Official name: Republic of Kazakhstan
Area: 2,717,300 square kilometers (1,049,149 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Khan Tangiri Shyngy (6,398 meters/20,991 feet)
Lowest point on land: Karagiye Depression (132 meters/433 feet below sea level)
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 5 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: Not available
Land boundaries: 12,012 kilometers (7,447 miles) total boundary length; China 1,533 kilometers (950 miles); Kyrgyzstan 1,051 kilometers (652 miles); Russia 6,846 kilometers (4,245 miles); Turkmenistan 379 kilometers (235 miles); Uzbekistan 2,203 kilometers (1,366 miles)
Coastline: Landlocked with no ocean coasts; borders the Aral Sea (1,070 kilometers/663 miles) and the Caspian Sea (1,894 kilometers/1,174 miles)
Territorial sea limits: None
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Kazakhstan lies in the center of western Asia, with a small part of the northwestern corner of the country in Europe. At 2,717,300 square kilometers (1,049,149 square miles), it is the world's seventh-largest country, the largest country in Central Asia, and the second largest of the former Soviet republics, surpassed only by Russia. Both the Caspian and the Aral Seas—actually inland bodies of water despite their names—are situated partially within Kazakhstan.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Kazakhstan has no territories or dependencies.
The climate of Kazakhstan, which is located thousands of miles from the ocean, is extremely continental, with cold winters and hot summers. Temperatures also vary greatly by region. Average January temperatures are -3°C (-2°F) in the north and 18°C (25°F) in the south; July temperatures average 19°C (66°F) in the north and range from 28° to 30°C (66° to 79°F) in the south. Temperature extremes can reach much higher or lower than these averages, however. In the winter they may fall below -45°C (-49°F), and in summer they can reach 45°C (113°F). Strong, cold northern winds make winters in the steppes especially harsh.
Generally, very little precipitation falls in Kazakhstan; roughly three-quarters of the country is considered arid or semi-arid. Annual precipitation ranges from less than 10 centimeters (4 inches) in the south-central desert regions to between 25 and 35 centimeters (10 and 14 inches) on the steppes, where flash floods are common after summer thunderstorms. In the mountains, yearly precipitation (largely in the form of snow) averages 150 centimeters (60 inches). The sun shines a great deal in Kazakhstan; on average, the country experiences 260 sunny days in the south and 120 sunny days in the north.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Topography varies greatly across this vast, landlocked country. There are three mountainous regions: the Altay Shan in the northeast, the Tian Shan in the southeast, and the southernmost of the Ural Mountains in the northwest. Between these widely separated mountain ranges are vast stretches of desert and steppe, a harsh terrain of bare rock and sand dunes. Most of Kazakhstan (about 75 percent) is desert, semi-desert, or steppe (arid grassy plains).
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
The Aral Sea is really a very large saltwater lake that lies across the border of southwestern Kazakhstan and northwestern Uzbekistan. Located east of the much larger Caspian Sea, the Aral is surrounded by deserts and has no outlets to other bodies of water. This inland lake, which was once the fourth-largest in the world, has been steadily shrinking over the last several decades, as water from the rivers that feed into it is diverted for crop irrigation. Since 1988, the drop in sea level has caused the Aral Sea to divide into two distinct bodies of water.
Nearly half of Kazakhstan's western border is on the Caspian Sea. Like the Aral Sea to its east, the Caspian is landlocked; it has no outlet to other seas, lakes, or oceans. While this means that it could technically be considered a lake, it is rarely treated as such because of its salty waters and vast size. The Caspian Sea is the world's largest landlocked body of water. It covers approximately 371,000 square kilometers (143,000 square miles) and has a mean depth of about 170 meters (550 feet).
Seacoast and Undersea Features
For unknown reasons, water levels have been rising steadily in the Caspian Sea since the late 1970s. Millions of acres of land north of the sea have been flooded.
Kazakhstan's shoreline on the Caspian Sea runs for 1,894 kilometers (1,174 miles). Irregular in shape, the coast juts deeply into the country at its northern end. Farther to the south are two deep indentations in the shoreline, and the Mangyshlak Peninsula juts northwest into the water.
6 INLAND LAKES
In southeastern Kazakhstan lies Lake Balkhash, an inland lake that is partially fresh and partially saline from the salts that leech into its waters from the land. The lake—which forms a long, narrow arc—actually consists of two parts separated by the narrow Uzun-Aral Strait. The largest lake in the country, it covers a total area of some 18,200 square kilometers (7,030 square miles) and is fed principally by the Ili River, which enters near the lake's southern tip. Kazakhstan has three other significant lakes. Lakes Alakol' and Tengiz are both salt lakes. In the far northeast, near the border with China, lies freshwater Lake Zaysan.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
Although many of Kazakhstan's rivers and streams, as well as its lakes, evaporate in summer, it does have some permanent rivers of major economic and geographic significance. The Tobol and Ishim Rivers originate in north-central Kazakhstan and flow northward into Russia, where they join other rivers and eventually reach the ocean. The Irtysh River enters the country from China and flows west through Lake Zaysan, then curves northwest into Russia. The longest river to pass through Kazakhstan, and among the largest rivers in Asia, the Irtysh flows for 4,441 kilometers (2,760 miles) before emptying into the Ob' River in Russia, which eventually leads to the Arctic Ocean. It is navigable for most of its length in Kazakhstan, and many cities are located nearby.
