The Middle East, Central AsiaThe Far East, Southeast Asia, South Asia
Asia is the world's largest continent, encompassing an area of 17,177,000 sq mi (44,500,000 sq km), 29.8% of the world's land area. The Himalayan Mountains, which are the highest and youngest mountain range in the world, stretch across the continent from Afghanistan to Burma. The highest of the Himalayan peaks, called Mount Everest, reaches an altitude of 29,028 ft (8,848 m). There are many famous deserts in Asia, including the Gobi Desert, the Thar Desert, and Ar-Rub'al-Khali ("the empty quarter"). The continent has a wide range of climatic zones, from the tropical jungles of the south to the Arctic wastelands of the north in Siberia.
The continent of Asia encompasses such an enormous area and contains so many countries and islands that its exact borders remain unclear. In the broadest sense, it includes central and eastern Russia, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, the far eastern countries, the Indian subcontinent, and numerous island chains. It is convenient to divide this huge region into five categories: the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, the Far East, and Southeast Asia.
Iran is separated somewhat from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula by a great gulf which divides it from most of Saudi Arabia. This gulf is known as the Oman Gulf where it meets the Arabian Sea and is called the Persian Gulf as it extends past the Strait of Hormuz. Most of Iran is a plateau lying about 4,000 ft (1,200 m) above sea level, and this plateau is crossed by the mountain ranges of Zagros and Elburz. These meet at an angle, forming an inverted V; between them the land is mostly salt marshes and desert. The highest elevation is Mount Damavand, which reaches 18,606 ft (5,671 m). The valleys between the mountain peaks are the main fertile regions of the country.
Iraq and Kuwait
Bordering Iran in the northeast is the country of Iraq. The west and southwest, where it borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia, is a desert region; in the northeast is a mountain range which reaches altitudes of over 10,000 ft (3,000 m). Between these two regions are fertile riverplains which are watered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In the southeast the two rivers join together, forming the broad Shatt al-'Arab, which flows between Iraq and Iran.
In the southeast corner of Iraq, along the tip of the Persian Gulf, is the tiny country of Kuwait. Its terrain is almost entirely made up of desert and mud flats, but along the southwestern part of the coast are a few low hills.
Saudi Arabia and Yemen
Saudi Arabia is the largest of the middle eastern countries. In the west it is bordered by the Red Sea, which lies between Saudi Arabia and the African continent. The Hijaz Mountains run parallel to this coast in the northwest, rising sharply from the sea to elevations ranging from 3,000–9,000 ft (910–2,740 m). In the south is another mountainous region called the Asir, stretching along the coast for about 230 mi (370 km) and inland about 180–200 mi (290–320 km). Between the two ranges lies a narrow coastal plain called the Tihamat ash-Sham. East of the Hijaz Mountains are two great plateaus called the Najd, which slopes gradually downward over a range of about 3,000 ft (910 m) from west to east, and the Hasa, which is only about 800 ft (240 m) above sea level. Between these two plateaus is a desert region called the Dahna.
About one third of Saudi Arabia is estimated to be desert. The largest of these is the Ar-Rub'al-Khali, which lies in the south and covers an area of about 250,000 sq mi (647,500 sq km). In the north is another desert, called the An-Nafud. The climate in Saudi Arabia is generally very dry; there are no lakes and only seasonally flowing rivers. Saudi Arabia, like most of the Middle Eastern countries, has large oil reserves; also found here are rich gold and silver mines which are thought to date from the time of King Solomon.
Yemen, which lies along the southern border of Saudi Arabia, is divided into South Yemen, called the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), and North Yemen, called the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). YAR, which lies below the Asir region of Saudi Arabia, is very mountainous. It consists mostly of plateaus and tablelands which are also the main fertile regions; but along the coast of the Red Sea is a stretch of flat coastal plains called the Tihama. This plain continues into PDRY along the gulf of Aden, and is very arid. The west of PDRY, near the YAR border, is a mountain range; and in the north PDRY borders on the great Ar-Rub'al-Khali desert. The southern plateau region is the most fertile part of the country.
Oman, UAI, and Qatar
Oman, which is bordered by the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, has three main geographical regions. These are a coastal plain, a mountain range which borders on them, and a plateau region beyond the mountains which extends inland to the Ar-Rub'al-Khali desert.
The strip of territory called United Arab Emirates (UAI) is a country divided up into different emirates or provinces. It is bordered by the Persian Gulf and a small part of the Gulf of Oman in the southwestern tip of the country, and it consists mainly of sand and gravel desert regions, but includes some fertile coastal strips and many islands. In parts of the country, the coastal sand dunes are over 300 ft (90 m) high.
