The Mongolian Altay divides the watershed of Central Asia from
that of North Asia. The land here is steppe and mountain steppe,
covered with dry, hardy grasses and low vegetation. The glaciated
peaks of Tavan Bogd, reaching elevations above 4200 m., mark the
highest point of this region. From these mountains on the west,
valleys carved by glaciers and fast-flowing rivers descend to the
great basins and ridges of Mongolia's inner plain.
Extensive forestation exists only in the region of Aral Tolgoi.
Except for scattered patches of forest in protected valleys or high
on north-facing slopes, the land is rocky and treeless, marked by
a climate that is cold and harsh throughout most of the year. Nonetheless,
at higher elevations and along the banks of the rivers descending
to the plains, this landscape offers abundant good pasture.
For thousands of years, the valleys of this region have
shelter and passage to populations moving in search of new dwelling
sites and fresh pasture. During the middle Holocene, the region
was inhabited by hunter-gatherers with cultural affinities to other
hunting peoples to the north. Approximately 3500 years ago and probably
as a result of climate change and the intrusion of new populations
from the northwest and north, the hunting economy began to be supplemented
For the last 3000 years, this region has been the homeland of
semi-nomadic pastoralists whose herds include horses, sheep and
goats, cattle and yak, and Bactrian camels. It is from this region
that the nomads of the Scythian period spread westward into the
steppes of Kazakhstan at the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E.
It is believed, also, that the original Turkic populations arose
in the Altay Mountains early in the first millennium C.E. At present
the population is primarily Kazakh, with small numbers of Tuvinians