Kazakhstan is situated in the very centre of the Eurasian continent and its territory occupies 2,725,000 sq. km, which makes it the ninth biggest country of the world. The country stretches about 3,000 km from the Altay Mountains in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west; and more than 1,500 km from the Kyzyl Kum desert in the south to the grasslands in the north.
The huge size of the Kazakhstan territory defines its climate, landscape, and biological diversity. Here you can find numerous kinds of steppes, starting from the northern grasslands up to the dry steppe; half-deserts of the south and the whole range of deserts (sand deserts, clay deserts, rock deserts, saline deserts); mountains: from the low-hill steppe Kazakh Hummocks (Saryarka) to the taiga boreal forests of Altay and snowy tops of Tien Shan; bodies of water: from sea coasts of the ancient Caspian to thousands of lakes in steppes and deserts; from affluent big rivers to desert spruits and rapid mountain rivers and streams. Due to the vast distance of the country from the oceans its climate is sharp continental. Maximal temperatures in deserts may reach + 50ºС in summer, and in winter in central areas and in the east there may occur frosts below – 50ºС.
The basic part of the country’s territory consists of endless plains that are located in three natural and climatic zones. Real scorching and northern deserts occupy the southern half of the country, from the Volga delta in the west up to the Altay foothills in the east.
The Caspian Lowland is the typical northern desert; it is located below sea level. On the Mangyshlak peninsula there is the lowest point of Kazakhstan, the Karagiye depression, its depth is 132 m below sea level, it’s the fifth deepest point in the world.
Eastward, right up to the Aral Sea, lies the huge desert plateau Ustyurt limited from the surrounding plains by peculiar precipices ‘chinks’, which are often higher than 200-300 m. In the north the Aral is submissive to the sands of the Aral Karakum, in the west to the plains of the Turan lowland, with the hottest spot of the country, the Kyzyl Kum desert. Further to the east there are such deserts as Moyinkum and Taukum.
The sand massifs of the Southern Balkhash area are limited in the north by the endless clay plains of Betpak Dala and Balkhash Lake. In the east the desert zone is limited by the Zaisan basin right at the foot of Altay Mountains.
Saryarka is the heart of the Kazakh land. This is a wonderful combination of the boundless steppe plains, and among them like picturesque islands there scattered separate mountain groups of the Kazakh Hummocks, which were formed under the influence of the geologic processes over the millions of years.
Northward there is a steppe zone, which occupies one third of the country’s territory. It stretches from the borders with Russia in the West-Kazakhstani oblast through the expanse of Aktobe and Turgay steppes up to the foothills of the Altay Mountains. The steppe is the soul of Kazakhstan; here there extend landscapes that represent the wonderful portrait of the nature of Kazakhstan with the great diversity of the plant communities inhabited with the character species of wildlife.
The very northern region of Kazakhstan makes the part of the grassland zone: this is a southern margin of the immense Western Siberian Lowland. Here the plots of steppe are alternated with the small woodlands of birches and aspens, they are called forest outliers.
Along its south-eastern border Kazakhstan is surrounded by the peculiar necklace of such mountain ranges as Altay, Saur, Tarbagatay, Dzungarian Alatau, and Tien Shan. The highest point of Kazakhstan, the Khan Tengri peak in the Central Tien Shan, is 6,995 m high. The highest mountain top of Altay is Belukha (4,506 m). Many peaks in Dzungarian Alatau and Tien Shan mountain ranges are about 5,000 m high.
Although mountains occupy less than one tenth of the country’s territory, the nature in them is more diversified than that of lowlands. In mountains climate zones are changed by vertical belts. Majorly, these zones repeat the nature of the lowland zones, but if in the first case to get from hot deserts to taiga or tundra you have many thousands kilometers to cover, then in mountains such a trip may take just a few hours.
Foothills and lower parts of the mountain slopes are the part of the half-desert and steppe zones. The area of medium-altitude mountains has deciduous forests, which give way to coniferous ones, represented by the trees of various species. Above forests there are alpine meadows with the incredible diversity of the flowering plants. The area of the highest point is the glacial-and-nival belt, the realm of glaciers, unapproachable cliffs and frost. The high mountain peaks are covered with eternal ice, where rivers have their rise and roll their waters to the valleys.
The extensive water resources of Kazakhstan are distributed haphazardly around the territory. There are desert areas in central Kazakhstan that may be called arid. But there is a river that flows through the southern deserts, too: this is Syr Darya, which runs into the salt lake of Aral.
All in all there are about 8,500 big and small rivers, and among them there are 23 rivers more than 500 km long. The biggest rivers of the country are Irtysh, Essil, Tobol, Ural, Syr Darya, Ili, Chu. The length of each of them is considerably more than 1,000 km. Ural discharges its waters into the basin of the Caspian Sea; as for Irtysh, Essil, and Tobol, they are the arteries that supply the Arctic Ocean with their waters.
There are a lot of lakes in Kazakhstan; two of them are among the biggest lakes of the world, these are the Caspian and the Aral Sea. Some more big lakes are located in the desert area: Balkhash, Alakol, and Zaisan. Here there also flow such rivers as Sarysu, Talas, Chu, Ili, Karatal and many others. In the east the largest artery is Irtysh, it receives into itself rivers that spring from the Altay Mountains. To be the Pearl of the Altay is rightfully considered Markakol, the largest mountain lake. Out of a number of rivers in the steppe area the biggest ones are Turgay, Ishim, and Tobol.
There are so many small lakes in Kazakh steppes, that these places are often called the land of thousand lakes. The biggest lake, Tengiz, is located quite close to Astana city, the capital of the country. There are a lot of amazingly beautiful lakes in the mountain areas of the country, too; the most popular of them are located high in the mountains of Zailiyskiy Alatau near Almaty city. These are lakes of Kolsay, Koyandy, Issyk, the Big Lake of Almaty.
There are about 6,000 species of higher plants growing in Kazakhstan, and more than 150 species of animals and about 500 species of birds inhabiting it, and there are many endemics among them. The biological diversity of the country is being preserved in conservancy areas, national parks, and nature reserves, which occupy more than 3 mln ha.