Karagiye depression: below sea level, above human body (1/3)

Intro: sea or lake?

Despite the name, the Caspian Sea actually is a big lake, as it is completely landlocked, without a connection to the oceans. Beside its huge size (with 371000 square km is the largest lake in the world by far) owns another peculiarity: it lies 28 meters below the mean sea level. Even if it is situated in an arid climate, the salinity is much lower than in the oceans (about one third), mainly due to the fresh water influx (Volga river). Around the lake, especially in the northern sector, there is an extensive sunken plain area named “the Caspian Lowland”, a sparsely populated flatland covered with xerophyte shrubs and grass.

“Skal’naya tropa”, the rocky coast of Aktau

Centered around the oil industry, the city of Aktau lies on the eastern shore of the “sea” and is the capital of Mangystau region in south-western Kazakhstan. In the summer the climate resembles the mediterranean one (warm to hot with little rainfall), the coast being frequented by locals in the holidays. International tourism it just started to develop, hence is a great option for those travelers who want to have a unique and less crowdy beach experience. Above the specific “soviet background” (wide streets, rectangular structures, heroic memorials) the present day Aktau presents a peaceful atmosphere, trying to connect to the western standards.

Choosing the target

Compared with my usual work ethic regarding the extreme climate research, this travel wasn’t planned well ahead, instead was closer to a “last minute” decision. With less free time available I chose a somewhat “easier target”, both physically and financially.

Having a particular bonding with the lowest dry lands by a lifetime, the Karagiye Depression in south-western Kazakhstan popped up as the best choice in this more limited context. The bottom of the semi-desertic depression lies at 132 meters below the sea level, representing the lowest point of Kazakhstan (also the former Soviet Union) and position oneself fifth in the world after the Dead Sea (Israel-Jordan), Lake Assal (Djibouti), Turfan basin (China/ Xinjiang) and Qattara depression (Egypt).

The Karagiye Depression (red arrow) situated inside the Caspian Lowland (dark green, upper part of the image)

From the viewpoint of the hottest places of the Planet in the absolute sense can’t be considered a “top-notch” location, but taken into account its relatively high latitude (43 N) in the summertime has a decent delivery potential. The proximity to the coast (20-40 km) doesn’t really affect the daytime heating as the Caspian has a quite continental ambience and the sea-breeze is often completely annihilated by the dry easterly winds blowing from the inland deserts.

Soviet military topo map with Karagiye (center) and Aktau (formerly Shevchenko) in the north-west

Moderated by the sea, Aktau itself has an average summer maximum of around 31-32 degrees, with the absolute record of 44 degrees Celsius measured in the month of August (according to Wikipedia). I have no access to the weather statistics of the more inland locations in Mangystau and I’m not even sure there are real weather stations outside the regional capital in the closer surroundings.

The place has a peculiar topographical setting, being a “depression inside a depression”, as the nearby Caspian Sea itself is already situated below the level of the world ocean, while Karagiye lies another hundred meters lower than the big lake.

Satellite image with the location of the measuring equipment (red dot) in the north-eastern part of the basin

Regarding the exact location of the research I’d chosen a spot which is the farthest possible from the coast (37-38 km), while at the same time being at the lowest elevation (-132 m). Also, I’ll try to place the tripod on sandy surface, as it can slightly enhance the daytime heating compared with the more compact clay or the highly reflective salt crust (white patch in the above image).

The low-point can be reached the easiest way from the Aktau-Zhanaözen road (new turkish asphalt), from where it is about 10 km to the south, south-west, lying at the foot of the steep eastern rim of the basin.

Brief summary of the research

My plane landed in Aktau on 11th August in the early morning, just before sunrise. The optimistic forecast rushed me to reach the bottom of Karagiye and place the measuring equipment as soon as possible. Everything went fine, the locals were helpful and even if I slept close to nothing during the flight journey, the quick preparation was efficient and around 9 AM a car left me on the Zhanaözen road right at the viewpoint to the depression, from where I started the hike towards the bottom.

