Cradle of Important Civilizations

Located right in the heart of Asia, politically divided between several states, that of the Altai Mountains is a very vast complex of high peaks. Today the Altai Mountains and the connected mountain ranges constitute an inaccessible, isolated and underdeveloped region; but this was the area of ​​origin of notable prehistoric and protohistoric civilizations and languages ​​still very widespread

Not just Roller Coasters …

The Altai mountain range extends into central Asia, between the Irtȳ course to the west, the western Siberian Lowlands to the north, Inner Mongolia to the east and the Chinese Zungaria to the south. From a political point of view, the Altai is today divided between Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and China, whose borders meet in the highest section of the system (the Balochha massif, 4.506 m); most of the mountainous area, however, falls on Russian and Mongolian territory.

The Orographic Aspects

Extending in length for about 1,250 km (more than Italy), the Altai has a complex structure. It is not, in fact, a single mountain range: in the westernmost part there is a system of mountains, extending for about 100,000 km 2 and about 3,000 m of average altitude (with glaciers covering more than 600 km 2 ), called Grande Altai or Russian Altai, since most of them fall within Russian territory; from this system extends a chain, in a south-easterly direction, called the Mongolian Altai ( Altain Ulain Mongolian, meaning “mountains of gold”), which stretches for just under a thousand km to the Gobi desert. The Russian Altai, however, is connected with various other mountain ranges: towards the north-east with the Saiani Mountains and with the Tannu-Ola, which form two long arches, parallel to each other, which reach Lake Baikal; eastward with the Hangay Mountains, in Mongolia; to the south, however, less clearly, with the mountains of Zungaria, which separate Kazakhstan from China and which in turn reconnect with the Tian Shan mountains and therefore with the Pamir complex. In practice, the Altai is a sort of central ‘hub’ of that enormous system of mountains which, remaining almost always north of the Chinese territory, stretches from the Pamir to the eastern end of Siberia.

Economic Resources

It is above all on the Russian side that Altai offers interesting resources, especially mining: gold, silver, mercury, copper and other metals. Given the altitude and the harsh climate of the region, agriculture is, however, not very developed, except in the valleys of the Katun and Bija rivers – which originate from the Altai and join together to form the Ob river, one of the longest in Asia – and on the lower slopes. On the other hand, timber is abundant, because much of the Russian Altai is covered with woods, and breeding is also important (the horses of this region are famous for their robustness). The natural products of Altai are processed mainly in cities that have developed at the foot of the mountains, such as Barnaul (over 600,000 inhabitants), which is the capital of the Altai Territory, one of the many that make up the Russian Federation. The strictly mountainous area, on the other hand, is very sparsely populated and since ancient times it has always been bypassed by major roads, such as the ancient path that passed through the Porta di Zungaria (a pass between Kazachstan and China, south Altai). As a result, the region remained isolated and inaccessible for a long time.

Languages ​​and Cultures

It seems that the Altai region was the original seat of a family of languages ​​(Altaic languages) to which Turkish and Mongolian also belong, and then of a series of cultures (Altaic cultures), now disappeared, which in ancient times were extensive over much of Siberia and Central Asia. These had as their characteristic burials called kurgan, built as large circles of earth and stones, with a wooden roof, then covered with earth. In these tombs objects have been found which attest to the existence of a highly developed Altaic art.

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