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by Gennady UFIMTSEV, Dr. Sc. (Geol. & Mineral.), Institute of the Earth's Crust of the RAS Siberian Branch; Alexander SIZOV, a post-graduate of the Institute; Gennady BARYSHNIKOV, Dr. Sc. (Geography), Altai State University
The residents of Altai and its environs have always regarded the region as something miraculous, alluring with a promise of rest and happiness. In the 17th - 19th centuries Russian Old Believers came here in search of the fantastic freedom land Belovodiya, and Buddhists tried to find a mysterious land-Shambala. It will be forever entrenched in the memory of anyone who had a chance to visit it or at least to read about this region, with its snow-white ice-covered tops of mountain ranges overgrown with thick forest, and treeless hollows. But you will also find a different kind of Altai - boundless steppes or low mountains with lots of astounding landscapes.
The low mountains and hills surrounding the town of Zmeinogorsk and the Kolyvan settlement are among Altai's most picturesque places. The name of Kolyvan is associated with the images of giant vases displayed in the halls of the State Hermitage museum. They were cut out in the 18th century from grayish-green jasper or light pink stone in Russia's oldest stone-cutting workshop. If you happen to visit the Kolyvan environs you will not only admire its beauty but also see in it the potential of a real scientific testing ground.
As you travel to Zmeinogorsk from the North or Northwest you see how the Steppe Altai plains give way to sloping hills and then to hills and low mountain relief. You will at once take note of widespread valley
pediments - slightly inclined piedmont plains formed as a result of retreat of valley sides parallel to themselves. They seem to have smoothed the watersheds that have been transformed into the frames of the broad inter-valley spaces of the past.
As you approach the mountains you will see along the road separate granite rocks and their groups with horizontal and slightly inclined cracks forming the so-called pillow parting on rock ledges. With a little bit of imagination you will see sculptures created by nature instead of those rocks: here is a mythical beast over the mountain, with a turtle next to it, and a giant stone eagle seems to be ready to fly up.
However, the granite rocks remind you the most of cylindrical or dome-shaped huts, some of them standing separately and other forming stone villages. But all this is nothing but the suburbs of the town not made by human hands spread on the banks of Lake Kolyvan.
The 18-meter-deep lake occupies the bottom of the closed hollow surrounded by low mountains. Relict water chestnut grows in the lake, and the stripes of empty nuts are lying here and there on the beaches. All around there is a veritable kingdom of granite rocks-as if it were a stone town with clearly distinguishable blocks separated by broad passages and narrow alleys. Though, its architecture is exceptional, with domed and cylindrical ''houses" predominating, some of them with very picturesque roofs. The town descends to the lake in terraces, with the narrow strip of the bank devoid of any "structures".
The components of the "houses" make it possible to determine the main features of natural processes that have performed this miracle. First, cracks in granites mainly found in two directions. Those close to vertical, frequently open cracks, divide the rock mass into small blocks. Weathering processes broaden the cavities and divide them by passages, thus paving the way for future structures. While horizontal or slightly sloping cracks divide the granite blocks into platy ones and lay the foundation of the town's architectural style. They are largely represented by the so-called "flaking cracks", formed at the surface of the rock mass as the rock located above disappears as a result of weathering and denudation (removal of the products of its activity). That is precisely why cracks are formed in the direction close to horizontal; slight inclination points at the fact that the initial surface of rock (initial peneplain) was gently undulating.
Many of the rock ledges are rounded, with "licked" dome-shaped edges; at first sight they look like heaps of giant flat-cakes. They must have taken this form owing to desquamation (i.e., result of temperature peeling) of rock surfaces in the process of periodical and rapidly changing heating and cooling. The dome-shaped rocks point at an arid geomorphological environment.
A great number of cornices and niches serve as main architectural ornaments of the "walls" of stone "houses"; small weathering cells quite often form typical honeycomb systems. The deepest niches are located at the base of most of the rocks. They are absolutely empty: the wind blows away from them the products of rock destruction-not only sand but also pebbles (debris). And it so happened that on the day of our visit a heavy wind was blowing as usual.
The walls of the "houses" are ornamented by a kind of cornices running along the parting cracks. Those cornices are very fragile and are formed as a result of rock destruction down to sand-and-gravel mass. This process, described as saprolitization, is caused by periodical freezing and thawing of moisture in microcracks and pores between rock grains. As a result, rock ledges are very rapidly destroyed, while their form remains unchanged and the rock ingredients are transformed into loose mass. The greater is the amount of pore waters and the larger are the grains of granites and other rocks, the more rapid the process is.
The granite rocks such as those surrounding Lake Kolyvan are widespread in Siberia. However, their compact groups looking much like stone towns are probably formed solely under certain climatic conditions. Here we are primarily dealing with open landscapes-steppes and semi-deserts where weak vegetation does not hamper the process of physical weathering and removal by winds of its products. Second, it is
the breakdown and degradation of the hydrographic network, closed runoff basins and lakes in broad hollows. It is precisely under such conditions that various kinds of stone towns are formed. This group includes eolian stone towns discovered in the early 20th century by Academician Vladimir Obruchev in the Inner Asia (Dzhungaria), "hut towns" in Central Sahara looking astonishingly like villages in African Sahel described by French geologist Henri Lotte, and also residual rocks looking much like the ruins of castles and fortresses that are widespread in arid tropical belts and in surface karst relief regions. These astonishing structures created by nature stir our imagination and attract scientists and tourists.
The recreational potential of stone towns like those on the banks of Lake Kolyvan is only too obvious, although so far it has not been, regrettably, used properly, to say the least. There are ugly-looking toilets and small wagons placed next to prohibitive or explanatory posters in the streets and squares of the Kolyvan stone town. And the lake banks bear the traces of dashing raids of transient visitors.
The stone town surrounding Lake Kolyvan and its "suburbs" is a natural phenomenon astonishing in its variety. This small area is as a matter of fact a laboratory for carrying out research into relief-formation processes typical of arid regions of Central Asia, South Siberian steppes and mountainous taiga.
The work has been carried out with the financial support of the Russian Basic Research Fund (05 - 05 - 64173).
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Gennady UFIMTSEV, Alexander SIZOV, Gennady BARYSHNIKOV, STONE TOWN NOT OF HUMAN MAKING // London: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 25.09.2018. URL: https://libmonster.com/m/articles/view/STONE-TOWN-NOT-OF-HUMAN-MAKING (date of access: 21.04.2021).
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