Trans Eurasia travel

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The tulips that are popular in the world today come from Central Asia. They were first taken by traders to Persia and Turkey, and then four hundred years ago the Russians took them from Tashkent to Holland. And the world went mad for tulips. In Amsterdam in the eighteenth century single bulbs went for enormous sums. There are five thousand types of tulip today and three classes of wild ones. In the springtime, in Southern Kazakhstan, there are a couple of weeks when you can find fourteen types of wild tulip growing.'

'Tulips!' Ivan said. 'Now, that's something to see!'

'There's a particular type of white tulip about a hundred and sixty miles outside Almaty,' Anna continued, 'where the air is so dry the flower has evolved folds in one of its leaves to trap moisture.'

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins

Kazakhstan is very clearly divided in its soil and vegetation zones. In the north, beyond Latitude 52, a strip of black earth occupies nine percent of the country's total land area. This soil is relatively thin, half being unsuitable for agriculture without irrigation. This is also the case with the belt of dark chestnut-brown soil to its south. This was the soil on which the Virgin Lands reclamation programme was concentrated.

In many ways, much of Kazakhstan is nature's poor cousin in terms of soil conditions. Gravel, sands and loam dominate the overall picture, and deserts, semi-deserts and steppe occupy 84 percent of the country. However, vegetation has adapted itself wonderfully to the rough conditions. The saksaul (haloxylon), a bush or tree with moisture-absorbing needle-shaped leaves and long, far-reaching roots, prospers in the desert; it grows slowly and produces an extremely hard and resistant wood. If it becomes too dry, it sheds its leaves. Unfortunately, this wood is being systematically plundered for its good meat-grilling qualities, and if the state does not intervene, it will soon be found only in nature reserves.

The karagach, an elm species, is equally hardy with 20-metre-long roots like piles, and is therefore planted as a windbreak in areas sensitive to erosion. Tamarisks produce pretty flowers which belie how tough these drought-proof bushes are, while ephedra and sand- thorn bushes also survive on meagre soils, their charming berries adorning the yellow- brown landscape.

Bulbous plants survive the harsh winter underground in the steppe and come to life in April and May when the meltwater penetrates the soil. During this brief period, apart from the small steppe tulips (among which botanists distinguish various subdivisions), you can see wondrous cistanche, ferula, eremurus, graceful lilies, crocuses and anemones; even garlic has attractive flowers. Many of our cultivated garden plants have their ancestry here in the steppe and sheltered mountain valleys of Kazakhstan.

Late in May, swathes of common poppy cover the immensely vast steppe like a purple carpet. Only a month later, when everything has shrivelled, comes the time for humble plants. Many unassuming kinds of drought-resistant and hardy grass, 'sedge and shrubbery give the steppe its typical character. Short- and long-grass steppes, the latter looking delightful with their long, silver-gleaming clumps of feather or heron grass, are blessed with more precipitation and fertility.

In the foothills of the mountains, the grass steppe gives way to wormwood meadows. Tlie meat of sheep that are grazed here is known for its exceptionally aromatic taste, and these herbaceous areas are popular with many other herbivorous animals as well. On the numerous slopes of the high mountains the elegant Tien Shan spruce grows straight as an arrow, while valleys are covered with juniper woods. Wild apple, pear, cherry and apricot trees that grow in the lower mountains are the forerunners of our garden fruits. In the alpine meadows below the glaciers marigold, primrose, edelweiss and gentian grow profusely. The Tien Shan's alpine zone contains more than double the number of plant species than that of the Alps.

A wide variety of plants prosper in the fertile wetlands of the lower river valleys. Torgay woods, as they are called, with Turanga poplar, ash, tamarisk and reed border the rivers as they flow through the semi-deserts and steppe. In some places, primeval forests dating back millennia have been preserved. The most sensational is situated downstream on the Sharyn, where a mixed willow and ash wood from before the last Ice Age has been preserved. The high-lying pine-tree forests on the Ertis are also worth seeing.

Kazakhstan's vegetation consists of 5,700 plant species, of which 700 are endemic. The best time for special botanical excursions is in May and June.