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Kazakhstan 2015 Trip Report

Kalmakpay River section at sunset. Photo by Daniel Ibarra.














Trip Report

July 24-August 8, 2015

After nearly 24 hours of traveling, we finally
arrive in Almaty, the largest and economically most important city in
Kazakhstan. Exiting customs, we meet for the first time our Kazakh colleagues,
Bolat Bayshashov, a paleontologist at the Institute of Zoology and Aizhan
Zhamangara, a professor and charophyte specialist from the L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University in Astana ( The five of
us—Page, Dan, Annie, myself, and Derek Sjostrom from Rocky Mountain College—with
Bolat and Aizhan constitute the first joint Stanford–Institute of
Zoology, Almaty Field Expedition.

We are in Kazakhstan to test several hypotheses generated from our field
work in Mongolia during the summers of 2011 and 2012 (trip report here). Over
the past 40 years, there has been substantial research directed at
understanding how uplift of the Tibetan Plateau over the past 50 million years
has impacted climate in Asia. The current paradigm suggests that as the Plateau
rose, moist air from the Indian Ocean was increasingly blocked, leading to a
drying of Central Asia. 

However, much of northern Central Asia has been only poorly studied.
Despite containing some of the most impressive mountain ranges in the
world—including the Altai, Tien Shan, and Hangay-Sayan complex—the role of
these ranges in altering Asian climate and even the paleoclimatic history of
this part of world is only beginning to be understood.

For example, as first laid out in Caves et al. (2014), it appears that
the uplift of the Altai Mountains—which lie at the intersection of China,
Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia—may have created a distinct rain shadow,
drying much of western Mongolia, independent of Tibetan Plateau uplift.
Further, as we argue in Caves et al. (2015), for nearly the entire past 50
million years, Central Asia appears to have received moisture not from the
south, but from the west by moisture that has been carried across Eurasia by
the mid-latitude westerlies. The Tibetan Plateau, we argue, is inconsequential
for understanding the paleoclimate of this part of the world. Rather, to
understand paleoclimate of Central Asia, we must follow the old adage: “Go
West, young man.” 

As a consequence, we find ourselves in Kazakhstan, moving west from
Mongolia in an attempt to track Central Asia’s moisture supply west and through
time. Specifically, we are headed to the Zaysan Basin, which is the
eastern-most basin in Kazakhstan, bordering China and Russia. It is here that
we hope to find sediments that may contain information about how the supply of
moisture to Central Asia over the past 50 million years may have changed—due to
Altai uplift, global cooling, or other factors which we have yet to

The next day, after some deep sleep in the Hotel Salem, our Kazakh
colleagues take us by cable car to Shymbulak, the former Soviet winter sports
hub and the site of Kazakhstan’s hopes to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
However, the main purpose of our visit today is simply to rest, in preparation
for the 2-day drive to Zaysan.

The drive to Zaysan is long, hot, and bumpy. I understand now why so few
western scientists have chosen to study the sediments of Zaysan, which Russell
and Zhai (1987) described as follows: “Perhaps nowhere in Asia within a restricted area is there a
better sequence of continental Tertiary sediments than that found in the in the
Zaysan Basin of eastern Kazakhstan”. The roads, of
course, are far better than nearly anything we experienced in Mongolia; paved
and fast, it is clear that Kazakhstan is a far more developed country than
Mongolia. But with that development comes traffic, particularly trucks, which
make every passing opportunity a dicey proposition. We split the drive by
stopping in the road-stop town of Usharal, which lies on a very pretty large
lake, though we only barely see it from the road. Our prim hotel, officially
called the Café Almaty Guesthouse, belies its lack of air-conditioning. The
next morning, we resume our trek to Zaysan, affectionately renaming our hotel
Sweat Lodge.  

The next day at 6PM we finally arrive at our camp along the Kalmakpay
River. Bolat and his research team from the Institute of Zoology have been
camping here for the past 3 weeks, conducting excavations in the upper Miocene
and lower Pliocene sediments of the Kara Bulak Svita. The camp, particularly
after the long drive through the steppe and desert from Almaty, is almost a
little Shangri-La. The Kalmakpay River (river is used overly generously here)
flows through a patch of grass and trees, where we set up our tents. Here, we
also meet the entirety of Bolat’s crew for the first time, which includes
Bauzjan Dautaliev (driver and assistant), Gudjan Nazyanbeteva (researcher),
Saule Samzatbaeva (assistant and excellent cook), Jura Buztsev (assistant), and
Sabyejan Bayshashov (Bolat’s son and driver). Bolat’s crew has everything
prepared including several tents for eating and cooking, and the food for the
rest of the trip is excellent.

Over the next two days, we collect samples from the Kalmakpay River
section, the type section in the Zaysan, which contains the most continuous
exposure of Cretaceous to Pliocene sediments. Aizhan and Bolat show us around,
introducing us to the various svitas and pointing out where mammalian fossils
and charophytes have been identified in the sediments. Aizhan also serves as
the translator, and her knowledge of Spanish, English, German, Russian, and
Kazakh ensures that our combination of English, Spanish, and German can get us

Two days later, we decamp for the north shores of Lake Zaysan, where
there are extensive outcrops of Paleogene sediments that have been extensively
explored for fossils. The drive along the north shore of the lake is stunning.
Lake Zaysan is tremendous; yet, the land around the lake is as barren as
anything we’ve seen in the Basin and Range or Gobi Desert. The existence of the
lake is entirely due to runoff from the Altai Mountains and a dam downstream at
Ust-Kamenogorsk, which raised the rather shallow lake level by 6 meters. Our
camp is equally barren, scoured clean of any sand by the incessant afternoon
winds and lacking any hint of shade.

The north Zaysan deposits are, to say the least, disappointing. Though
they are some of the most spectacular outcrops we have ever seen—some of them
picturesquely placed along the shores of the ocean-blue Lake Zaysan—they
contain almost no carbonate. Instead, their combination of deeply-weathered
purple-mottled paleosols and interlayered lacustrine sediments seem to indicate
a geologic period much wetter than the present.

Finally, we move to our last site, a series of spectacular deposits
spread across three river basins, the Tayzhugen, Kusto, and Kyzlkain rivers.
These deposits, criss-crossed by faults and folds, are harder to sample, but
contain an abundance of carbonate reminiscent of the first locality, Kalmakpay
River. Our last night here is our last night in the field together as a large
group. We have a large group dinner, with a series of cognac and vodka toasts,
and then spend much of the night dancing to Bauzjan’s Russian and Kazakh
hip-hop collection blasting out of his SUV.

The next day, we begin the grueling drive back to Almaty in even hotter
weather than our initial drive out. Our second to last day in Kazakhstan, we tour
Almaty, visiting the second-largest wooden building in the world—a Russian
Orthodox church—and the war memorial to the Great Patriotic War (World War II).
Our last day, Bolat, Aizhan, Annie, and I spend most of the day visiting
various customs offices to get permission to take our samples out of the

We finish our trip with a dinner at Bolat’s house, prepared by his wife
and daughter-in-law. The food is spectacularly good, and there is more of it
than even 10 expeditions worth of geologists could possibly consume. The
evening is again filled with cognac and vodka toasts, followed by a walk around
President Nazarbaev park. Late that evening, Bolat, Aizhan, Borjan, and
Sabyejan drive us to the airport to catch our 4AM flight to Frankfurt.

All in all, it has been a wonderful and spectacularly successful journey.
Bolat and Aizhan were wonderful hosts, and we look forward to continued
collaboration to understand Cenozoic paleoclimate in Kazakhstan.