Nature in Uzbekistan is unique and incredibly diverse. Uzbekistan occupies a vast area in the very heart of Central Asia, with the largest part of the country lying between the rivers Amudarya and Syrdarya. The territory of Uzbekistan spreads from Ustyurt Plateau in the west to as far as Ferghana Valley in the east, and is 447,4 thousand square kilometers in area. Uzbekistan borders Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.
The country is mostly flat with Turan plain being one of the major lowlands. The largest part of this plain is the Kyzylkum Desert, for 700 kilometers spreading between the two rivers from the Aral Sea to the foothills of the Western Tien-Shan and Gissar-Alay. An unforgettable impression is created by harmonious arrangement of numerous sand-dunes lying longitudinally and reminding of parallel wave crests. This ‘sand sea’ looks motionless, but it is not recommended to walk deep into it without urgent need. Over centuries only camel-driven caravans dared to travel here following the Great Silk Road routes.
Sand, clay and stony deserts cover about 40% of the country’s area. Despite rigorous conditions these deserts are full of life. In spring their vast expanses are covered with multicolour carpets of bloom – red poppies and tulips, violet malcolmias, blue and yellow irises. Their life span is short: in May they wither away, the green grass turns yellow. All the local plants have adapted in various ways to their desert lot. Predominating in the deserts and plains, there grow wormwoods, saltwort, sand acacias, haloxylons, tamarisks, camel’s thorns, and other herbs and bushes. Their roots reach as deep as the water-bearing layers of soil. People say about such plants: “their heads are in the sun while their feet are in water”.
The animals inhabiting deserts are modest in their need for food and water. Tortoises, snakes, small and 1.5-long giant lizards have almost the same color as that of the surface they crawl on. In the steppes there caper saiga antelopes. With the approach of scorching heat, Menzbir marmots and yellow gophers hide in their burrows and go into hibernation till the next spring.
In the mid-20th century the southern part of the Kyzylkum Desert became in a way the scene of a ‘geographical miracle’: in waterless desolate wilderness there appeared a lake whose water surface exceeded 2300 square kilometers in area! The lake resulted from overflow of the Syrdarya river, when the surplus drain water in Jizak Steppe had to be sent to the Aydar inland basin. The drain water from the neighboring Golodnaya Steppe was also sent there. Thus came into being the blue Aydarkul Lake, with its waters full of fish and its beaches attractive to holiday-makers.
The south-east Kyzylkums are plains whose landscape is transformed by irrigation. Formerly it was a desert area traditionally called ‘steppes’ – Golodnaya Steppe and Jizak Steppe. Karshi Steppe to the south of the Gissar-Alay looks the same. These steppes are not arid deserts anymore. Today these are carefully cultivated plains with boundless cotton and wheat fields, orchards and gardens, mechanized farms and industrial towns.
One of the distinct features of Uzbekistan is its location in the very heart of the Asian continent, thousands kilometers away from the nearest seas; Uzbekistan has no coastlines except for the 420-kilometer-long Aral Sea shore line.
A dramatic fate was meant for the Aral Sea. For the past decades the sea has shrunk fivefold; in some places its waters have gone 80 kilometers away from the shoreline. In cooperation with the neighboring countries, supported by the international community, the government of Uzbekistan is now taking emergency measures to save the Aral Sea.
It is not without reasons that the climate of Uzbekistan is called ‘extreme’: day as well as year temperatures are characterised by sharp drops. One can experience these ‘temperature extremes’ particularly in the mountainous areas where during the day the heat is really scorching but after sunset the puddles get covered with ice crusts. In summer it is hot and dry here. Winters are short, relatively mild, yet with occasional frosts that are too hard for the latitude. Springs, on the contrary, slip by, with constant showers and thunderstorms – as if nature tries to hasten the blossoming time. And finally, there comes the autumn – the pleasant season in the country: the heat gradually goes away, decreasing by 1°C a day; the sun in the cloudless sky is shining gently; the stalls in the bazaars are crammed with fruits and vegetables.
In the tugai woods along the banks of the Syrdarya river herons can be met. One may be lucky to see beautiful pheasants through the willow and oleaster branches.
In the valleys and oases there grow poplars, willows, oleasters, mulberry-trees. On the foothills rather common are groves of walnut-trees, shrubs of dog-roses, hawthorns, almond-trees, pistachio-trees, wild apple-trees. In the high grass and in the shrubs live wild boars, wolves, hares, foxes, porcupines and badgers. Among the thick-growing branches there are nests of many kinds of song-birds. On the rocky mountain slopes pheasants, stone partridges, larks, owls, some birds of prey can be seen. In the Tien-Shan and Gissar-Alay mountains one can meet groves of Central Asian junipers. In the rapid mountain rivers, originating high in the glaciers, there live the local species of trout and cat-fish. In the sky there hover eagles and white-head vultures.
Among nature’s treasures of Uzbekistan of a special significance are nature reserves, the places unaffected by man’s activity. Today there are 9 nature reserves in the country. They embrace unique diverse landscapes from sand-dunes of the deserts to blossoming oases, from riverside tugai woods to alpine meadows.
