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Tien Shan

Two largest mountain systems of the world are occupying the territory of Kyrgyzstan - Tien Shan and Pamir. Tien Shan (from Chinese "Divine or Celestial Mountains") is one of the main mountain systems of Asia, stretching from north-eastern Pamir by the border between Kyrgyzstan, south-eastern Kazakhstan and China. The extension of Tien Shan is about 2414 km, width is 320-480 km, the area is 1 036 000 About 2/3 of the area of Tien Shan Mountains is on territory of Kyrgyzstan. Tien Shan belongs to most highly lifted mountain constructions of our planet. Many mountain ridges rise up to 5-6 km. Ridges of Tien Shan have latitudinal and sub-latitudinal spread. They consist of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks. Tien Shan is traditionally divided into Northern, Western, Central, Internal and Eastern. Tien Shan mountain system belongs to rather old mountains which have undergone the subsequent raising during the Alpine epoch of formation of tectonic structures. Tectonic activity of Tien Shan continues. The number of local, localized earthquakes has increased for the last years and is about 30-40 cases in a year. The ranges of Tien Shan are divided by intermountain hollows. Intermountain hollows consist of continental sedimentary sediments.

Climate of Tien Shan is sharply continental. The western air currents influence much the climate formation. They bring from Atlantic the saturated air to Tien Shan Mountains. The mountain relief causes an exacerbation of the atmospheric phenomena and precipitations here and there up to 1600 mm a year in middle-mountainous and high-mountainous areas, mainly on the slopes turned to the West and Northwest. On eastern slopes and in valleys of Central Tien Shan droughty conditions are created (precipitations 200-300 mm a year). Maximum precipitation is during summer period, but there are many precipitations on the western slopes of mountains in winter as well. In Tien Shan Mountains distinctions between landscapes of their northern and southern slopes are very striking. On the slopes turned to the north, sun rays fall more slantwise, they give heat more stingily, the snow lies here longer, and frosts begin earlier and come to end later. They are covered with woods. On the opposite slopes where the corner of meeting the sun rays with surface is steeper, heating is stronger, the snow melts earlier, frosts stop earlier and start later, and plants have longer vegetation. These slopes are covered with semi deserts, steppes and mixed woods.

The highest peaks of this mountain system are in Central Tien Shan - Pobeda (7439 m) - the most northern seven thousand meters high mountain in the world, and Khan-Tengry (7010 m). The glacier Southern Inylchek - the second largest high-mountainous glacier in the world originates here. Its length is 62 km, the area is 583 km. Thickness of ice is up to 800 m.


Modern ideas about geology and orography of Tien Shan have developed as a result of heroic efforts of geographers, geologists and topographers who had investigated all remote areas of these mountains for last 100 years. However the most general data about Celestial mountains were available and for ancient people as the Great Silk Road had passed through Tien Shan during many centuries. The ancient world had learned about existence of these mountains for the first time owing to Alexander the Great campaigns. In 329 B.C. one of his armies penetrated Fergana valley and on the way to India had crossed ridges of Southern Tien Shan. Chinese traveler Chzhan-Tsjan visited snow-covered ridges of Internal Tien Shan in 138 B.C., he came to the shore of Issyk-Kul lake from the south and then went to Fergana valley. 200 years later another Chinese traveler Syuan-Tzan had passed the same way and left the figurative description of the route. In particular, here are the impressions of his crossing the passes of Tien Shan "Snow accumulating here from the beginning of the world has reduced to ice blocks which thaw neither in spring, nor in summer. Smooth fields of firm and bright ice stretch in boundlessness by high ice walls hanging from both sides. The cold wind blows with force, and travelers often become victims of dragons. Travelers going by this road should not let out loud cries. The one, who forgets this precaution, can undergo to different misfortunes". Actually, during this crossing Syuan-Tzan had lost 13 fellow-travelers. A well-known Venetian traveler Marko Polo had crossed the ridges of Southern Tien Shan and Pamir in XIII century on the way to India. His impressions remained the main source of geographical data on highlands in the center of Asia for a long time. Marko Polo was mostly struck by severity of the nature of internal valleys of Pamir where "it is so cold, that fire does not burn, and birds freeze on the wing". By virtue of exclusive inaccessibility during many centuries geographical knowledge of Tien Shan widened a little and even to the middle of XIX century, according to the Russian geographer G.E. Grum-Grzhimajlo was practically equal to zero. That time the European scientists named Tien Shan the mysterious country even within the territory of Central Asia which, however, the whole was represented as "terra incognita" (the unknown land). Knowledge of the Chinese about internal areas of Asia was also rather poor, and per se, was limited to the areas adjoined to large caravan ways. Whether as an example "The Map of Median Empire" of Li Shentsi is usually brought. On this map, the mountains on the territory of Tien Shan are shown so conditionally, that it is impossible to define neither their sizes, nor spread.

