Mongolia also has extreme diurnal temperatures, or wide fluctuations in a single day.

Prevailing winds come from the northwest and the country is remarkably dry with less than 500 mm (20 inches) of rainfall annually. Little snow falls and winters are remarkably clear, despite average temperatures of -26°C (-15°F) in January, the coldest month. (With low humidity and no wind chill factor, however, thankfully it rarely feels that cold.) Wind and dust storms come in spring when Arctic winds meet balmy air from the tropical south – and blast away for weeks, often quite dramatically (Mongolia’s oldest export is dust to China). Rains fall in summer months between late July and September. Mongolia’s growing season is only 100 days.

Mongolia’s location at the junction of the Central Asian Steppe with the Siberian taiga, or dense forest, and the Gobi desert zone, punctuated by high mountains, gives the country a fascinating diversity that frequently surprises visitors. Simply put, Mongolia passes through several natural zones from north to south. Up along its northern border, the landscape is wet, hilly and forested, turns to grasslands or steppe in the center, and then semi-deserts and finally desert, or Gobi, along its entire southern side. Alpine belts mark the summits of Mongolia’s highest ranges. These very different regions have also given each its own characteristic plant and animal life – and another one of Mongolia’s unique attractions.

Contrary to the popular image, only 30 percent of the country is actually desert, the Gobi or gov in Mongolian, and only small portion of that comprises sandy dunes. In fact, most of the country is mountainous, with snow and glacier on the highest peaks and dense forest of cedar, larch and pine covering those of central and northern Mongolia. Even the Gobi has soaring mountains, some snow capped: one notable southern massif harbors alpine meadows and a year-round “glacier” in one of its deep and shady valleys.

In all its sometimes confusing definitions, steppe or grassland covers much of the country and provides the principal grazing land for domesticated animals. The steppe spreads out from below the mountain ranges through central Mongolia and into the vast flatlands of eastern Mongolia. (In the other direction, steppe spreads all the way to Eastern Europe.) There are also hundreds of lakes, both fresh and salty, scattered around the country. Up in the far north, Lake Hovsgol is a mini-version and close neighbor of Russia’s famous Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. Many of these waters contain curative minerals and medicinal salts. Mongolia has an astounding 3,800 rivers, including several tributaries of major ones flowing into the pacific through China and the Arctic Ocean through Siberia.

From a vast inland sea 200 million years ago, powerful geological forces have lifted Mongolia into one of the highest countries in the world with an average elevation today of 1,580 meters (5,184 feet). (Some 80 percent lies above 1,000 meters.) Although Mongolia is basically a high plateau trending downwards from west to east, these same dynamic forces of nature also created three massive mountain ranges – each with a very different character – that form a major continental watershed between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans and also the dry interior of Central Asia. Mongolia’s lowest point is Hoh Nuur Lake (560 meters or 1,837 feet) in the grassy steppe of the extreme northeast. Located in a river valley in central Mongolia, the capital of Ulaanbaatar stands at 1,380 meters (4,530 feet). Here is quick “tour d’horizon”  of Mongolia. Following local tradition, this journey – as does this guide – takes you clockwise around this marvelous country.

Mongolia’s oldest – and most revered – mountains are the gentle Hentii Range which runs for 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast from the capital to the Russian border. Averaging 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) high, the Hentii give rise to three of Mongolia’s most significant rivers, two flowing to Pacific and the other to the Arctic. The range is also a transition zone from the Siberian taiga to what is called “mountain forest steppe”, where cedar and larch grow only on sunny northern slopes and the southern sides are covered in grass. Dominated by the mighty bulk of sacred Burkhan khaldun, the Hentii is also the birthplace of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian nation.

To the east sprawl the Great Eastern Steppe, including the last untouched grasslands on Earth and their vast herds of white- tailed gazelles and beyond that rises the bulk of the Great Hingan Range of Inner Mongolia, now part of China. More recent volcanic activity has created the fascinating Dariganga Plateau with its 200 remnant volcanoes, rich grasslands and spring- fed lakes. Sand dunes here mark the easternmost extension of the vast Gobi Desert, actually a semi-desert, which sprawl westwards for nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) across the southern third of the country and up to the Altai Range, Mongolia’s youngest and most majestic range.

