Day 5: The drive to the Chuya-Basin

Day 5: The drive to the Chuya-Basin

Our wishes for a warmer night got fulfilled. There was no frost that night and I could sleep very well, probably because of the long walk the day before. At half past seven the usual procedure began, that we had to do on days where we changed our camp. Cleaning the tents, taking them down, storing everything on the cars and then having a breakfast. Then we went on. The way back on the bumpy road into the Kuray-Steppe. This time we didn’t get stuck in the marshes so we could quickly drive to the middle of the basin.

Our whole fleet in the middle of the Kuray-Steppe.

Arriving there, we had our first field studies about the area. As always we had a view on our environment, discussed some questions and then set up some theories. Theories? Of course, the possible mega-flood that could have occurred exactly in this valley also had left some possible hints here. Hints, that we also saw before. Mega-ripples! Only on the second view it was recognizable again, that big parts of the basin were formed by this wavy hill structure. This can be seen in a good way, if you look at it from space. Therefore I  inserted a satellite picture, to show you these formations.

Sentinel 2A satellite picture of the 30th of August, 2016. View on the Kuray-Basin. You can see the Chuya-River and in the middle, a bit below the vegetation on the riversides, the mega-ripples that look like wave formations on a beach.

The Kuray-Basin lies directly beneath the large Chuya-Basin, which was suspected to be the place of the ice storage reservoir. Covering an area of 80 kilometers in length and 40 kilometers in width there would have been a huge area for the lake. If this flood really occurred, it would have been the largest freshwater flood that is known. The extent of the basin would be apparent for us later that day. But for now we had to clear some facts, not only theories. So we dug, as usual, a profile of the soil. By having the knowledge about this matter from my post about day two, I don’t have to explain everything. We identified a Kastanozem again, by drier conditions the limestone wasn’t washed out that clearly as at the Katun-Terrace, but we identified a larger organic matter horizon. By virtue of the rain, which was more than the average rainfall in this region in this year, the soil still contained some residual moisture.

Above the over the Kuray-Basin enthroned northern Chuya-Chain slowly some clouds appeared, when we made our way to the Chuya-Basin. Crossing the steppe we got back to the highway, followed him and passed the 2000 meter mark. Step by step the mountains thinned out around us and the view on the Chuya-Basin got unveiled. Even drier, already classified as semidesert, the steppe extended itself over the large Chuya-Basin. The mountains around were bone dry, except the snow fields on the southern Chuya-Chain, which delineates the basin in the south.

The dry Chuya-Steppe with the barren mountains in the background.

Solely the Chuya-River, which drains the basin and the surrounding glaciers, drew a green ribbon through the steppe, which was settled and cultivated, as long as this was possible during the summer season. Cause otherwise the steppe is a really hostile area, as the temperatures reach -17°C on average each January and records of -62°C were measured there. It was even more inconceivable for me, how the inhabitants of the Chuya-Basin could live there, with their simple wooden housings. Even in summer, the temperatures fall down below zero in some nights, as we experienced ourselves at a height of only 1700 meters above sea level. We were located in the Kosh-Agachsky District, which covers the outer south of the Altay Republic, and anyhow 18.000 people are living there. Above 40% of those are living in Kosh-Agach, which was our next destination. Kosh-Agach was the last considerable location before the Mongolian border, which only was 80 kilometers away from there.

The view in the vast Chuya-Basin and on Kosh-Agach. On the horizon, you can guess the border to Mongolia.

