Alexander von Humboldt.

The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt online

. (page 31 of 35)
Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 31 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

vated steppe of Gobi. A portion of this race had been
driven southward towards the interior of Asia, after
continuing for a long time formidable to the Chinese
power. This dislodgement of the tribes was communi-
cated uninterruptedly as far as the ancient land of the
Fins, near the sources of the Ural. From thence poured
forth bands of Huns, Avars, Chasars, and a numerous
admixture of Asiatic races. Warlike bodies of Huns The Huna
first appeared on the Volga, next in Pannonia, then on
the Marne and the banks of the Po, laying waste those
richly cultivated tracts, where, since the age of Antenor,
man's creative art had piled monument on monument.
Thus swept a pestilential breath from the Mongolian
deserts over the fair Cisalpine soil, stifling the tender,
long-cherished blossoms of art I"

Thus remarkably are the features of nature, and the History of
lavFS which science discloses, intimately blended with the race,
history of the human race, on which the great Creator
of the universe has bestowed, as their inheritance, the
theatre of the world. It is at all times, indeed, equally
instructive and remarkable to contemplate the connexion




Value of
•=ive obser-

Steppes of
Asia and


wliich exists among all the sciences, and the light they
aie calculated to throw on each other. They appear as
a connected series of links in the great chain of natural
truths, of which one seeker obtains a few detached links
here, and another there, but rarely only, and at very re-
mote interval, some man appears of giant mind, such as
our great scientific traveller, Alexander von Humboldt,
who takes in within his comprehensive grasp a connected
series of many links, and discovers somewhat of the per-
fect unity which ranges throughout the creation, as well
as the providential government of God.

In contrasting the steppes of Asia with the vast grassy
plains of the New World, Humboldt gives the decided
preference, in many points, both of interest and beauty,
to the former. The Asiatic plains alike excel in beauty
of vegetation, and in their rich and varied aspect. In his
" Views of Nature," he remarks — " In a great portion of
the Kirghis and Calrauck steppes which I have traversed,
(extending over a space of 40 degrees of longitude,) from
the Don, the Caspian Sea, and the Orenburg-Ural river
Jaik, to the Obi and the Upper Irtysch, near the Lake
Dsaisang, the extreme range of view is never bounded by
a horizon in which the vault of heaven appears to rest
on an unbroken sea-like plain, as is so frequently the
case in the Llanos, Pampas, and Prairies of America.
I have, indeed, never observed anything approaching
to this phenomenon, excepting, ])eihaps, where I have
looked only towards one quarter of the heavens, for the
Asiatic plains are frequently intersected by chains of
hills, or clothed with coniferous woods. The Asiatic
vegetation, too, in the most fruitful pasture lands, is by
no means limited to the family of the Cyperacese, but is
enriched by a great variety of herbaceous plants and
shrubs. In the season of spring, small snowy white and
red flowering Rosacea; and Amygdalese {Jipirece, CratCB'
gus, Pruiius spinosa, Amygdalus nana,) present a pleas-
ing appearance. I have elsewhere spoken of the tall
and luxuriant Synanthereoe, {Saussurea amara, S. salsa,


Artemisioe, and Centaurea;^ and of leguminous plants, chapter
(speciesof the Astralagus, Cytisus, and Caragana.) Crown -^^vill.
Imperials {Fritillaria riUhenica and F. meleagroides,)
C^^pripedise and tulips gladden the eye with their varied
and hright hues.

" A contrast is presented to this charming vegetation Bambinnki
of the Asiatic plains by the dreary Salt Steppes, especially '' '^''^'^'
by that portion of the Barabinski Steppe which lies at the
base of the Altai Mountains, between Barnaul and the
Serpent Mountain, and by the country to the east of the
Caspian, Here the social Chenopodice, species of Salsola,
Atriplex, Salicorniae, and Halimocnemis crassifolia^ cover
the clayey soil with patches of verdure. Among the five
hundred phanerogamic species which Claus and Gobel Plants peou-
collected on the Steppes, Synantherese, Chenopodise, and s'teppes. '
Cruciferse, were more numerous than the grasses ; the
latter constituting only one-eleventh of the whole, and
the two former one-seventh and one-ninth. In Germany,
owing to the alternation of hills and plains, the Gluma-
ceee (comprising the Graminese, Cyperacese, and Junca-
cese,) constitute one-seventh, the Synantherese (Compo-
sita;) one-eighth, and the Cruciferse one-eigliteenth of all
the German Phanerogamic species. In the most northern
part of the flat land of Siberia, the extreme limit of tree Siberia.
and shrub vegetation {Coniferce and Amentacece) is, ac-
cording to Admiral Wrangell's fine map, 67° 15' north
lat., in the districts contiguous to Behring's Straits, while
more to the west, towards the banks of the Lena, it is
71°, which is the parallel of the North Cape of Lapland.
The plains bordering on the Polar Sea are the domain of Plains bor-
Cryptogamic plants. They are called Tundra (Tuntur po^a"^sea.
in Finnish,) and are vast swampy districts, covered partly
with a thick mantle of Sj^hagnum palustre and other
Liverworts, and partly with a dry snowy-white carpet of
Cenomyce rangiferina (Reindeer-moss,) Stereocaulon pas-
chale, and other lichens. * These Tundraj' says Admiral
Wrangell, in his perilous expedition to the Islands of
New Siberia, so rich in fossil wood, 'accompanied me to