Other than these three rivers of northeastern Kazakhstan, all of the country's rivers and streams are landlocked. In southeastern Kazakhstan, the Ili River flows westerly about 1,287 kilometers (800 miles) from its headwaters in China through the city of Qapshaghay and northwest into Lake Balkhash. With origins in Uzbekistan, the Syr Darya, one of the major rivers of Central Asia, flows northwest through Kazakhstan into the Aral Sea. It is 2,200 kilometers (1,370 miles) in total length. The Ural River flows from the Ural Mountains in southern Russia into northwestern Kazakh-stan. It runs south through the town of Oral into the Caspian Sea.
The largest deserts, the Kyzyl Kum and the Betpaqdala, are located in the south. Only a few scrub plants grow in these areas. The Greater Barsuki Desert lies northwest of the Aral Sea.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
Kazakhstan's terrain dips down to form numerous great basins and depressions. Some are filled with water, forming the country's lakes and seas. Others are dry. The Caspian Depression is a vast lowland extending between Kazakhstan and Russia. Located in both Europe and Asia, it has some of the lowest elevations to be found on either continent. Lying north of the Caspian Sea, the depression covers roughly 200 square kilometers (75 square miles). Located entirely within Kazakhstan, the Karagiye Depression lies in the extreme southwest, east of the Caspian Sea. This is the site of Kazakhstan's lowest elevation, 132 meters (433 feet) below sea level.
Roughly 10 percent of Kazakhstan consists of prairie grassland areas located in the Ural River basin in the north and west of the country. An estimated 60 percent of the nation's original pastureland has been desertified by wind erosion that resulted from the Soviet introduction of large-scale wheat farming during the 1950s and 1960s.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
In the southeast of Kazakhstan, extending across the borders with Kyrgyzstan and China, are the rugged Tian Shan. These are one of Central Asia's major mountain systems. The Tian Shan cover an area of roughly 1,036,000 square kilometers (400,000 square miles), which makes them comparable in size to the North American Rocky Mountains. The chain is some 2,414 kilometers (1,500 miles) in length and 320 to 480 kilometers (200 to 300 miles) in width. There are many high peaks in the Tian Shan; in fact, Kazakhstan's tallest mountain, Khan Tangiri Shyngy (Mount Tengri; 6,398 meters/20,991 feet), can be found here. The Altay Mountains enter the country in its northeastern corner. With impressive peaks that exceed 4,572 meters (15,000 feet), most of this range lies in Russia and China.
The Urals are a large mountain chain stretching all the way across Russia from the Arctic Ocean and into northwestern Kazakhstan for approximately 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles). These mountains, along with the Ural River, form the physical boundary between the continents of Europe and Asia. In Kazakhstan, they run in three parallel chains. The easternmost range is particularly low, with peaks reaching about 670 to 850 meters (2,200 to 2,800 feet). Moving west, the other two chains are higher, reaching up to 1,594 meters (5,230 feet).
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
Southeast Kazakhstan's rugged Tian Shan Mountains contain several dramatic gorges, including the gorge of the Big Almaty Lake, the Ozyomy and Prokhodnoi Gorges, and the Turgen Gorge, known for its seven waterfalls. With walls that rise from 150 to 300 meters (492 to 984 feet), the Charyn Canyon in the northern Tian Shan has been compared to the Grand Canyon in the United States. In addition to its size, Charyn Canyon is known for its unusually shaped caves and grottoes. The Aleksandrov Caves in western Kazakhstan are also a significant natural feature.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
There are many elevated but relatively flat areas in central and western Kazakhstan. South and east of the Karagiye Depression is the Ustyurt (Ust Urt) Plateau, an elevated region separating the Caspian and Aral Seas. Further east, beyond the Aral Sea, is the Turan Steppe, a vast region of plateaus and desert that extends south into Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
The Irtysh-Qaraghandy Canal, located in the uplands of central Kazakhstan, was the largest water-diversion project (by volume) in the former Soviet Union. The canal supplies water for recreational, agricultural, industrial, and other uses. A dam located nearby has restricted the flow of water from the Ili River to Lake Balkhash by about a third.
Crop irrigation projects have heavily diverted the waters of the two principal rivers that feed into the Aral Sea: the Amu Darya in the south (in Uzbekistan) and the Syr Darya in the east (in Kazakhstan). This water diversion has significantly reduced the size of the Aral Sea and caused many other negative environmental changes.
DID YOU KNOW?
At 132 meters (433 feet) below sea level, the Karagiye Depression is the second-lowest spot on Earth, surpassed only by the Dead Sea (408 meters/1,339 feet below sea level).
14 FURTHER READING
Cartlidge, Cherese, and Charles Clark. The Central Asian States. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001.
Curtis, Glenn, ed. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan: Country Studies. Federal Research Division. Library of Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.
Ferdinand, Peter. The New States of Central Asia and Their Neighbors . New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994.
Mandelbaum, Michael, ed. Central Asia and the World: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan . New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994.