North of UAI and bordered on three sides by the Persian Gulf is the country of Qatar, which is believed to have been an island before it joined with the Arabian Peninsula. It is mostly flat and sandy, with some low cliffs rising on the northeastern shore and a low chain of hills on the west coast.
Israel and Jordan
Israel contains three main regions. Along the Mediterranean Sea lies a coastal plain. Inland is a hilly area that includes the hills of Galilee in the north and Samaria and Judea in the center. In the south of Israel lies the Negev desert, which covers about half of Israel's land area. The two bodies of water in Israel are the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The latter, which takes its name from its heavy salinity, lies 1,290 ft (393 m) below sea level, and is the lowest point on the earth's landmasses. It is also a great resource for potassium chloride, magnesium bromide, and many other salts.
Jordan borders on Israel in the east near the Dead Sea, whose surface is about 1,290 ft (393 m) below sea level. To the east of the Jordan river, which feeds the Dead Sea, is a plateau region. The low hills gradually slope downward to a large desert, which occupies most of the eastern part of the country.
Lebanon and Syria
Lebanon, which borders Israel in the north, is divided up by its steep mountain ranges. These have been carved by erosion into intricate clefts and valleys, lending the landscape an unusual rugged beauty. On the western border, which lies along the Mediterranean Sea, is the Mount Lebanon area. These mountains rise from sea level to a height of 6,600–9,800 ft (2,000–3,000 m) in less than 25 mi (40 km). On the eastern border is the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, which separates Lebanon from Syria. Between the mountains lies Bekaa Valley, Lebanon's main fertile region.
Syria has three major mountain ranges. In the southwest, the Anti-Lebanon mountain range separates the country geographically from Lebanon. In the southeast is the Jabal Ad-Duruz range, and in the northwest, running parallel to the Mediterranean coast, are the Ansariyah mountains. Between these and the sea is a thin stretch of coastal plains. The most fertile area is in the central part of the country east of the Anti-Lebanon and Ansariyah mountains; the east and northeastern part of Syria is made up of steppe and desert region.
Turkey, at the extreme north of the Arabian Peninsula, borders on the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and the Black Seas. Much of the country is cut up by mountain ranges, and the highest peak, called Mount Ararat, reaches an altitude of 16,854 ft (5,137 m). In the northwest is the Sea of Marmara, which connects the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea. Most of this area, called Turkish Thrace, is fertile and has a temperate climate. In the south, along the Mediterranean, there are two fertile plains called the Adana and the Antalya, which are separated by the Taurus mountains.
The two largest lakes in Turkey are called Lake Van, which is close to the border with Iraq, and Lake Tuz, which lies in the center of the country. Lake Tuz has such a high level of salinity that it is actually used as a source of salt. Turkey is a country of seismic activity, and earthquakes are frequent.
Most of the far eastern countries are rugged and mountainous, but rainfall is more plentiful than in the middle east, so there are many forested regions. Volcanic activity and plate tectonics have formed many island chains in this region of the world, and nearly all the countries on the coast include some of these among their territories.
China and Taiwan
China, with a land area of 3,646,448 sq mi (9,444,292 sq km), is an enormous territory. The northeastern part of the country is an area of mountains and rich forest land, and its mineral resources include iron, coal, gold, oil, lead, copper, and magnesium. In the north, most of the land is made up of fertile plains. It is here that the Yellow (Huang) River is found, which has been called "China's Sorrow" because of its great flooding. The northwest of China is a region of mountains and highlands, including the cold and arid steppes of Inner Mongolia. It is here that the Gobi Desert, the fifth largest desert in the world, is found. The Gobi was named by the Mongolians, and its name means "waterless place." It encompasses an area of 500,000 sq mi (1,295,000 sq km), and averages two to four inches of rainfall a year. In contrast, central China is a region of fertile land and temperate climate. Many rivers, including the great Chang (Yangtze) River, flow through this region, and there are several freshwater lakes. The largest of these, and the largest in China, is called the Poyang Hu. In the south of China the climate becomes tropical, and the land is very fertile; the Pearl (Zhu or Chu) River delta, which lies in this region, has some of the richest agricultural land in China. In the southwestern region, the land becomes mountainous in parts, and coal, iron, phosphorous, manganese, aluminum, tin, natural gas, copper, and gold are all found here. In the west, before the line of the Himalayas which divides China from India, lies Tibet, which is about twice as large as Texas and makes up about a quarter of China's land area. This is a high plateau region, and the climate is cold and arid. A little to the north and east of Tibet lies a region of mountains and grasslands where the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers arise.