Descending into the Karagiye depression

Before 10 AM it was already hot, the sky completely clear and only weak wind. After meandering my way through the fragmented escarpment, I reached the flatter part and continued the walk, crossing the sometimes harder clayey, other times more squashy salty terrain with generally sparse vegetation cover. Finding a proper sandy spot on the bottom I mounted the data logger on the tripod around 12:30 PM. The exact coordinates are: 43.490923 N, 51.838903 E, the elevation -130 m. The height of the sensor from the ground is around 170 cm. At 12:42 PM the weather station started its operation. First reading: 36.6 degrees Celsius.

The weather station on the bottom of the basin

I waited near the equipment until 5 PM, to monitor the temperature rise during the hottest part of the day. The maximum reached 40.1 degrees Celsius at 4:48 PM, while I randomly measured 64.3 degrees soil temperature around 1:30 PM during the highest sun angle. Before leaving I secured the tripod attaching a sack filled with soil fragments to can handle also the windier conditions.

I’ve spent the night in a mosquito tent less than 1 km from the weather station, next to a consolidated sandy pile. Despite the clear skies, partly because of the wind, the evening was warm and the night’s minimum dropped only to 28.9 degrees Celsius. I left the research area at dawn and returned to collect the equipment four days later, on 16th August in the afternoon. During this intermediate period, beside Aktau, I travelled to other locations of the Mangyshlak peninsula (Shetpe town, Caspian coast), where encountered similar dry and hot conditions with little to no clouds.

The maximum (40.1 degrees Celsius) was reached at 4:48 PM

On 16th August I crossed the Karagiye depression, starting the hike from the other side (Kuryk road), reaching the study area after traversing the salt pan situated at the very bottom. The weather was mostly sunny but somewhat less hot than in the first day, though still far from comfortable. I found the instrument in its place and functional with all data recorded correctly. The absolute maximum surpassed by half a degree (40.6 degrees Celsius) the first days peak both on 12th and 13th, while the weakest maximum happened on 15th (36.0 degrees). The lowest value was registered on 16th in the morning, when the temperature dropped to 19.3 C, by far the coldest night.

The salt pan at -132 m

During my staying in the depression I encountered a few gazelles, camels and horses, respectively birds in the more vegetated parts. Small lizards, a few bugs and a species of spider (night time) was also present. There were no humans in the entire area between the two asphalt roads (Zhanaözen and Kuryk).

The instruments used on the field

-One LogTag UTRED30-16 data logger with the measuring range between -40 and +99 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of 0.5 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.

-One Greisinger GMH 2710-T digital precision thermometer with the measuring range between -199.9, +200 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of +-0.1 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.

-One photo camera tripod serving as the support for the instruments.

-One helical solar radiation shield from Barani Design Technologies:

Soil temperature around noon

To be continued…

Karagiye depression: below sea level, above human body (2/3)

Journey photo album

My plane landed in Aktau shortly before sunrise and I had the luck to catch a glimpse of the Karagiye salt flat (whitish patch below the horizon) while approaching the Caspian coast

The first impression of Kazakhstan was very positive and not only because of the sunny weather, but also the openness and helping attitude of the locals

Thus, with the assistance of the airport taxi driver who understood and was ready to help me with the basic preparations in a fast and straightforward manner, I managed to reach the starting point of the hike at the “Karagiye viewpoint” situated about 55 km distance from the city on the Zhanaözen road around 9 AM

Packed with 9 liters of water and sufficient food, at 9:30 AM I started the descent towards the bottom of the depression
The first part of the route is given by the steep ledge of the plateau, which drops in more steps, separated by flatter terraces, a prehistoric and dramatic landscape with the aspect of a labyrinth. The dominant rock type is clay and marl, generally quite friable

Around 10 AM it was already hot and the absence of the wind inside the gullies made the solar radiation even more pronounced. I am content, this is what I came for