systems uf

the extvemest Arctic coast. Their soil is composed of
earth tliat has been fiozen for thousands of years. In
the dreary uniformity of the landscape, and surrounded
by reindeer, the eye of the traveller rests with pleasure
on the smallest patch of green turf that shows itself on a
moist spot.' "

Returning from the consideration of this portion of the
great general laws of the universe, so efficiently explored,
Humboldt next passes to the detailed consideration of
the great mountain systems of Central Asia, some of the
phenomena observed in which have already been referred

The middle and internal part of Asia, which forms
neither an immense aggregate of hills nor a continuous
platform, is intersected from east to west by four great
systems of mountains, which have exercised a decided
influence upon the movements of nations. These sys-
l.imits of tiie tems are : — 1. The Altaic, which is terminated to the
^'^ ■ west by the mountains of the Kirghiz; 2. Thian Chan ;
3. Kwan-lun ; and, 4. The Himalaya chain. Between
the Altaic range and Thian Chan are Zungari'i, and the
basin of the Ele ; between Thian Chan and Kwan-lun,
Little or Upper Bucharia, or Cashgar, Yarkand, Khoten,
or Yu-thian, the great desert, Toorfan, Khamil, and
Tangout, or the Northern Tangout of the Chinese,
which must not be confounded with Thibet or Sefan.
Lastly between Kwan-lun and the Himalaya are East-
ern and Western Thihit, in which are Lassa and Ladak.
Weie the three elevated plains situated between the
Altai, Thian Chan, Kwan-lun, and the Himalaya, to be
indicated by the position of three Alpine lakes, we might
select for this purpose those of Balkachi, Lop, and Tengri,
which correspond to the plains of Zunguria, Tangout, and

The mountain system of the Altai surrounds the
sources of the Irtisch and Jenisei or Rem. To the east
it takes the name of Tangnou ; between the lakes Kos-
sogol and Baikal, that of the Sayanian Mountains ; be-

Altai sj-atcin.


yond this it takes the name of Upper Kentai, and the CiiAPTEit

Davourian Mountains ; and, lastly, to the north-east it '

connects itself with the Jablonnoikhrebet chain, Khing-
khan, and the Aldan Mountains, which advance along
the Sea of Ochotzk. The mean latitude of its prolongation, Latitude of
from east to west, is between 50' and 51° 30'. The Altaic
range, properly so called, scarcely occupies seven degrees of
longitude ; but the northern part of the mountains, sur-
rounding the great mass of elevated land in the interior
of Asia, and occupying the space comprised between 48°
and 51°, is considered as belonging to this system, be-
cause simple names are more easily retained by the
memory, and because that of Altai is more known to
Europeans by its great metallic richness, which amounts
annually to 45,907 troy pounds of silver, and 1246 troy
pounds of gold.

A recent distinguished scientific reviewer furnishes Metalliferona
PI 111 ii-i- treasures.

this summary ot the remarkable metalhierous treasures

of the Altaic Mountains, much of wliich, however, it will
be seen is already exhausted : — " The Altai, properly so
called, namely, the Altai Kolyvan of Russian geogra-
phers, forms a mass of mountains which advances like a
vast promontory to the western extremity of the chains
which constitute the Altai system. Here were found
the metallic eruptions, the working of which, between
1736 and 1745, excited such notice. These mines, how-
^ever, no longer exist ; but at the small town of Kolyva,
we find the great establishment for the cutting and po-
lishing of the pure granites, jaspers, and porphyries of
the Altai. Near this establishment Nekita Demidoflf
erected, in 1725. his celebrated copper- works, which, ^.^pp^'^"
from the want of fuel, and the necessity of enlarging
them for the silver ores afterwards discovered, were
transplanted to the confluence of the Barnaoulka and
the Obi, where the city of Barnaoul forms the centre
of these magnificent inetallurgic establishments. The
position of the rich mines of Schlangenberg, Zyriain-
ovsk, Riddersk, and Kroukovsk, shows that the argen-




