Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Turgai

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TURGAI, a Russian province in Central Asia, formerly a part of the Kirghiz steppe, and now embodied in the governor-generalship of the Steppes, is bounded by Uralsk and Orenburg on the W. and N., by Akmolinsk on the E., and by Syr-Daria and the Sea of Aral on the S. This extensive and irregularly-shaped territory, which has an area (176,800 square miles) as large as that of Caucasia and Transcaucasia taken together, belongs to the Aral-Caspian depression. It has, however, the Mugojar Hills on its western border and includes a part of the southern Urals; and from Akmolinsk it is separated by a range of hills which runs between the two chief rivers of the Kirghiz steppe the Turgai and the Sary-su. In the north it includes the low belt of undulating land which stretches from the Mugqjar Hills towards the north-east and separates the rivers belonging to the Aral basin from those which flow towards the Arctic Ocean, and beyond this range it embraces the upper Tobot. The remainder is steppe land, sloping gently towards the Sea of Aral. The Mugojar Hills consist of an undulating plateau nearly 1000 feet in height, built up of Permian and Cretaceous deposits, and deeply grooved by rivers. They are not the independent chain which our maps make them out to be[1]: they merely continue the Urals towards the south, and are connected with the Ust Urt plateau by a range of hills which was formerly an island of the Aral-Caspian Sea. Their northern extremity joins the undulating plateau (400 to 600 feet), built up of sandstones and marls, which separates the tributaries of the Tobot from those of the Ural, and falls by a range of steep crags—probably an old shore-line of the Aral basin—towards the steppes. The steppe land of Turgai is only some 300 feet above the sea-level, and is dotted with lakes, of which the Tchotgardenghiz, which receives the Turgai and its tributary the Irghiz, is the largest. The Turgai was, at a recent epoch, a large river flowing into the Sea of Aral and receiving an extensive system of tributaries, which are now lost in the sands before joining it. Remains of aquatic plants buried in the soil of the steppe, and shells of Mytilus and Cardium, both still found in the Sea of Aral, show that during the Glacial period this region was covered by the waters of the Aral-Caspian Sea.

The climate of Turgai is exceedingly dry and continental. Orsk, a town of Orenburg, on its north-western border, has a January as cold as that of the west coast of Nova Zembla ( - 4 Fahr.), while in July it is as hot as July in Morocco (73); the corresponding figures for Irghiz, in the centre of the province, are 7 and 77. At Irghiz anu Orsk the annual rainfall is somewhat under 10 and 12 inches respectively (3 inches in summer). The west winds are desiccated before they reach the Turgai steppes, and the north east winds, which in winter bring cold, dry snows from Siberia, raise in summer formidable clouds of sand. A climate so dry is of course incompatible with a vigorous forest growth. There is some timber on the southern Urals, the Mugojar Hills, and the waterparting of the Tobot; elsewhere trees are rare, only shrubs, such as the wild cherry (Cerrasus Chamsecerasus) and the dwarf almond (Amygdalusnana) growing on the hilly slopes, while the rich blackearth soil of the steppe is chiefly covered with feather grass (Stipa pennata), the well-known ornament of the south Russian steppes. In spring the grass vegetation is luxuriant, and geese and cranes are attracted in vast numbers by the fields of the Kirghiz from the depth of the steppe. The jerboa (Dipus jaculus) and the mar mot (Spennophilus rufescens) are characteristic of the fauna of the region; another species of marmot (Arctomys bobac) and the Canis corsac are common; and the saiga antelope of Central Asia is occasionally met with. Further south the black earth disappears and with it the feather grass, its place being taken by its congener, Stipa capillata. Trees disappear, and among the bushes along the banks of the rivers willows and the pseudo-acacia or Siberian pea tree (Caragana microphyte) are most prevalent. In the middle parts of the province the clayey soil is completely clothed with worm wood (Artemisia fragrans and A. monogyna), with a few grassy plants on the banks of the rivers and lakes (Lasiagrostis splendens, Alhagi camelorum and A. kirghizorum, Obione portulacoides, Halimodendrum argenteum); while large areas consist of shifting sands, salt clays clothed with a rich carpet of various Salsolacese, and dried beds of old lakes. Such lakes as still exist, notwithstanding the rapid desiccation now going on, are surrounded by rush thickets, the retreat of wild boars. Turgai is thus the borderland between the flora of Europe and that of Central Asia.

In 1882 the population of Turgai was estimated at 323,110, all nomad Kirghiz, with the exception of some 3600, who are settled in four villages officially described as towns. Agriculture is in its earliest stage of development; but some 100,000 quarters of corn are raised in the south-west by the Kirghiz, who sell some of it in Orenburg. Cattle-breeding is the chief occupation, and within the province there are some 800,000 horses, 335,000 cattle, about 200,000 camels, and more than two million sheep. But the want of fodder in spring occasions violent murrains, which sometimes result in actual famine among the Kirghiz. Endeavours have recently been made to induce the people to make communal stores of hay, but the 300,000 cwts. yearly collected in this way are in sufficient. The Kirghiz of the southern parts go in winter to the better sheltered parts of Syr-Daria, while hi the summer some 30,000 kibitkas (felt tents) of nomads come from the neighbouring provinces to graze their cattle on the grassy steppes of Turgai. Some 30,000 cwts. of salt are annually got from the lakes. The four settlements of the province are Turgai, chief town and seat of the provincial administration, with less than 400 inhabitants, and the "district towns" of Irghiz (920), Ak-tube (400), and Karabutak (300), the last two being more or less fortified. Several merchants in these carry on trade with the Kirghiz, exchanging manufactured goods for wool and skins, which are sent to the frontier settlements of Orenburg. There is a brisk caravan traffic through Turgai.

  1. See P. S. Nazaroff, in "Recherches Zoologiques dans les Steppes des Kirghizes," in Bull. Soc. des Natur. de Moscow, 1886, No. 4.