Some gazelles wandering in the wilderness
Reaching the flatter bottom part (already below -100 m elevation) I continued the hike, turning to the south-east and generally following the line of the escarpment. In some parts there was some vegetation…
…while in other parts it was completely missing, the landscape resembling the surface of the Moon
small step…Big step 🙂
Even here you can see sometimes the signs of life, this bird certainly came from the neighboring greener areas, where he/she resides
Here and there the monotony of the flatland is interrupted by a few consolidated sandy piles
After 12 PM I reached a spot which I consider proper to place the tripod with the attached logger. This is a smaller sandy “island” situated at the edge of the extensive clayey bottom (the GPS shows around -130 m), which could slightly enhance the daytime heating as compared with the more compact or reflective surfaces
At 12:40 I started the logger. For a short period there was some trouble as the sensor’s contact seemed to fluctuate, but luckily, after a few attempts I managed to solve the issue
The Barani helical radiation shield warrants for the efficient protection against the sun, providing both shade and sufficient ventilation to measure the actual air temperature

Soil temperature around 1:30 PM, the highest solar angle
Unlike the dusty and squashy one, this surface is particularly hard and rough
The Zobject likes it too
As I had both enough time and energy, without the luggage, I made a small bypass to the last visible sandy pile situated more inside the depression (around 1.5 km from the camp), which has on the top a small lookout tower
I was a little surprised that I couldn’t observe from here the white expanse of the salt pan, probably still too far with such a small elevation advantage
Some greenery at the foot of the ledge
The only shade is my own
Back to the camp: the temperature is rising

As I lost my “legionary hat” before embarking in the minibus in Aktau, I’ve used a white T-shirt for protection against the insolation. I am sitting in a small camping chair without any shade, determined to wait here until the peak-heat

counting sheep…

Nice, could pass the 40 degrees barrier

Chilling with my best friend. Maybe not
No ice cream on this beach. At least I try to protect the bottles from the relentless sun. Even without a complete greenhouse effect, the water is already unpleasantly warm, certainly above the human body temperature

The weather station around 4 PM
Sometimes there is absolutely no air movement
That’s it! Just before deciding to leave I saw that the max went above 40 degrees

I secured the tripod with an attached sack filled with earth to can handle also the windier conditions and after 5 PM I left the weather station

Finding shade behind a neighboring conical structure I rested some time before setting my camp for the night

Even if the temperature was still high, the atmosphere started to be more bearable after the solar angle became lower

The billion-star hotel is waiting for me

Yeah, you have done a decent job today
Nothing on this image outside the dark sky, right? Well, almost nothing. Actually I took a picture of a bright, moving line composed of 22 light spots (still very hazy, but a zoom will help). The “UFO” was heading straight and the distance between the lights wasn’t changing, nor were they pulsing, the direction approximately NW-SE. The interesting part is that I read a short mention somewhere on the net, that in the Karagiye area the UFO encountering isn’t rare. I never saw something similar, according to a friend they must be a cluster of satellites, before diverging
Before leaving I went back to the tripod to check the minimum temperature. The night was warm, but not on the side of uncomfortable, actually almost optimal for just laying without a sleeping bag in the airy mosquito tent

Though I wasn’t taken away by E.T. , was bitten by a few mosquitos through the mesh. Fortunately not by him. You can easily spot this spider in the dark, as his eyes are reflecting the light of the headlamp

In the dawn I continued the hike back, towards the asphalt road
Not legit UFO’s, but they too can trick your imagination

Higher, but still below the sea level

For the sake of the adventure, I took another way to reach the road. Yesterday I hydrated myself properly and left sufficient water for today’s part. The milder morning temperatures are helping to accumulate some km’s before the sun hits you

Sunrise over Karagiye

Certainly another hot day awaits me

I saw that there is some lush vegetation inside a canyon-like valley and was curious about the details

Water! There is kind of a “canopy” mainly composed of reeds, which hides the stream underneath, thus at first you can only hear it. The bush is so thick and tough, it can support your weight above without risking to fall through. Certainly not for human consumption, but great for a bath

This band of reed is one of the most difficult to cross terrain I’ve ever encountered. Not even tried to follow it upwards, outside the small excursion to check the water

First mammals today
Aha! So this is the mysterious source. Surrounded by camel dung, it’s smell was caused also by its own composition. It’s a thermal spring with evident sulfur content

A last abrupt portion and I’m up

Looking back towards the depression (the “reed-canyon” is visible)

The road is farther on the plateau, I guide myself following the tall electric poles in the distance

Yep, there is continuous traffic

Successfully hitchhiking from the asphalt, around 11 AM I was already back in Aktau

Can we call this “soviet charm” ?

