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Driving Directions Kazakhstan

KAZAKHSTAN is a vast, central Asian republic, similar in size to India, which is bordered by Russia in the northwest and north, Mongolia (at one point), and China in the east, Kyrgyzstan in the southeast, Uzbekistan in the southwest, and Turkmenistan in the south-southwest. The republic’s western boundary is with the Caspian Sea.

Most of Kazakhstan consists of vast, arid plains or steppes with semidesert or desert characteristics. In the west, the land dips below sea level in the marshes beside the Caspian Sea, and, in the east and southeast, the plains are interrupted by hills and high mountains in Kazakhstan’s border regions.

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The Kazakh Highlands, containing several high mountain ranges, occupies the eastern, central part of the country, and it is here that the large, mineral-rich Lake Balkhash is located. Along the southeastern borders with China and Kyrgyzstan, the mountainous areas include parts of the Tian Shan and Altai Mountains, and some of the mountain peaks reach heights above 4,876 meters or 16,000 feet. Nestling among them is the country’s former capital and largest city, Almaty.

Much further west, the vast Aral Sea, which once straddled the border with Uzbekistan, is now reduced to two lakes, one in each country, which is still shrinking. The siphoning-off of water has caused the shrinkage for irrigation purposes from the rivers that feed the sea. This has been a disaster for the fishing communities, which once relied upon the Aral Sea, and has had severe environmental and health consequences for all the people in the region. Although some efforts are made to reverse the process, if these are not successful, it is expected that the sea will dry up altogether in the next 10 to 15 years.

Kazakhstan has several major rivers that mainly arise in the mountains. Their number includes the Irtysh and Ishim, which continue across the northern border into Russia; the Syrdarya, which feeds the Aral Sea; the Emba flowing westwards into the Caspian Sea; and the Ural, which arises in Russia and flows southwards across the Caspian basin.

Kazakhstan’s natural vegetation varies according to a location with specially adapted, water-conserving plants in the arid regions and trees in some of the hilly areas and river valleys. Animals include wolves, roe deer, ibex, and gazelles. Lake Balkhash supports a variety of fish species, mainly the large Balkhash perch. As might be expected in such a vast country, there is considerable climatic variation, but it is hot and dry with very little rainfall in general. Snowfall occurs in mountainous regions.

Parts of Kazakhstan, particularly the mountainous regions, are subject to earthquakes, and the former capital, Almaty, has mainly been rebuilt on two occasions following extensive damage. Almaty is the country’s largest city and an important industrial and cultural center. In 1997, the country’s capital moved to Astana, located north of the Kazakh Highlands in a more stable geological region. Pollution is a severe problem in parts of Kazakhstan, including radioactive fallout from Soviet nuclear tests.

Kazakhstan is a major producer of grain, particularly wheat, and the dry, steppe lands used as pasture for sheep and goats. Fruits and vegetables are grown for local consumption in some areas. In the wooded mountainous regions, timber is cut for domestic construction purposes. Fishing is a small-scale activity in the Caspian Sea and rivers and lakes, especially Lake Balkhash.

Kazakhstan has valuable copper, tin, titanium, phosphorus, magnesium, chromium, lead, tungsten, zinc, coal, oil, and natural gas. Mining these minerals is the main economic activity, and the industry significantly developed during the Soviet period. Oil and gas reserves have yet to be prepared to any great extent. Tourism is a small but growing industry in Kazakhstan, with most visitors from Russia or other neighboring countries.

Kazakhstan declared itself independent in 1991, and since then, economic prospects have remained positive. However, environmental problems, such as the overtraining of the Aral Sea, remain a legacy of past Soviet exploitation and have still to be tackled.

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Topography varies greatly across this vast, landlocked country. There are three mountainous regions: the Altay Shan in the northeast, the Tian Shan in the southeast, and the southernmost of the Ural Mountains in the northwest. These widely separated mountain ranges are vast stretches of desert and steppe, harsh terrain of bare rock and dunes. Most Kazakhstan (about 75 percent) is desert, semi-desert, or steppe (arid grassy plains).

The Aral Sea is really a very large saltwater lake that lies across southwestern Kazakhstan and northwestern Uzbekistan. Located east of the much larger Caspian Sea, the Aral is surrounded by deserts and has no outlets to other water bodies. This inland lake, which was once the fourth-largest in the world, has been steadily shrinking over the last several decades, as water from the rivers that feed into it is diverted for crop irrigation. Since 1988, the drop in sea level has caused the Aral Sea to divide into two distinct bodies of water.

Nearly half of Kazakhstan’s western border is on the Caspian Sea. Like the Aral Sea to its east, the Caspian is landlocked; it has no outlet to other seas, lakes, or oceans. While this means that it could technically be considered a lake, it is rarely treated because of its salty waters and vast size. The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest landlocked body of water. It covers approximately 371,000 square kilometers (143,000 square miles) and has a mean depth of about 170 meters (550 feet). For unknown reasons, water levels have been rising steadily in the Caspian Sea since the late 1970s. Millions of acres of land north of the sea have been flooded.

Did you know about Kazakhstan?

At 132 meters (433 feet) below sea level, the Karagiye Depression is the second-lowest spot on Earth, surpassed only by the Dead Sea (408 meters/ 1,339 feet below sea level).

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