Area of tlie
Altai Koly-


Direction of

riements of

tiferous region forms only the third part of the Altai,
properly so called. The area of the Altai Kolyvan is
ahout 4400 square leagues, nearly equal to that of
England. The direction of its mean axis is from west
to east, and, with the exception of its eastern side, it is
surrounded by low regions, — a peculiarity the more re-
markable, that, at a distance of twenty-five leagues, the
Alps of Tigratzki and the Korgou rise rapidly to 7000
feet, and at the distance of fifty or sixty leagues, the
Alps of Bieloukha rise to the height of 10,300 feet above
the sea. The culminating points of this system lie in
the second meridional range, a little to the east of the
sources of the Ouimon, where, between the snowy Alps
of Katunia and the Tchouya, the majestic peak of Bie-
loukha rises to the height of 10,300 feet. This inacces-
sible mountain has two horns entirely covered with snow,
the westernmost being the highest. A glacier similar to
those in Switzerland, and terminated by huge and ancient
moraines, gives birth to the river Katunia. The two next
highest summits are the Alas-tou and the Irbis-tou,
thirty or forty leagues farther to the east. After stating
that in the Altai the mean direction of the schistoze
strata is not, as in the Ural Mountains, parallel to the
mean direction of the whole chain, our author discusses
this curious subject with his usual perspicuity and learn-
ing, and points out the necessity of distinguishing, what
have been so often confounded, the various elements of
direction, ^we in number, which exist in every mountain
chain. These elements are —

" 1. The longitudinal axis of the entire chain, or of
the upheaved mass.

"2. The line of ridge passing through its highest

" 3. The line which follows the fissures of stratification.

"4. The watershed, or the line which divides the

" 6. The line which separates, in horizontal sections,
two contiguous formations ; for example, the granite


of the Silurian schists, the porphyries, and the red CHAPTER
grits." * '^;^"-

The Altaic Mountains are not a chain forming the
boundary of a country like the Himalaya, which limit Elevation of
the elevated plain of Thibet, and have a rapid slope only ^ "'"^
on the side next to India, which is lower. The plains ic
the neighbourhood of the lake Balkachi have not an
elevation of more than 1920 feet aI)ove the sea.

Between the meridians of Oust-Kamenogorsk and Prolonpation
Seniipolatinsk the Altaic system is prolonged, from east "vstem '""^
to west, under the parallels of 49 and 50 degrees by a
chain of low mountains over an extent of 736 miles, as
far as the steppe of the Kirghiz. This ridge has been
elevated through a fissure which forms the line of sepa-
ration of the streams of the Sara-sou and Irtisch, and
which regularly follows the same direction over an ex-
tent of 16 degrees of longitude. It consists of stratified
granites not intermixed with gneiss, and of greenstone,
porphyry, jasper, and transition-limestone, in which there
occur various metallic substances. Humboldt observes
when referring to the granitic phenomena cf this regian :
— " In no part of the two hemispheres have I seen rocks Granitic
which have more the character of eruption or effusion, i' ^'-"""i^°^-
than the granites which surround the mass of the Altai.
These insulated I'ocks rise in the steppe at the foot of the
Alpine Mountains, in the most picturesque forms. In
descending from the steppe of Platovsk to the rocky
banks of Lake Kolyvan, we are surprised by the granitic
eruptions which, over several square leagues, rise from a
perfectly smooth soil. The rocks are sometimes in a row,
sometimes dispersed over the plains, affecting the most
bizarre forms of narrow walls and little towers or poly-
gons. The smallest masses resemble tribunes, chairs, or
funereal monuments. But what gives so singular an as-
pect to this country, is the contrast in the height and
volume of these granitic elevations. Some of them, such
as the Vyssohaya Gora, attain a lieight of 400 or 500
feet, while others are only seven or eight feet high, and




Forms of



Ural cliain.


remind us of the small volcanic elevations which cover
the ]\Ial])ays in South America. Other form.s, more
extraordinary still, distinguish the granite roc'ks on
the southein declivity of the Altai. These have either
the shape of hells or flattened hemispheres, or cones ter-
minated often h^' lateral effusions, in the form of low
and lengthened walls, as if they had flowed in a melted
state from a crevice. I have been particularly struck
wit4i the form of a granite hill in the middle of a plain
two versts from Bouklitarminsk. It resembles, on a
large scale, the pyramid of Caius Cestius, near the Pro-
testant burying-gruund at Rome. At Oustkamenogorsk,
we saw, rising towards the S.S.E., at the distance of
eighty versts, in the middle of the steppe beyond the
Irtyclie, a mountain like a fortress flanked with small
towers. It got the name of the mountain of the Con-
vent fi'om its having the form of a building in ruins."