The desire to erase from geographical maps this huge white spot inspired organizers of pioneer scientific expeditions. However realization of these plans had been connected with considerable risk. The route of one of the first Europeans - Shlagintvejt - had tragically finished in Kashgar in 1857 where he was put to death under the order of the local governor. Probably, just the dangers trapping the travelers continually, made trading caravans to bend around Tien Shan on periphery. The branches of the Great Silk Road were stretching just there in Middle Ages. Here was brisk trading exchange between people of Central Asia and basin of Tarim.

Peter Petrovich Semenov (later Semenov-Tien-Shansky) had an honor to be a discoverer of the largest range of Internal Asia. In 1856 the scientist had made two significant excursions from Verny (nowadays Almaty) to areas of Central Tien Shan. The route of the first trip crossed the passes of Zailiysky Alatau and went further to eastern extremity of Issyk Kul Lake. The route of the second trip passed across Kasteksky pass in Zailiysky Alatau in Chuy valley through Boom gorge up to the western extremity of the lake. Semenov returned back crossing the highest passes of Kungey Alatau and Zailiysky Alatau. In spring 1957 Semenov across the passes of Zailiysky Alatau came to the southern shore of Issyk-Kul Lake, then by the valley of the river Zauka through Zauksky pass had reached sources of the Naryn river. The next Semenov's eastern expedition had brought him to the heart of Tien Shan to the group of Khan Tengri. Having visited the sources of Sary-Jaz, Semenov had discovered extensive glaciers of northern slope of Khan Tengri where Sary-Jaz springed from. One of these glaciers subsequently was named by Semenov's name.

Investigations of Semenov in Tien Shan made a real revolution in views on this huge mountain system. Peter Petrovich for the first time had drawn the actual picture of the internal part of the Asian continent. First, contrary to Humboldt's dominating opinion on a volcanic origin of mountains of Middle and Central Asia, Semenov had proved, that there were no traces of the volcanic phenomena. Second, he had ascertained that the river Chu did not flow out the lake Issyk Kul, that the lake was internal-drainage. Third, he had given a picture of a geological structure of Northern and Central Tien Shan, had marked the basic lines of concepts and intermountain hollows. Fourth, had shown change of landscapes in the mountains of Central Asia, had discovered an extensive mountain glaciation. Fifth, had defined height of a snow line in Tien Shan, which appeared much higher (about 4000 m), than in mountains of Europe and in the Caucasus. Semenov investigated 23 mountain passes, determined the height of 50 peaks, collected 300 samples of rocks, more than 1000 kinds of plants, including a lot of unknown to science forms, issued the finest collections of insects and mineral molluscs, and also big ethnographic material. Merits of Semenov in studying Tien Shan have been highly estimated by all worlds' science. He was elected as honorable or full member of many geographical societies. In 1906 in connection with 50 years anniversary of the beginnings of his travel to Tien Shan he was deservedly given a surname Semenov-Tien-Shansky.

Central Asia » Tien Shan