Over here in western Mongolia, the landscape has been shaped by more recent geological events, namely the crashing of the Indian subcontinent into Asia some 50 million years ago and its pushing northeast. This mighty confrontation, best known for creating the Himalaya and Pamir ranges, took place only 2,000 kilometers southwest of Mongolia and continues even now at five centimeters (two inches) a year. The process has pushed, cracked, rippled and overlaid the Mongolian landscape up against immovable Precambrian bedrock in Siberia, the so-called Siberian Craton west of Lake Baikal.

Fault lines running throughout this region make Mongolia one of the most active seismic regions in the world. Three large earthquakes rumbled through western and northern Mongolia in the 20th century, leaving behind clearly visible fault lines that have barely eroded in the country’s cold and dry climate. They are now fascinating, and most unusual, tourist attraction with some slips up to six meters high (20 feet). (There were no casualties, only a few very rattled nomads and their gers.) Another effect is the numerous hot and mineral springs dotted around the country.

But the most dramatic result of this geological movement is the soaring Mongol Altai Range of western Mongolia where the country’s highest peak, snow-capped and glaciated Mount  Huiten (4,374 meters or 14,350 feet), stands on the border with China and Russia (Altai extends into Russia, China and Kazakhstan). Running southeast, the mighty bulwark of the Altai’s 400 kilometer-long (250-mile) Tavan Bogd and Gobi-Altai also contain evidence of earliest man in caves and petroglyphs.

Fronted by a massive fault line, this snow-capped, 4, 000-meter-high (13,000-feet) range feeds its waters eastwards into the massive Great Lakes Depression, a 100,000-square-kilometer (38,610-square-mile) expanse of fresh and salty lakes bordered on the north by another major fault line. The depression is dominated by Uvs Lake, located up against the Russian border and Mongolia’s largest lake. In summer, the semi-desert landscape turns to marshland and becomes a sojourn for migrating bird life. Continuing as the Gobi-Altai, the range – now fronted by a rift valley dotted with salty lakes – descends over 700 kilometers (435 miles) southeast into the heart of Mongolia’s famous Gobi Desert, where snow-capped Ikh Bogd (3,957 meters or 12,982 feet) stands like a beacon over the vast desert landscape to the south.

Mongolia’s third mountain range, the Hangai, rises east and northeast of the entire Altai Range and the lakes. Located in the western part of central Mongolia, the southeast trending Hangai range was created by the same geological forces as the Altai but reflects much more volcanic activity with lava flows, ancient volcanoes and hot springs. Older than the Altai, it is also much less dramatic in appearance with more rounded hills, heavily forested with pine and birch, and lush pastures. Many summits have wide meadows. Permafrost stretches far down into this range.

The Hangai Range is also an important watershed for Mongolia’s major north-flowing rivers to Lake Baikal and the Arctic Ocean, such as the historic Orhon and Tamir rivers along which many tribal confederations made their capitals, including the Mongol Empire’s Karakorum. (Waters from the Hangai’s southern slopes flow into a string of “dead-end” lakes.) At its western end, the range’s highest peak, Otgon Tenger (4,021 meters or 13,192 feet), has a glacier and is permanently covered in ice.

North of the Hangai is mountainous Hovsgol region –and yet another one of Mongolia’s many scenic personalities. Defined by the 3,000- meter-high (9,843- foot) Sayan Range along the Russian border, this region has a real taste of Siberia, with densely forested taiga that is home to Mongolia’s Reindeer People. To the south the landscape turns to wooded steppe, swampland, lakes and increasingly arid landscape. Formed by volcanic activity only 2.5-3.5 million years ago, crystal-clear Hovsgol Lake dominates this fascinating region. (The deep lake holds 1-2 percent of the world’s fresh water.) Fed by more than 90 rivers, lake’s waters leave from a single outlet at its southern end and flow in roundabout fashion into Russia’s Lake Baikal, less than 300 kilometers (180 miles) to the east.

Farther east, we’ve now come nearly full circle to the region directly north of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Here, in a surprisingly broad and lush valley where wheat fields- grown for bread and vodka. – have replaced the grassy steppe, all of Mongolia’s rivers turn north. Within a huge catchment area stretching from the Hentii Range in the east, through the sprawling Hangai across the south and southwest and up into the Hovsgol highlands, the waters of the Tuul. Orhon and Selenge rivers meet, flow across the Russian border into Lake Baikal and eventually make their way to the Arctic Ocean far to the north.

Resource: Carl Robinson "Mongolia Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky" 

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