This low range does not reach the southern extremity
of the Ural, a cliain which, like the Andes, presents a
long wall running north and south, with metallic mines
on its eastern slope, but terminates abruptly in the me-
ridian of Sverinogovloskoi. One of these is called the
Round jNIountain, from its remarkable rounded form, and
another the Ravennaja Sopka, or, Rhubarb Mountain.
The latter is celebrated for its rich jasper porphyries.
Tile imperial palaces of St. Petersburg are furnished with
candelabra formed of this beautiful material nearly nine
feet high ; and a magnificent vase of the same pre-
cious material eight and a half feet in diameter, and four
feet five inches deep. Tlie block of jasper out of which
this dish was cut weighed 28,000 pounds, and, in 1818,
was transported in eight days, and l.y 400 workmen,
across the roughest mountains, to the works at Koly-
vansk. It required three years for cutting the block
and i>olishing the vessel. Notwithstanding the moderate
wages of the workmen, it cost the establishment 35,000
francs, without reckoning the expense of carriage to St.
Petersburg, a distance of 700 leagues.


Here commences a remarkable region of lakes, com- cilAPTKR
prising the group of Balek-koul (lat, 51° 30'), and that -"^VIll.
of Koumkoul (lat. 49° 45'), indicating an ancient com-
munication of a mass of water with the Lake Ak-sakal, Lakes.
which receives the Tourgai and the Kamichloi Irgliiz,
as well as with the Lake Aral ; and which would seem
from Chinese accounts to have formed part of a great
plain extending to the borders of the Frozen Sea.

The mean latitude of the system of the Thian Chan System of
chain is the 42d degree. Its highest summit is perhaps '''^" '^"^
the mass of mountains covered with perpetual snow, and
celebrated under the name of Bokhda-oola, from which
Pallas gave the designation of Bogdo to the Avhole chain.
From Bokhda-oola and Khatoun-bokhda, the Thian Chan,
or Celestial Mountains, run eastward towards Barkoul,
where they are suddenly lowered so as to fall to the level
of the elevated desert, called the great Gobi or Shamo,
which extends from Koua-tcheou, a Chinese town, to
the sources of the Argoun. This forms, in reality, the Great moun
great mountain chain of Central Asia. It extends almost central Asia
uninterruptedly from east to west, between the latitudes
of 40i^° and 43°, and is crossed by the meridional chain
of Bolor, in east longitude 72° and latitude 401°. These
two mountain chains cross each other nearly at right
angles, and mark the results of two great epochs of up-
heaval. They are, accordingl}', characterized by very
diverse mineral characteristics, into the consideration
of which the scientific traveller has entered with great
acuteness and considerable minuteness of detail. If
we now return to Bokhda-oola, we find the western
prolongation of these mountains stretching to Goudja
and Koutche, then between Lake Temourtou and Aksou
to the north of Cashgar, and running towards Samarcand.
The country comprehended between the Altaic chain
and the Thian Chan mountains is shut up to the east,
beyond the meridian of Pe-king, by the Khingkhan-oola,
a lofty ridge, which runs from south-west to north-east ;
but to the west it is entirely open.







of the Thiau

The case is very different with the country limited by
the second and third systems, the Tliiau Chan and Kwan-
lun ranges ; it being closed to tlie west by a transverse
ridge, whicli runs north and south, under the name of
Bolor or Beloot-taugh. This chain separates Little Bu-
charia from Great Bucharia, the country of Cashgar,
Badakshan, and Upper Djilioun. Its southern part,
wliich is connected with the Kwan-lun system, forms a
part of the Tsungling of the Chinese. To the north it
joins the chain which passes to the north-west of Cash-
gar. Between Khokand, Bervagel, and Hissar, conse-
quently between the still unknown sources of the Sihon
and Amou-deria, the Thian Chan rises before lowering
again in the Kanat of Bochara, and presents a group of
high mountains, several of whicli are covered with snow
even in summer. More to the east it is less elevated.
The road from Semipolatinsk to Cashgar passes to the east
of Lake Balkachi and to the/vvest of Lake Issi-koul, and
crosses the Narim, a tributary of the Sihon. At the dis-
tance of G94 miles from the Nairn to the south it passes
over the Rovat, which has a large cave, and is the highest
point before arriving at the Chinese post to the south of
the Aksou, the village of Artuche, and Cashgar. This
city, which is built on the banks of the Ara-tunien, has
15,000 houses and 80,000 inhabitants, although it is
smaller than Samarcand.