One of the oldest and biggest nature reserves is Ugam-Chatkal National Park. It is located in the spurs of the Western Tien Shan, one of the most ecologically clean parts of the world. The place is incredibly rich in fauna. In the valley of the river Pskem there lives the white-claw bear. In the area surrounding the tributaries of the Maidantal and the Oyigang one can meet stone martens, Turkestan lynxes and snow leopards. The reserve is also home to Siberian roes, mountain goats and Tien Shan wild rams. According to scientists there are 44 species of mammals in the reserve. Each reserve is remarkable in its own way. At a distance of 40 kilometers off Bukhara there was established the reserve ‘Jeiran’, the only one of such kind in Central Asia. Twenty five years ago there were brought here 42 jeirans. Now there are 700 of them. Besides jeirans, wild Prezhevalskiy horses and koulans (dziggetai) are bred in the reserve.
Located at the spurs of the Zerafshan range, Kitab State Geological Reserve is one of very few places in the world where evidence of the formation of the earth’s crust remains on the surface. Here numerous picturesque rivers cut deep through the mountains ridges, thus enabling the scientists to conduct researches on the bedding of earth’s strata in their historical consecution. Zaamin Reserve in Jizak Province mountainous woodland, with deep canyons and rapid rivers – is famous for its relict Central Asian juniper woods. The flora of Uzbekistan numbers over 1700 species. About 800 of them can be found nowhere but here.
In the streets and parks of towns and cities there grow very old trees – real monuments of nature. In Uzbekistan there are very many oaks, platans and chestnut whose age exceeds 100 years. The life span of elm, so common in Uzbekistan, is known to come up to 2000 years. In Ferghana Valley there still grow trees that are over 500 years old. The exotic nature of Uzbekistan with its desert and mountain landscapes offers a unique opportunity for a traveller to experience an exciting horseback riding in the foothills or to make a breath-taking rafting down a mountain river, to encounter exotic animals and watch rare species of plants.
Flora. Due to its various relief features, Uzbekistan has quite diverse flora. More than 3,700 types of plants have been recorded on the territory of Uzbekistan. Twenty percent of them grow only in Uzbekistan. Most of them grow on the mountains and only a few - in the desert and steppe areas.
The desert plants are particularly interesting. They are mainly there to protect soil from being swept away by constant desert winds. Only a few of the 400 types of plants that grow on the Usturt Plateau are important for the landscape. Most of the plateau is covered with haloxylon or saxaul. The black saxaul is the only plant that can grow in saline areas. It grows fast but lives too short. Saxaul is also a source of food for some desert animals like sheep and camels.
Desert plants are well adjusted to grow in moving and poor soils and in conditions of long drought or overheating. These plants adjust to desert condition by simply being leafless or having tiny leaves (for instance, saxaul or Calligonum).
The river valleys are vast in plains. The flora of the valleys is very diverse.
In foothills covered with grass, trees are rarely seen. Besides some cereals, these areas have different types of onion, tulip, rhubarb, iris, and other plants. These plants do not live long under the heat of the sun. As they disappear, other types of plants, which do well in heat, like the wormwood, occupy their place.
In foothills and semi-desert areas most of the plants are ephemeral. There are about 15-20 different types of ephemeral plants per square meter. These kinds of plants are hardly noticed in the landscape. In the past, these foothills and semi-desert areas had pistachio plants but now they grow only in areas difficult to access.
There are forests in low foothills. However, green plantation has been preserved only in areas difficult to access or unfit for agricultural purposes. The main plants in these areas are fir trees, the timber of which is highly valued. The fir trees grow very slowly and live quite long. There are fir trees more than 1,000 years old in the country.
Besides fir trees, there are deciduous trees like maple, cherry plums, and hawthorns. In some mountainous areas there are different types of wild apple trees. There are pistachio trees on Bobotag (mountain) and nuts in the Pskem valley.
The western Tian Shan areas are rich in birch woods. Plum trees, willow and poplar trees grow in most parts of the country. In the lower mountain areas there are honeysuckle, dog roses, barberry, and wild grapes. Also, there are a wide variety of herbs such as the Muscat sage, rhubarb, sorrel, and others.
There are plenty of Pskem onions - the wild type of onion used for medical purposes - found in the valleys of Chirchik River. The middle-size mountain areas are also rich in different types of herbs. Only 30 percent of high mountain areas are covered with plants.
Fauna. As for the wildlife on the territory of Uzbekistan, it has formed in concordance with the flora. The fastest animals live in desert areas. Even the type of hedgehog that lives in desert areas has longer legs than those found in Europe. Also, desert birds are different in terms of running and flying speeds than those found in other habitats. Lizards are also among the fastest desert animals. Even the desert beetles have longer legs compare to those that live in a damp climate. Among the fast runners are ground beetles, phalanx, and, particularly, tarantula.
Among mammals, there are ground squirrel, jerboa, and others. Also, there are different types of wolves, hedgehogs, foxes, and other animals.
Many wood louses, phalanx, ants, and cicadas inhabit the loamy desert areas. Besides, other animals such as the Central Asian turtle, yellow ground squirrel, arrow snake, gazelle, and others are found in the area.
It is typical to run across the Central Asian cobra in the Karshi desert, other species of venomous snakes— in the Golodny Desert, as well as saygak and the four-striped runner - in the rocks. Among birds, there are reels, buntings, lentils, black vulture, and others. Also, there are mammals such as wild boars, wild goats, mountain sheep, badger, marten, fox, wolf, and others.
In general, the list of animals and birds that inhabit different areas of the country includes green toad, bear, panther, wolf, Siberian goat, mountain sheep, pheasant, cuckoo, magpie, jackal, black crow, southern nightingale, rat, Bukhara deer, and many others.
There are more than 70 types of fish in the water reservoirs of the country. Besides, there are more than 300 types of invertebrates including 80 types of Crustaceans.