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'The Yenisey began life with a groan and ended with a boldness we could never dream of'
A.P. Chekhov, 1890

Lawrence of Siberia? The quiet majesty of our little known deserts

By Olga Gertcyk
08 January 2015

Described as 'wonders of nature', explore two of the most fascinating places on earth where the warm sand dunes meet the icy steppe.

It seems almost incompatible for such a warm, dry, place to live side-by-side with the cold and ice of the frozen steppe. Picture: Alexander Lesnyansky

They are majestic places unlike any other anywhere in the world, where the shifting sands of a desert collide with towering snowy mountains.

It seems almost incompatible for such a warm, dry, place to live side-by-side with the cold and ice of the frozen steppe. Yet it happens here, in Siberia. 

Well known for endless wilderness and temperatures that barely creep above -30C in winter, many people outside Russia are not even aware the region even has two deserts.

But it’s fair to say they are two of the most unique, and beautiful, in existence.

Looking at our stunning photographs, many will think of images of Lawrence of Arabia, but there is more chance of a reindeer, than a camel, sauntering up and down these dunes.

Against the backdrop of mountains coloured blue by ice, Chara Sands – also known as Charsky Sands, and located at the very north of Zabaykalsky Krai, in south-east Siberia - is an astonishing sight.

It is described as a 'desert in miniature' because it is only 10km long and 5km wide, but this does not lessen the majesty of the place. Surrounded by forest, the dunes can reach up to 30 metres in height.

Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts

'It is a proper desert with 'singing' dunes 20-25m high and sand storms. There are no scorpions or camels to make it look the same as the deserts of Central Asia.' Pictures: Alexander Lesnyansky

'Charsky Sands is a natural wonder,' says photographer Alexander Lesnyansky, who has captured the beauty of the region in a series of images published by the Siberian Times.

'Most people have negative associations with deserts. For a pessimist a desert is a complete nightmare, and they will associate it with connotations such as heat, sand storms, dehydration, or death.

'An optimist would add [words like] camels or oasis, and someone romantic will add more colours to these characteristics, such as the amazing lunar landscapes or exotic beauty.

'All of them will arrive at more or less the same conclusion: that it’s an extreme place, not a place to have some rest. But there is a cosy desert in the world that brings out only positive emotions. This is Charsky Sands.

'It is a proper desert with 'singing' dunes 20-25m high and sand storms. There are no scorpions or camels to make it look the same as the deserts of Central Asia.

'Another thing you won’t find here is a depressing loneliness, because Charsky Sands is a very small desert. It's only 50 sq km - small, cosy, but still a real desert.

'And, the amazing blend of two theoretically incompatible natural landscapes is the most outstanding fact about it.'

Located just a few miles from the region’s capital, Chara, the mini desert is sandwiched between two towering mountain ranges and is close to a glacier field. With sharp summits and narrow ridges, the Kodars above are often described as the 'little Himalayas'.

Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts

Tukulany Sands stretch out further than those at Chara, reaching out for 40km into the Siberian taiga. Pictures: Aksanov Niaz/kukmor.livejournal.com

The sands are thought to have started to take shape about 45,000 years ago after the formation of a lake from a glacier that slid down the mountains, bringing tonnes of sand with it.

Following the end of the ice age, sediment on the bottom of the lakes began creating the desert.

Further north, in the Sakha Republic – a region also known as Yakutia – Tukulany Sands stretch out further than those at Chara, reaching out for 40km into the Siberian taiga.

Located on the shore of the Lena river, the desert was described by 19th century explorers as a wonder of nature. A number of sand dunes – which actually translates as ‘tukulan’ in the Evenk language – can be seen along the banks.

Summer temperatures can easily each 40C and despite Russia’s reputation for cold and snowy winters, this region is among the driest in Yakutia.

'When the sand was depositing here, there were dinosaurs wandering around Yakutia,' said Alexander Galanin, a scientist who has carried out 40 expeditions to the area.

'Seventy to seventy-five million years have passed, the sea dried out, the animals and plants became extinct and now we’re here, my colleagues and I.'

Chara Sands also endure harsh temperatures in summer, and it has an oasis with a lake that features its own small forest. In winter, though, it can reach as low as -50C. And even in summer, the dunes can be surrounded by snow, or be shaped and carved by a watery bog or lake.

Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts


Siberian deserts

'The desert in winter has its own beauty. The snow goes through some amazing changes.' Pictures: Alexander Lesnyansky

'The desert in winter has its own beauty,' says Lesnyansky. 'The snow goes through some amazing changes. It partly evaporates in daytime and crystallizes at night in huge separate snowflakes, like white shiny flowers here and there on the sand.

'In April the snow starts melting leaving spots on wet sand. Spring comes in the second half of May, and the sands blossom. Yet there is almost nobody there to admire these bunches of purple flowers.'

At least, not until the foreign visitors arrive in their droves, that is.

Comments (4)

Many beautiful contrasts. Interesting article to understand. Is this place a national natural protect park ?
Jocelyne, FRANCE
11/01/2015 13:45
9
1
WOW! Amazing ,stupendous ,brilliant ,Man made structures cannot and will never match those of which nature can produce, Man has too short a time to construct such consummate exquisitive beauty, these "works" of nature take thousands of years . Siberians you're so lucky in so many ways ,

Patrick .
Patrick Travers, Perth WA
10/01/2015 07:43
9
0
I don't imagine I will ever get a chance to visit Chara Sands. But Alexander Lesnyanky's pictures, and those of Aksanov Niaz are the next thing to being there. Wonderful pictures, enjoyable and informative article.
E. Espinosa, Edmonton, Alberta Canada
09/01/2015 17:35
8
1
This is a wonderful read with amazing pictures. Thank you.
ST fan, Hong Kong
08/01/2015 21:28
11
0
1

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