Yermentau, the kingdom of the dancing birches

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Steppes are plains devoid of forests only in primary school books and in foreign tourists’ minds. If you peek at steppes closer, they are not devoid of woods that much. And not so plain. Oases like Borovoye, Zerenda, Karkaralinsk, Bayanaul are just the more famous decorations of our steppes. Less well-known and less popular is Yermentau, a low rocky chain of hills, which stretches 150 km eastward of Astana.

A little bit of geography: scratch off some Eternity for yourself

Yermentau (Yeremen’-tau, Yereymentau) is the most north-westerly shelf of the Kazakh Hummocks, its height above sea level is 899 m. Thus, if you position yourself at the peak of the mountain called Akdyn, the highest point in this massif, then the distance from your waist to the global ocean level will make 900 m (and 250-300 m to the plain lying beneath). This pedestal is not so big, but anyway big enough for the local population to call it ‘mountains’, and for its natural environments to differ from the surrounding dry steppes.  

If you scratch a piece off the local cliff, you may chance to hold in your hands not just quartzite, but the rock aged more than 600 000 000 years, which formed during the Pre-Cambrian, when the whole Earth was a desert, and life was too shy to dare come out of the ocean depths. Nevertheless, out of the crevices of the youthful planet floods of red-hot magma were outpoured onto the surface here and there, like pimples on an adolescent girl’s face. Cooled, hardened and altered beyond recognition long ago, this very magma lies at the basis of the massif at issue.

Yermentaus do seem woodless, but as soon as you come closer, you are going to see the birch outliers scattered all around, mass of aspens and thickets of bushes (pea shrub and spiraea). Lovely woodlets are strewn hither and thither all around these bald peaks and gorges and at some spots furnish the harsh landscape with the marvelous coziness and soft poignancy. Relying upon the sources of the past century, many modern authors still keep writing that this place is the heaven for roe dear, ibexes, badgers and other wildlife species, but time keeps flowing and the environment is changing.

The season: It’s the best when we are absent!

Actually, it feels good in Yermentau at any time of the year. In springtime, when the air is scented with the odor of melting snow, and all the slopes suddenly turn from dirty grey into soft green overnight. In summertime, when everything is rustling, blossoming, singing, buzzing and enjoying its life. In autumn, especially during that ultra-short golden period of time, when severe and authoritative local winds allow the woods of this place to ‘speak’ a little bit in their ‘birch’ language. And even in winter it may also be not bad at all to be here. In case there is no blizzard and you have skis, toboggan, and a pleasant female companion. (In fact, it would be great to have a good female companion anywhere, any day and in any time of the year, but this kind of companions is a rare phenomenon of nature.)

You will observe from the local tops, low as they may be, such horizons at every angle that you will never see standing on peaks beyond clouds. There is a truly unlimited Steppe around, with its fields, lakes, and occasional villages, all crossed with straight lines of railroads and high voltage wires. If you climb up this high equipped with a good binocular, you may survey these locations with your eye for hours, and it will never tire you out.

The puzzle: where have forests gone?

“There are no pine woods. It is difficult for a wanderer who finds himself in the valleys of Yeremen’ Tau Mountains to believe that they are devoid of forest vegetation; all the conditions seem to play in favour for the woods to appear here; but there are no forest vegetations either in deep ravines, or in wide valleys, or along the slopes”. This is a passage from the well-known geographic encyclopedia under the title ‘Russia. The Kirghiz land. Saint-Petersburg, 1903”. Indeed, if we take into account that northward of here there is the Kokchetav Upland, thickly overgrown with pines, eastward is  Bayanaul, and southward is a mountain-and-forest oasis of Karkaralinsk, the ‘baldness’ of Yermentau does make us wonder.

In the old literature you may bump into statements that the dominance of birches in Yermentau is the result of the devastation of the local red wood. The devastation – by whom, I wonder? There are no major populated areas or industrial giants here, and, in all appearances, nothing of the kind ever was. I think the reason lies deeper, in the relict nature of the Hummocks. The thing is that they are just not here anymore! That is why Yermentau is a far future of Karkaralinsk and Kokshetau.

The main factor that gives this chain of hills its look are cool whirlwinds, which pick up their speed in the steppe and shine-polish even the hard crystalline rocks that build up the mountains. The power and rage of the wind I experienced myself, while ascending one of the local peaks: it was literally knocking me down! But I easy come, easy go. And as for birches, they have to stay here all their lives!

It is well-known that the birch belongs to the more unpretentious and hardy species: it grows in such places where other trees will not survive (I ran into it both in the distant Arctic Circle and high in the sky-reaching Himalayas).

As far as the local birch is concerned, it amazes and touches with its love of life and strong will even the hardest of hearts. Sometimes, especially at the tops, the tiny birch outliers resemble some kind of airborne troops thrown to the enemy’s rear and abandoned to the whims of fate for the sake of some points of strategy. Crumpled and twisted, rooted-out and broken in two, and wrestled to the ground, these courageous little trees carry out their never-ending battle for survival against the icy winds, which consider themselves the rightful rulers of these places.

A human, honestly, a sarcastic and low-minded creature, gave these heroic trees the name of ‘drunk birches’. But I like the epithet ‘dancing’ more. They are really dancing – for the love of life!

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