Wonders of the Steppe


Written by Corey Shepherd

May 24, 2021

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.

Lake Baskunchak

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.

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.

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

Bogdo Mountain

Rising unexpectedly from unbroken flatness around it, Bogdo is just a few kilometers to the west and south of Baskunchak. It is also home to unique geographic features and ancient legends. Standing at a mere 500 feet high, Bogdo would likely be considered a hill in most parts of the world. However, it is the highest point of the Astrakhan region, and its red slopes do rise majestically from the surrounding steppe. A complex cave system surrounds the mountain, going through and under Bogdo. Thirty caves have been discovered – the longest measuring nearly one mile in length – and colorful salt deposits give the inside of many of the caves a natural beauty. Researchers assume many yet-to-be discovered caves remain in the area. More than 200 bird species make the Bogdo-Baskunchak region their home during a portion of their seasonal migrations. Nineteen of these avian are endangered. Endangered saiga antelope herds, with their unusual snouts, also migrate through the area every year.

Whispering Prayers

Strong winds have created pockets in the walls of Bogdo over time, which can produce a musical, whispering sound when a strong wind comes through. Nearby Buddhists believe that this whispering is the sound of a far-away monk’s prayers. It’s these same Buddhists, mostly from the nearby region of Kalmykia, that tell the most well-known legend of Bogdo, which means “holy mountain.” According to ancient lore, the Kalmyk people ached for the mountains of their ancestral homeland in Mongolia and beseeched the Buddha to send them such a mountain. The Buddha heard their cry, pitied them, and commanded two priests to carry a mountain from Mongolia to Kalmykia. The priests did as the Buddha commanded, carrying Bogdo across Siberia, only to get within sight of the Volga, tire, and begin to complain. As a result of their petulance, the Buddha struck them down in the Astrakhan steppe and they were crushed by the weight of Bogdo. The mountain’s red tint is said to come from the blood of the murmuring priests.

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.

Saiga in the Astrakhan Steppe

Unlike travelers described in the ancient legends of Bogdo and Baskunchak, today’s visitors need not risk bloodshed. They are encouraged, therefore, to visit the region, explore its unique geographical wonders, and write their own legends of these little-known spaces east of Elbrus.

Bogdo Mountain

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