1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Altai

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ALTAI (in Mongolian Altain-ula, the “Mountains of Gold”), a term used in Asiatic geography with various significations. The Altai region, in West Siberia and Mongolia, is similar in character to Switzerland, but covers a very much greater area. It extends from the river Irtysh and the Dzungarian depression (46°–47° N.) northwards to the Siberian railway and to the Sayan mountains. The backbone of the region is the Sailughem or Silyughema mountains, also known as Kolyvan Altai, which stretch north-eastwards from 49° N. and 86° E. towards the western extremity of the Sayan mountains in 51° 60′ N. and 89° E. Their mean elevation is 5000–5500 ft. The snow-line runs at 6700 ft. on the northern versant and at 7800 ft. on the southern, and above it the rugged peaks tower up some 3200 ft. more. Passes across the range are few and difficult, the chief being the Ulan-daban at 9275 ft. (9445 ft. according to Kozlov), and the Chapchan-daban, at 10,555 ft., in the south and north respectively. On the east and south-east this range is flanked by the great plateau of Mongolia, the transition being effected gradually by means of several minor plateaus, such as Ukök (7800 ft.), Chuya (6000 ft.), Kendykty (8200 ft.), Kak (8270 ft.), Suok (8500 ft.), and Juvlu-kul (7900 ft.). This region, which is not accurately known, is studded with large lakes, i.e. Ubsa-nor (2370 ft. above sea-level), Kirghiz-nor, Durga-nor and Kobdo-nor (3840 ft.), and traversed by various mountain ranges, of which the principal are the Tannu-ola, running roughly parallel with the Sayan mountains as far east as the Kosso-gol (100°–101° E. long.), and the Khan-khu mountains, also stretching west and east.

The range of the Altai proper, known also as the Ek-tagh, Mongolian Altai, Great Altai and Southern Altai, likewise extend in two twin parallel chains eastwards as far as 99°, if not farther. The Ek-tagh or Mongolian Altai, which separates the Kobdo basin on the north from the Irtysh basin on the south, is a true border-range, in that it rises in a steep and lofty escarpment from the Dzungarian depression (1550 to 3000 ft.), but descends on the north by a relatively short slope to the plateau (4000–5500 ft.) of north-western Mongolia. East of 94° the range is continued by a double series of mountain chains, all of which exhibit less sharply marked orographical features and are at considerably lower elevations. The southern chain bears the names of Karaadzirga and Burkhan-ola, and terminates in about 99°; but the northern range, the principal names of which are Artsi-bogdo and Saikhat, extends probably most of the way to the great northward bend of the Hwang-ho or Yellow River round the desert of Ordos. Whereas the western Ek-tagh Altai rises above the snow-line and is destitute of timber, the eastern double ranges barely touch the snow-line and are clothed with thick forests up to an altitude of 6250 ft. The slopes of the constituent chains of the system are inhabited principally by nomad Kirghiz.

