TURGAI, a province of Russian Central Asia, formerly a part of the Kirghiz steppe, and now included in the governor-generalship of the Steppes, bounded by the province of Uralsk and the governments of Orenburg and Tobolsk on the W. and N., by Akmolinsk on the E., and by Syr-darya and the Sea of Aral on the S. This territory, which has an area of 176,219 sq. m.—nearly as large as that of Caucasia and Transcaucasia taken together—belongs to the Aral-Caspian depression. It has, however, the Mugojar Hills on its western border and includes a part of the southern Urals; and from Akmolinsk it is separated by a range of hills which run between the two largest rivers of the Kirghiz steppe—the Turgai and the Sary-su. In the north it includes the low belt of undulating land which stretches north-east from the Mugojar Hills and separates the rivers belonging to the Aral basin from those which flow towards the Arctic Ocean, and beyond this range it embraces the upper Tobol. The remainder is steppe land, sloping gently towards the Sea of Aral.
The Mugojar Hills consist of an undulating plateau nearly 1000 ft. in altitude, built up of Permian and Cretaceous deposits and deeply trenched by rivers. They are not the independent chain which our maps represent them to be: they merely continue the Urals towards the south, and are connected with the Ust-Urt plateau by a range of hills which was formerly an island of the Aral-Caspian Sea. Their northern extremity joins the undulating plateau (400 to 600 ft.), built up of sandstones and marls, which separates the tributaries of the Tobol from those of the river Ural, and falls by a range of steep crags—probably an old shore-line of the Aral basin—towards the steppes. The steppe land of Turgai is only some 300 ft. above the sea-level, and is dotted with lakes, of which the Chalkar-teniz, which receives the Turgai and its tributary the Irgiz, is the largest. The Turgai was, at a recent epoch, a large river flowing into the Sea of Aral and receiving an extensive system of tributaries, which are now lost in the sands before joining it. Re- mains of aquatic plants buried in the soil of the steppe, and shells of Mytilus and Cardium, both still found in the Sea of Aral, show that during the Glacial period this region was overflowed by the waters of the Aral-Caspian Sea.
The climate of Turgai is exceedingly dry and continental. Orsk, a town of Orenburg, on its north-western border, has a January as cold as that of the west coast of Novaya Zemlya (−4°F.), while in July it is as hot as July in Morocco (73°); the corresponding figures for Irgiz, in the centre of the province, are 7° and 77°. At Irgiz and Orsk the annual rainfall is somewhat under 10 in. and 12 in. respectively (3 in. in summer). The west winds are parched before they reach the Turgai steppes, and the north-east winds, which in winter bring cold, dry snows from Siberia, raise in summer formid- able clouds of sand. A climate so dry is of course incompatible with a vigorous forest growth. There is some timber on the southern Urals, the Mugojar Hills and the water-parting of the Tobol; else- where trees are rare. Shrubs only, such as the wild cherry (Cerasus chamaecerasus) and the dwarf almond (Amygdalus nana) grow on the hilly slopes, while the rich black-earth soil of the steppe is chiefly clothed with feather grass (Stipa pennata), the well-known ornament of the south Russian steppes. In spring the grass vegetation is luxuriant, and geese and cranes are attracted in vast numbers from the heart of the steppe by the fields of the Kirghiz. The jerboa (Dipus jaculus) and the marmot (Spermophilus rufescens) are characteristic of the fauna; another species of marmot (Arctomys bobac) and the steppe fox (Canis corsac) are common; and the saiga antelope of Central Asia is occasionally met with. Farther south the black earth disappears and with it the feather grass, its place being taken by its congener, Stipa capillata. Trees disappear, and among the bushes along the banks of the rivers willows and the pseudo-acacia or Siberian pea tree (Caragana microphyla) are most prevalent. In the middle parts of the province the clayey soil is completely clothed with wormwood (Artemisia fragrans and A. monogyna), with a few grassy plants on the banks of the rivers and lakes (Lasiagrostis splendens, Alhagi camelorum and A. kirghizorum, Obiona portulacoides, Halimodendrum argenteum); while large areas consist of shifting sands, saline clays clothed with various Salsolaceae, and the desiccated beds of old lakes. Such lakes as still exist, notwithstanding the rapid desiccation now going on, are surrounded by thickets of reeds-the retreat of wild boars. Turgai is thus the borderland between the flora of Europe and that of Central Asia.
The population was estimated in 1906 at 511,800, composed mainly of Kirghiz, though Russians have immigrated in large numbers. The province is divided into four districts, the chief towns of which are Turgai, the capital; Ak-tyubinsk in the district of Iletsk; Irgiz and Kustanaisk in the Nikolayevsk district, a prairie town which has grown with great rapidity. Agriculture is mainly carried on by the Russian settlers in the Nikolayevsk district, where the crops do not suffer so much from droughts as they do elsewhere. But the Kirghiz have also begun to cultivate the soil, and in 1900 there were in all 612,200 acres under cereals.
The principal crops are rye, wheat, oats, barley and potatoes. Livestock breeding is the leading occupation of the Kirghiz. Camels are bred and kept by the nomads both for their own personal use and for the transport of goods between Bokhara, Khiva and Russian Turkestan. Considerable quantities of cattle and various animal products are exported to Orenburg, Orsk and Troitsk, and to Ust-Uisk and Zverinogolovsk, where large fairs are held. The Kirghiz of the southern parts migrate in winter to the better sheltered parts of the province of Syr-darya, while in the summer some 30,000 kibitkas (felt tents) of nomads come from the neighbouring provinces to graze their cattle on the grassy steppes of Turgai. Salt is obtained from the lakes. There are a few oil-works, tanneries and flour-mills, and the Kirghiz are active in the making of carpets and felt goods. Education is a little more advanced than in the other steppe provinces; the system of “migratory schools” has been introduced for the Kirghiz.
- See P. S. Nazarov, in “Recherches zoologiques dans les steppes des Kirghizes,” in Bull. soc. des natur. de Moscow (1886), No. 4.