In the supermarket of Kosh-Agach we could buy some snacks for the next days again. From there we drove back a little bit to stop at the side of the road. The group gathered and went upon a chalky hill, which was left over in the steppe. In scientific usage, this hill was called a Pingo, which occurred there, because in the inner part of the hill the soil was still frozen, even if the temperatures got above 20°C at summer daytime. This permafrost stabilized the soil and protected it against erosion. So far the theory. We tried to dig to the permafrost, but having dug deeper than one meter we had to give up due to time reasons, without having found the frozen soil. The white, dry material, which characterized the Pingo, is a consequence of extremely dry conditions, which invert the soil development, which usually takes place from the top to the bottom, but in this case, the soil develops from the bottom to the top. The reason is the high evaporation from deeper soil layers, which transports the minerals and salts towards the surface, where they form a salty crust. Those processes of soil salinization are common in cultivated areas in dry conditions worldwide. Being on a slightly exposed location, with a wide view over the Chuya-Basin, I took my camera to capture the impressions of the scenery. Who knows, when I will be this close to Mongolia again. That Mongolia wasn’t far away anymore was recognizable by the yurts of nomads being positioned in the grasslands, which still wander through the lands traditionally.

Some yurts of nomads in the grasslands. In the background, the snow covered mountains of the southern Chuya-Chain.

Besides of that, we met some cars on the roads with Mongolian license plates. So close but unreachable on this journey we left Mongolia behind the horizon to drive towards the southwest to the village Beltir. Beltir was a village like every other one until an earthquake with a magnitude of 7,2 hit the region in 2003 and destroyed nearly all the buildings. The inhabitants had to leave their homes, as the government wanted to resettle them somewhere else, but some of them stayed in their homes to rebuild the village. The village presented itself with a high contrast. Everywhere we could see destroyed buildings with some nicely rebuild ones between them. As the inhabitants don’t like to be tourist attractions we stayed in our cars and got all the relevant information by walkie-talkie.

The entrance to the village Beltir. I want to respect the inhabitants of this destroyed village and therefore I relinquish on posting photos of their village.

Somehow I could understand those people, who didn’t want to leave their homes, as the scenery was was wonderful. A river, which drained the glaciers of the southern Chuya-Chain, pioneered its way through the valley, creating fertile pastures on the riversides, on which cows, sheep, horses and even wild camels were grazing, which once were used by the caravans, that trekked from Mongolia over the Altay, but then ran away and never got domesticated again. Actually I didn’t expect to see camels up here, but in fact, they matched to the picture of this landscape, with their big, shaggy fur, which protects them against the strong conditions.

Once domesticated, now free living camels on the succulent lawns around the village Beltir.

The day, which had by far the most relevant content of our excursion attended with two more stops. The first stop was a little bit further into the valley of Beltir. On a huge area, the slopes of the surrounding mountains were slid down, after the earthquake in 2003. Like in floes, the soil moved towards the valley, leaving deep cracks on the surface. This phenomenon was relevant for as, as the normal time scales of geomorphological events didn’t match with this one. 13 years, which tore us apart from this event, are such a short while, compared to the geomorphological forming of the earth’s surface, which have millennial scales, or even last millions of years.

Floe-like earth slides that happened after the earthquake in 2003.

The second stop happened some kilometers back towards the Chuya-Highway, which we had left on our way to Beltir. We drove into a picturesque valley, where we could find more evidence for a possible mega-flood. Lake sediments can be found in glacial areas and they have a specific annual order. During summertime, mostly the stone-dust, which got excoriated by the glacier movement, gets deposited on the ground of a lake, while in winter also dead, organic matter finds its way onto the ground, creating a darker layer. Those colored layers are so called varves, which allow a chronological dating of the height of the ground. And primarily they prove the existence of a lake. Finally something tangible and not only theories. Nevertheless, it was still not proven, if, or in which extend, the lake has been broken out. However, it was exciting to see how many different observations can be done, to come to a  scientific conclusion. Again I took some photos of the breathtaking scenery before we made our way to our next camp.

The wonderful scenery, that is created by the rivers flowing through the dry steppe.

My pad got much more written pages on that day and I was glad, that I could now unwind myself to enjoy the evening. We placed our camp at the edge of the Kuray-Basin, to escape the cold of the high-laying Chuya-Basin. This evening we really experienced some rain, which is so rare in this region, but in the evening light of the setting sun, it conjured a magnificent rainbow over the summits. Also on this day I collected a lot of new impressions of a country, that I haven’t had on the leading positions of my travel wish list.


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