The north-western and northern slopes of the Sailughem mountains are extremely steep and very difficult of access. On this side lies the culminating summit of the range, the double-headed Byelukha (the Mont Blanc of the Altai), whose summits reach 14,890 and 14,560 ft. respectively,[1] and give origin to several glaciers (30 sq. m. in aggregate area). Here also are the Kuitun (12,000 ft.) and several other lofty peaks. Numerous spurs, striking in all directions from the Sailughem mountains, fill up the space between that range and the lowlands of Tomsk, but their mutual relations are far from being well known. Such are the Chuya Alps, having an average altitude of 9000 ft., with summits from 11,500 to 12,000 ft., and at least ten glaciers on their northern slope; the Katun Alps, which have a mean elevation of about 10,000 ft. and are mostly snow-clad; the Kholzun range; the Korgon (6300 to 7600 ft.), Talitsk and Selitsk ranges; the Tigeretsk Alps, and so on. Several secondary plateaus of lower altitude are also distinguished by geographers. The Katun valley begins as a wild gorge on the south-west slope of Byelukha; then, after a big bend, the river (400 m. long) pierces the Katun Alps, and enters a wider valley, lying at an altitude of from 2000 to 3500 ft., which it follows until it emerges from the Altai highlands to join the Biya in a most picturesque region. The Katun and the Biya together form the Ob. The next valley is that of the Charysh, which has the Korgon and Tigeretsk Alps on one side and the Talitsk and Bashalatsk Alps on the other. This, too, is very fertile. The Altai, seen from this valley, presents the most romantic scenes, including the small but deep Kolyvan lake (altitude, 1180 ft.), which is surrounded by fantastic granite domes and towers. Farther west the valleys of the Uba, the Ulba and the Bukhtarma open south-westwards towards the Irtysh. The lower part of the first, like the lower valley of the Charysh, is thickly populated; in the valley of the Ulba is the Riddersk mine, at the foot of the Ivanovsk peak (6770 ft.), clothed with beautiful alpine meadows. The valley of the Bukhtarma, which has a length of 200 m., also has its origin at the foot of the Byelukha and the Kuitun peaks, and as it falls some 5000 ft. in less than 200 m., from an alpine plateau at an elevation of 6200 ft. to the Bukhtarma fortress (1130 ft.), it offers the most striking contrasts of landscape and vegetation. Its upper parts abound in glaciers, the best known of which is the Berel, which comes down from the Byelukha. On the northern side of the range which separates the upper Bukhtarma from the upper Katun is the Katun glacier, which after two ice-falls widens out to 700–900 yards. From a grotto in this glacier bursts tumultuously the Katun river. The middle and lower parts of the Bukhtarma valley have been colonized since the 18th century by runaway Russian peasants—serfs and nonconformists (Raskolniks)—who created there a free republic on Chinese territory; and after this part of the valley was annexed to Russia in 1869, it was rapidly colonized. The high valleys farther north, on the same western face of the Sailughem range, are but little known, their only visitors being Kirghiz shepherds. Those of Bashkaus, Chulyshman, and Chulcha, all three leading to the beautiful alpine lake of Teletskoye (length, 48 m.; maximum width, 3 m.; altitude, 1700 ft.; area, 87 sq. m.; maximum depth, 1020 ft.; mean depth, 660 ft.), are only inhabited by nomad Telenghites or Teleuts. The shores of the lake—reminding a visitor somewhat of the Swiss lake of Lucerne—rise almost sheer to over 6000 ft. and are too wild to accommodate a numerous population. From this lake issues the Biya, which joins the Katun at Biysk, and then meanders through the beautiful prairies of the north-west of the Altai. Farther north the Altai highlands are continued in the Kuznetsk district, which has a slightly different geological aspect, but still belongs to the Altai system. But the Abakan river, which rises on the western shoulder of the Sayan mountains, belongs to the system of the Yenisei. The Kuznetsk Ala-tau range, on the left bank of the Abakan, runs north-east into the government of Yeniseisk, while a complexus of imperfectly mapped mountains (Chukchut, Salair, Abakan) fills up the country northwards towards the Siberian railway and westwards towards the Ob. The Tom and its numerous tributaries rise on the northern slopes of the Kuznetsk Ala-tau, and their fertile valleys are occupied by a dense Russian population, the centre of which is Kuznetsk, on the Tom.

Geology.—Geologically the Altai mountains consist of two distinct elements which differ considerably from each other in composition and structure. The Russian Altai is composed mainly of mica and chlorite schists and slates, together with beds of limestone, and in the higher horizons Devonian and Carboniferous fossils occur in many places. There is no axial zone of gneiss, but intrusions of granite and other plutonic rocks occur, and the famous ore deposits are found chiefly near the contact of these intrusions with the schists. The strata are thrown into folds which run in the direction of the mountain ridges, forming a curve with the convexity facing the south-east. The Mongolian or Great Altai, on the other hand, consists mainly of gneiss and Archaean rocks. The strike of the rocks is independent of the direction of the chain, and the chain is bounded by faults. It is, in fact, a horst and not a zone of folding.

Flora.—The Flora of the Altai, explored chiefly by Karl F. von Ledebour (1785–1851), is rich and very beautiful. Up to a level of 1000 ft. on the northern and 2000 ft. on the southern slopes, plant life belongs to the European flora, which extends into Siberia as far as the Yenisei. The steppe flora penetrates into the mountains, ascending some 1100-1200 ft., and in sheltered valleys even up to 5500 ft., when it of course comes into contact with the purely alpine flora. Tree vegetation, which reaches up as high as 6500 and 8150 ft., the latter limit on the north and west, consists of magnificent forests of birch, poplar, aspen, and Coniferae, such as Pinus cembra, Abies sibirica, Larix sibirica, Picea obovata, and so on, though the fir is not found above 2500 ft., while the meadows are abundantly clothed with brightly-coloured, typical assortments of herbaceous plants. The alpine meadows, which have many species in common with the European Alps, have also a number of their own peculiar Altaian species.