One of the largest of the islands off the China coast is called Taiwan, which consists of Taiwan proper and about 85 additional tiny islands in the region. Because Taiwan lies on the edge of the continental shelf, the western seas are shallow (about 300 ft; 90 m) while the eastern seas reach a depth of 13,000 ft (4,000 m) only 31 mi (50 km) from the shore. The area is prone to mild earthquakes.
Japan and Korea
Japan consists of a group of four large islands, called Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, and more than 3,000 smaller islands. It is a country of intense volcanic activity, with more than 60 active volcanoes, and frequent earthquakes. The terrain is rugged and mountainous, with lowlands making up only about 29% of the country. The highest of the mountain peaks is an extinct volcano found on Honshu called Mount Fuji. It reaches an altitude of 12,388 ft (3,776 m). Although the climate is generally mild, tropical cyclones usually strike in the fall, and can cause severe damage.
The two Korean republics lie between China and Japan, and are bordered by the Yellow Sea (Huang Hai) on one side and the Sea of Japan on the other. North Korea is a very mountainous region, with only 20% of its area consisting of lowlands and plains. Mount Paektu, an extinct volcano with a lake in the crater, is the highest point in the country at 9,003 ft (2,744 m). South Korea is also quite mountainous, but with lower elevations; the highest point on the mainland is Mount Chiri, at an altitude of 6,283 ft (1,915 m). The plains region is only slightly larger than in the north, taking up about 30% of the country's land area.
Southeast Asia includes a number of island chains as well as the countries east of India and south of China on the mainland. The area is quite tropical, and tends to be very humid. Much of the mountainous regions are extremely rugged and inaccessible; they are taken up by forest and jungle and have been left largely untouched; as a result, they provide habitat for much unusual wildlife.
Thailand, which is a country almost twice the size of Colorado, has a hot and humid tropical climate. In the north, northeast, west, and southeast are highlands which surround a central lowland plain. This plain is drained by the river Chao Phraya, and is rich and fertile land. The highlands are mostly covered with forests, which includes tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, and coniferous pine forests. Thailand also has two coastal regions; the largest borders on the Gulf of Thailand in the east and southeast, and on the west is the shore of the Andaman Sea.
Vietnam, which borders on the South China Sea at the Gulf of Tonkin, consists mainly of two fertile river delta regions separated by rugged, mountainous terrain. In the south, the Mekong delta region is the largest and most fertile of the lowland areas, making up about a quarter of the total area. The northern delta region, of the Red (Hong) River, is much smaller. It is divided from the south by the Annamese Highlands, which take up the greatest part of the north. Vietnam has a moist, tropical climate, and its highlands are densely forested.
Cambodia and Laos
Between Thailand and Vietnam lies Cambodia, a country of low plains. In the center of the country is the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), and many of the rivers that water Cambodia flow into this lake. During the winter, when the Mekong floods, it forces the flow back from the Tonle Sap into the tributaries, flooding the surrounding area with rich silt. In the north and southwest are some mountain ranges, and the Cardamom range lies along the southern coast.
North of Cambodia, lying between Thailand in the west and Vietnam in the east, is the country of Laos. The Mekong flows along most of its western boundary with Thailand, and most of the country's rivers drain into the Mekong. On the eastern border lie the Annamese Highlands. The northern part of Laos is also very mountainous and covered with thick jungle and some coniferous forests.
Myanmar, formerly called Burma, lies largely between China and India, but also borders on Thailand in a strip of coast along the Andaman Sea. The country is geographically isolated by mountain ranges lying along its western and eastern borders; these run from north to south, meeting in the extreme north. Like most of the mountains in southeast Asia, these are covered with dense forest and jungle. Between the ranges is a large fertile expanse of plains watered by the Irrawaddy River; a little north of this valley below the northern mountains is a small region of dry desert.
Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines
South of the mainland countries lie the island chains of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The latter two are both sites of much volcanic activity; Indonesia is estimated to have 100 active volcanoes. These islands, in particular Malaysia, are extremely fertile and have large regions of tropical rain forests with an enormous diversity in the native plant and wildlife.
South Asia includes three main regions: the Himalayan mountains, the Ganges Plains, and the Indian Peninsula.
