The Unique Nature of the Altai Mountains

In the remote region of the Altai mountains, at the junction between Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, Nature seems to have enjoyed experimenting, mixing and combining different biological, geological and anthropological elements, creating a unique and extraordinary casket of diversity. Altai represents the navel of Asia, incubator of cultures, funnel of confluence of species and peoples, source of geological structures and biological peculiarities.

altai mountains

Reaching the region is not very easy. The cities of Tomsk, Novosibirsk or Barnaul, in Western Siberia, are the easiest access points for those coming from Europe and from there two days by bus lead to the heart of the spectacular Altai Mountains. The journey is long, but breathtaking. The road that cuts through the valleys tapered by the Mongolian reliefs to the east and Kazakhs to the west, passing from Russia in the north to China in the south, has repeatedly been included in the top ten of the most spectacular routes in the world.

The beauty of the site is such that UNESCO named northern Altai a World Heritage Site in 1998 as it “represents a complete sequence of altitudinal zones of vegetation in central Siberia, including steppe, coniferous forest, mixed forest, sub-alpine vegetation and alpine vegetation”.

The reliefs of the Altai Mountains originate from the tectonic collision between the Indian and Siberian plates. Many fault zones characterize this area (including the Kurai fault and the recently identified Tashanta fault). Some of them are still very active tectonically. And it is precisely this corrugation of the landscape that makes it unforgettable. Rivers of crystalline water flow in the deep valleys confined by sharp mountains covered with glaciers; flowery meadows alternate with woods that cover the sides of the mountains before giving way to alpine bushes; granite and metamorphic schists color the rocky soil with iridescent shades and the fauna which, not intimidated by the human presence, is very easily sighted, is a successful jumble of endemisms and peculiarities.

The Species in Altai Mountain

The steep slopes are home to the Siberian ibex ( Capra sibirica ), while the rare Argali ( Ovis ammon ) grazes on the gentler slopes. Five species of deer populate the area, including the Altai Wapiti ( Cervus elaphus sibiricus ), the moose ( Alces alces ), the forest reindeer ( Rangifer tarandus valentinae ), the Siberian musk deer ( Moschus moschiferus ) and the Siberian roe deer ( Capreolus pygargus ). Until recently, the rare Mongolian gazelle ( Procapra gutturosa ) was also sighted on these mountains. The bison was present in the Altai mountains until the Middle Ages, perhaps even as late as the late 18th century.

Obviously, the plethora of herbivores roaming the immense landscape keeps the food chain healthy by providing resources for large predators. Among these, one, of course, can be defined as the undisputed ruler of the kingdom: the snow leopard ( Uncia uncia ). Considered among the rarest, and certainly the most shy (so much so that it was nicknamed “ghost cat”), feline in the world, this white spotted leopard with a long and bushy tail finds its ideal habitat in the Altai mountains and one of the areas of favorite playback.

Thanks to the abundance of prey, other large carnivores also live in the area. The wolf, the lynx and the brown bear are very common, and in the northernmost areas also the mysterious wolverine. There are those who confirm that until the early twentieth century the tiger was regularly sighted in the southern areas of the mountains near the town of Barnaul.

Mole are also the species of small mammals such as the Pika (Ochotona alpina), the Arctic squirrel (Citellus undulatus) and the Siberian Chipmunk (Tamias sibiricus). A small mouse that makes its lair inside the birch trunks, the Sicista pseudonapaea, is endemic.

The Aktru Glacier

This complex and varied ecosystem is, however, at risk. The Aktru Glacier, nestled between these magnificent mountains, is an indicator of the great changes taking place. A black and white photo taken in 1960 hanging on the walls of a refuge in the area shows how much this glacier has literally liquefied compared to today. Almost half of his white tongue has withdrawn into the mouth of the mountains. With my research group we discovered that only between the summer of last year and this summer the glacier has shrunk by as much as 15 meters.

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