Mineral wealth.—The Altai proper is rich in silver, copper, lead and zinc ores, while in the Kuznetsk Ala-tau, gold, iron and coal are the chief mineral resources. The Kuznetsk Ala-tau mines are only now beginning to be explored, while the copper, and perhaps also the silver, ores of the Altai proper were worked by the mysterious prehistoric race of the Chudes at a time when the use of iron was not yet known. Russians began to mine in 1727 at Kolyvan, and in 1739 at Barnaul. Most of the Altai region, covering an area of some 170,000 sq. m. and including the Kuznetsk district, has since 1746 formed a domain of the imperial family under the name of the Altai Mining District. The ores of the Altai proper nearly always appear in irregular veins, containing silver, lead, copper and gold—sometimes all together,—and they are, or were, worked chiefly by Zmeinogorsk (or Zmeiev), Zyryanovsk, Ust-Kamenogorsk and Riddersk (abandoned in 1861). They offer, however, great difficulties, especially on account of their continually varying productivity and temperature of fusion. The beautiful varieties of porphyry—green, red, striped—which are obtained, often in big monoliths, near Kolyvan, are cut at the imperial stone-cutting factory into vases and other ornaments, familiar in the art galleries and palaces of Europe. Aquamarines of mediocre quality but enormous size (up to 3 in. in diameter) are found in the Korgon mine. The northern, or Salair, mining region is rich in silver ores, and the mine of this name used formerly to yield up to 93,300 oz. of silver in the year. But the chief wealth of the northern Altai is in the Kuznetsk coal-basin, also containing iron-ores, which fills up a valley between the Kuznetsk Ala-tau and the Salair range for a length of about 270 m., with a width of about 65 m. The coal is considered equal to the best coal of England and south Russia. The country is also covered with thick diluvial and alluvial deposits containing gold. However, all the mining is now on the decline.

Population.—The Russian population has rapidly increased since the fertile valleys belonging to the imperial family have been thrown open to settlement, and it has been estimated that in 1908 the population of the region (Biysk, Barnaul and Kuznetsk districts) reached about 800,000. Their chief occupations are agriculture (about 3,500,000 acres under culture), cattle-breeding, bee-keeping, mining, gathering of cedar-nuts and hunting. All this produce is exported partly to Tomsk and partly to Kobdo in Mongolia. The natives may represent a population of about 45,000. They are Altaians in the west and Telenghites or Teleuts in the east, with a few Kalmucks and Tatars. Although all are called Kalmucks by the Russians, they speak a Turkish language. Both the Telenghites and the Altaians are Shamanists in religion, but many of the former are already quite Russified. The virgin forests of the Kuznetsk Ala-tau—the Chern, or Black Forest of the Russians—are peopled by Tatars, who live in very small settlements, sometimes of the Russian type, but mostly in wooden yurts or huts of the Mongolian fashion. They can hardly keep any cattle, and lead the precarious life of forest-dwellers, living upon various wild roots when there is no grain in the spring. Hunting and fishing are resorted to, and the skins and furs are tanned.

Towns.—The capital of the Altai region is Barnaul, the centre of the mining administration and an animated commercial town; Biysk is the commercial centre; Kuznetsk, Ust-Kamenogorsk, and the mining towns of Kolyvan, Zmeinogorsk, Riddersk and Salairsk are the next largest places.

Authorities.—P. Semenov and G. N. Potanin, in supplementary vol. of Russian ed. of Ritter’s Asien (1877); Ledebour, Reise durch das Altaigebirge (1829–1830); P. Chikhatchev, Voyage scientifique dans l'Altai oriental (1845); Gebler, Übersicht des katunischen Gebirges (1837); G. von Helmersen, Reise nach dem Altai (St Petersburg, 1848); T. W. Atkinson, Oriental and Western Siberia (1858); and Cotta, Der Altai (1871), are still worth consulting. Of modern works see Adrianov, “Journey to the Altai,” in Zapiski Russ. Geogr. Soc. xi.; Yadrintsev, “Journey in West Siberia,” in Zapiski West Sib. Geogr. Soc. ii.; Golubev, Altai (1890, Russian); Schmurlo, “Passes in S. Altai” (Sailughem), in Izvestia Russ. Geogr. Soc. (1898); xxxiv. 5; V. Saposhnikov, various articles in same periodical (1897), xxxiii. and (1899) xxxv., and, by the same, Katun i yeya Istoki (Tomsk, 1901); S. Turner, Siberia (1905); Deniker, on Kozlov’s explorations, in La Géographie (1901, pp. 41, &c.); and P. Ignatov, in Izvestia Russ. Geog. Soc. (1902, No. 2).  (P. A. K.; J. T. Be.) 

  1. Mr S. Turner estimates the culminating peak of Mt. Byelukha at 14,800 ft., but to Willer’s Peak, a little to the N.W. of Byelukha, he assigns an altitude of 17,800 ft. (p. 205 of Siberia).