The Himalayas: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan
The Himalayas stretch about 1,860 mi (3,000 km) across Asia, from Afghanistan to Burma, and range from 150–210 mi (250–350 km) wide. They are the highest mountains in the world, and are still being pushed upward at a rate of about 2.3 in (6 cm) a year. This great mountain range originated when the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia, which occurred due to the subduction of the Indian plate beneath the Asian continent. The Himalayas are the youngest mountains in the world, which accounts in part for their great height. At present they are still growing as India continues to push into the Asian continent at the rate of about 2.3 in (6 cm) annually. The Indian subcontinent is believed to have penetrated at least 1,240 mi (2,000 km) into Asia thus far. The range begins in Afghanistan, which is a land of harsh climate and rugged environment.
Bordered by China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran, Afghanistan is completely landlocked. High, barren mountains separate the northern plains of Turan from the southwestern desert region, which covers most of Afghanistan's land area. This desert is subject to violent sand storms during the winter months. The mountains of Afghanistan, which include a spur of the Himalayas called the Hindu Kush, reach an elevation of more than 20,000 ft (6,100 m), and some are snow-covered year-round and contain glaciers. The rivers of the country flow outward from the mountain range in the center of the country; the largest of these are the Kabul, the Helmand, the Hari Rud, and the Kunduz. Except for the Kabul, all of these dry up soon after flowing onto the dry plains.
To the east of Afghanistan and separated from it by the Hindu Kush, lies Pakistan. In the north of the country are the mountain ranges of the Himalayas and the Karakoram, the highest mountains in the world. Most of the peaks are over 15,000 ft (4,580 m) and almost 70 are higher than 22,000 ft (6,700 m). By comparison, the highest mountains in the United States, Mount McKinley in Alaska, is only 20,321 ft (6,194 m). Not surprisingly, many of the mountains in this range are covered with glaciers.
In the west of the country, bordering on Afghanistan, is the Baluchistan Plateau, which reaches an altitude of about 3,000–4,000 ft (900–1,200 m). Further south, the mountains disappear, replaced by a stony and sandy desert. The major rivers of Pakistan are the Kabul, the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, and the Sutlej; all of these drain into the Indus River, which flows into the Arabian Sea in the south of Pakistan.
Also found in the Himalayan Mountains are Nepal and the kingdom of Bhutan. Both of these countries border on the fertile Ganges Plains, so that in the south they are densely forested with tropical jungles; but most of both territories consists of high mountains. It is in Nepal that the highest peak in the world, called Mount Everest, is found; it is 29,028 ft (8,848 m) high.
The Ganges Plains: India and Bangladesh
South of the Himalayan mountains, India is divided into two major regions. In the north are the Ganges Plains, which stretch from the Indus to the Ganges river delta. This part of India is almost completely flat and immensely fertile; it is thought to have alluvium reaching a depth of 9,842 ft (3,000 m). It is fed by the snow and ice from the high peaks, and streams and rivers from the mountains have carved up the northern edge of the plains into rough gullies and crevices. Bangladesh, a country to the north and east of India, lies within the Ganges Plains. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra flow into Bangladesh from India, and they are fed by many tributaries, so the country is one of the most well-watered and fertile regions of Asia. However, it is also close to sea level, and plagued by frequent flooding.
The Peninsula: India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives
South of the plains is the Peninsula, a region of low plateaus and river valleys. It is bounded on the west, parallel to the Arabian Sea, by the Ghat mountain range; further north by the border of Pakistan is the Thar desert, which encompasses an area of 100,387 sq mi (260,000 sq km). In its southern extent, the Thar borders on salt marshes and the great lava expanse called the Deccan plateau. The island of Sri Lanka, which lies south of India, is the only other country which is part of the Peninsula, although it is separated from it by the ocean.
Off the southwestern tip of the peninsula are the Maldives, a group of about 1,200 islands. At their highest point, they only reach an altitude of about 80 ft (24 m) above sea level; and their number and identity varies as old islands are constantly submerged and new ones created.
Babaev, Agadzhan, and Agajan G. Babaev, eds. Desert Problems and Desertification in Central Asia: The Researches of the Desert Institute. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1999.
Chapman, Graham P., and Kathleen M. Baker, eds. The Changing Geography of Asia. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Menzies, Gavin. 1421: The Year China Discovered America. New York: William Morrow & Co., 2003.
Taylor, Robert H., ed. Asia and the Pacific. New York: Facts on File, 1991.
Ulack, Richard, and Gyula Pauer. Atlas of Southeast Asia. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1989.
Sarah A. de Forest
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