Wonders of the Steppe
Just before the Volga – Europe’s longest river – breaks apart into a thousand tributaries and discharges into the Caspian Sea, it flows past two of Russia’s most unusual geographic phenomen: Bogdo Mountain and its salt lake neighbor, Baskunchak. Both are natural marvels found on UNESCO’s list of biosphere reserves and steeped in ancient legends.
Surrounded by a near-desert climate, the surface of Lake Baskunchak rests at 68 feet below sea level. Eighty percent of Russia’s salt is extracted from it, and it is said to have an inexhaustible store of the valuable mineral due to the saltine streams that flow into it. In fact, as early as the eighth century, salt was being extracted from the lake, exported along the Silk Road, and sold in both Europe and Asia.
Tourists travel to the lake in search of the healing qualities of mineral clay found below the salty surface and at the edges of the lake. They also enjoy swimming in water so dense with salt that it is impossible to drown. The water literally pushes the swimmer up to the surface. In other places on the lake, the salt is even denser, allowing the traveler to actually walk on the surface. But the raw salt is sharp, making it painful for bare feet.
From this sharpness the lake may have derived its name. In Turkish, “bash” means “head”, and “kuncha,” means “dog.” According to legend, long ago the water level was low, tempting a hurried traveler to risk a shortcut by crossing the lake with his horse and dog. But an unexpected storm fell upon the travelers. The horse, protected by its metal shoes, had time to finish the trek across. The dog, with feet injured from the prickly salt floor, was not so fortunate. He laid down, unable to continue. Eventually the water rose, and he died. The salt properties of the lake, however, preserved his body; and to this day, locals say, his head floats to the surface where it can be seen by the passersby.
Lake Baskunchack with Bogdo in the distance
Air Pockets in Bogdo Mountain
the Kalmyk people ached for the mountains of their ancestral homeland in Mongolia and beseeched the Buddha to send them such a mountain.
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