Tile western prolongation of the Thiah Chan, or the
Mouz-taugh, is deserving of a particular examination.
At the point where the Bolor or Beloot-taugh joins the
Mouz-taugh at right angles, the latter continues to run
without interruption from east to west, under the name
of Asferali-taugh, to the south of the Sihon, towards
Kodjend and Ourat-eppeh in Ferganah. This chain of
Asferah, whicli is covered with perpetual snow, sepa-
rates the sources of the Sihon (Jaxartes) from tiiose of
the Amou (Oxus). It turns to the soutli-west nearly
in the meridian of Kodjend, and in this direction is
named, till it approaches Samarcand, Ak-taugh, or Al-


Botom. Move to the west, on the fertile hanks of the chapteh
Kohik, commences the vast depression of ground com- •'^^•"^^^
prising Great Buciiaria and the country of Mavar-ul-
Nahar ; but beyond the Caspian Sea, nearly in the same
latitude and in the same direction as the Tliian Chan
range, is seen the Caucasus with its porphyries and Tlie
trachytes. It may therefore be considered as a continu- ^""*^''^^*
ation of the fissure upon which the Thian Chan is raised
in the east, just as, to the west of the great mass of
mountains of Azerbijan and Armenia, Mount Taurus is
a continuation of the action of the fissure of the Hima-
laya and Hindoo-Coosh mountains.

The Kwan-lun or Koul-koun chain is between Khoten, Kwan-ltm
the mountains of Khoukhou-noor and Eastern Thibet, '^^'^^
and the country named Katshi. It commences to the
west at the Tsung-ling mountains. It is connected with
the transverse chain of Bolor, as observed above, and, ac-
cording to the Chinese books, forms its southern part. It
crosses the Gobi between the meridians of Lake Gachoun,
in longitude 86i, and the eastern extremity of Bassa-
doungramoola, in longitude 92°. Humbolt remarks,
that at a part of Gobi which forms the eastern border ot
the desert of Makhai there is in the prolongation of this
mountain chain a manifest perturbation, caused either by
the upheaval of the plateau, or, as is perhaps more pro-
bable, by the great mass of the snowy mountains of
Khoukhou-noor. This corner of the globe, between Mineral
Little Thibet and the Badakshan, is very little known, ''"^■**'
although it is rich in rubies, lapis lazuli, and mineral
turquois, and in various localities works ai"e established
for the recovery of the mineral wealth with which the
district abounds. Lieutenant John Wood, an enterpris-
ing English traveller, succeeded in surmounting the
numerous obstacles which had impeded previous research,
and in the spring of 1838, reached the source of the Source of the
river Oxus. The natural phenomena with which he was ^"^^
there surrounded are very remarkable. At the immense
elevation attained by him, he remarks : " We stood, to


CHAPTER use a native expression, upon the Bam-i-duniah or Roof
•^^^^'^' of the world, while before us lay stretched a noble but
L:Uve Sir i- frozen sheet of water, (Lake Sir-i-kol,) from whose west-
ern end issued the infant river of the Oxus. This fine
lake lies in the form of a crescent, about fourteen miles
long from east to west, by an average breadth of one mile.
On three sides it is bordered by swelling hills, about 500
feet high, while along its southern bank they rise into
mountains 3500 feet above the lake, or 19,000 above the
sea, and covered with perpetual snow, from which never-
failing source the lake is supplied."
Elevated Few more remarkable points of elevation could re-

Oxu3*^ " ' "^ P^y the toil of the enterprising traveller than this ele-
vated source of the river Oxus. The Lake Sir-i-kol,
from whence it flows, is situated some 15,600 feet above
the level of the sea, and from the corresponding heights
which surround it, some of the principal rivers of Asia
take their rise. Lieutenant Wood has thus described one
of tbe most important works in this district, by means
of which some portion of its great mineral wealth is ren-
Eiiby mines, dered available. "The ruby mines are within twenty
miles of Ishkashm, in a district called Gharan, which
signifies caves or mines, and on the riglit bank of the
river Oxus. They face the stream, and their entrance
is said to be 1 200 feet above its level. The formation of
the mountain is either red sandstone or limestone, largely
impregnated with magnesia. The mines are easily
worked, the operation being more like digging a hole in
sand than quarrying rocks. Tbe galleries are described

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 31 of 35)