THE KYRGHIZ STEPPES is a historic name for the region currently forming central and eastern KAZAKHSTAN. It is a broad plain with few to no trees and little moisture. It is a land of horses and cattle and wideopen plains. The name is confusing, and thus used less frequently today, since the actual Republic of KYRGYZSTAN contains no STEPPE at all, while the Republic of Kazakhstan is home to very few Kyrgyz people.
The confusion stems from the 18th- and 19th-century conquest of the region by imperial RUSSIA. Russian authorities were unclear about the differences between the Turkic peoples of the plains and those of the high mountain valleys to the south and east, and for a time, they were both known as Kyrghiz, or Kyrghiz-Kazakh and Kara- (or Black-) Kyrghiz, respectively. The languages of the two groups are nearly the same, and the Russians already used the term Kazakh, or Cossack, to refer to similar nomadic (though Slavic) people who lived in southern Russia. It was not until the 1920s, when the communists began to separate the peoples of Central Asia into ethnically defined autonomous republics, that the name Kazakh was used to distinguish the peoples of the steppes from those of the mountains. Like the rest of the steppes that cross most of southern Russia, the steppes of northern Kazakhstan are broad flat plains that contain enough moisture to support grasses, but not enough to allow for denser vegetation and forests.
The Kyrghiz Steppes in particular forms the northern third of Kazakhstan and can be divided into two zones. The western zone is in the center of the country, known as the Turgai plateau, starting north and northeast of the ARAL SEA. This plateau is marked by a central depression, with a chain of lakes stretching up to the Russian border. This was once a strait connecting two inland seas, millions of years ago. The Turgai and Irgiz rivers flow into semisalty lakes, which sometimes disappear altogether in especially dry periods. The eastern region is known as the Kazakh folded steppe and is generally hillier, with scattered higher massifs, including the Ulu-Tau, Karkaral, and Chingiz-Tau mountains. Geologically, these folds are related to the folds in the Altai and TIAN SHAN ranges. Some of these areas are rich in mineral resources, and cities were developed during the Soviet era, such as Karaganda, the fourth-largest coal-producing city in the former Soviet Union. These cities always struggled to provide themselves with enough water, however, both for their growing populations and for industrial needs. Water resources from the Irtysh Valley in the northern edge of this steppe were used for these purposes, as were waters from the Ili River, which flows into Lake BALKHASH, and waters that were diverted from the Syr Darya far to the south, resulting in the serious shrinkage of the Aral Sea.
Other projects initiated during the Soviet era converted large percentages of the formerly open steppes into cultivated agricultural land, again with serious drain on local water resources and a change in the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the local population.