After reaching the beach I followed the coast towards the rocky escarpment , named in russian “Skal’naya tropa”

This scenic stretch of land, what could be named “kazakh riviera” is very popular among the locals, many people are coming here from the far eastern side of the country (Astana, Almaty) – mostly by train – to spend the holidays in the mediterraneanish climate of the Caspian Sea

Arriving at my hotel, just to change my clothes and eat…

…then heading back to the city to don’t miss the splendid weather. It’s particularly hot today, but with the beach not far away I consider it just right, especially as the water temperature is quite cool (21-22 degrees Celsius)

“A soviet man standing next to some soviet camels under the soviet sun”, that’s what youtuber Bald and Bankrupt would probably say 😉

The next day I travelled to Shetpe settlement by train (about 2 hours) to visit the nearby spectacular inselbergs. The train station is pretty far from Aktau’s center, actually in another town named Mangystau. Better book it online in advance (it’s cheap) as in the summer it can be full (it was). When I got off the train I was a little surprised to not see anybody asking me to take a taxi. Okay, I’m first time here
However it was a guy, who I think was waiting for the exact same thing to happen (unsuspecting tourist alone) and pretended he is just there by chance while I packed my luggage inside the small shop, then asking for a way too high price to take me to my target (only asphalt). It still wasn’t expensive in the absolute sense and I want to reach the target as soon as possible, so I let it go without too much hassle. Ayrakty is the name of the rocky mountain I’m heading now

Except a small portion on the south, the horseshoe shaped structure is surrounded on all sides by vertical cliffs, making impossible to reach the flat plateau on the top from other directions
Stone umbrella, good shelter against the punishing sun. It’s around 4 PM, I’ve measured 38-39 degrees Celsius by hand (circling the cable with the sensor around at head level)

Inside the giant “U”, facing the concave dead-end. I’ve scanned with my eyes the cliffs, but couldn’t found a promising line where I could attempt to reach the top, even without the big luggage. Beside the steepness, the rock type is also bad (marl), which would make this plan very dangerous
The whitish towers protected me in the afternoon heat, I rested some time in the shade before continuing the hike

The elevation of this spot is pretty low, below 100 meters (but above the sea level), while the plateau abruptly rises 250-300 meters above the plain

Using the shade of the western “leg” I started to get around the structure, in the first part mostly on the same track from where I came
First glimpse of Sherkala, another inselberg, the most famous in Mangystau

That’s right, it seems that the only way up is a narrow strip on the southern sector where a little scrambling can take you to the top of the plateau

The rectangular slabs could be massagetae (ancient nomad horse people related to the scythians) pillars (?), similar rudimentary or a little more decorated structures can be found scattered around also on the neighboring Ustyurt plateau

But now I am the only nomad here

Sunset from the top of Ayrakty
The Zobject on the concave, but this time upper part of the huge horseshoe

The somewhat higher elevation makes the weather quite pleasant after sunset, also there are no mosquitos. Did I slept well? Nope, actually close to nothing. The wind intensified in the night, just when I was finishing to admire the Milky Way and trying to get some rest. The violent shake of the tent went till the dawn when I packed my things and continued the journey

The view to the east is spectacular, but I need to be careful not to go too close to the edge as with the big luggage on my back the wind is affecting my balance

Another mighty inselberg, has no name on the topo map

Continuing to follow the edges, this time on top of the eastern leg
I’ve already spotted them in the previous evening not too far from my camp. They must use the same steep slope to reach the plateau for grazing and descend to another location for water as here up is certainly nothing to drink

Sherkala (Lion’s castle) dominates the western horizon, I am heading right there

It is said that there is tunnel excavated during an old war, which leads to the top, otherwise it’s the same kind of inaccessible natural fortress like Ayrakty, if not even more
Remote farm not far from the asphalt road
There are some spherical concretions present in the area, a peculiar geomorphological phenomenon found also in my homeland, Romania (named “trovanți” there)
Far less in number than in the famous “valley of the balls” at Torysh (situated farther to the west near Tauchik), but without enough time to go there, I’m glad to see a few here

Around 9 AM I am at the iconic viewpoint towards the “yurt shaped” Sherkala. Meanwhile the wind didn’t gave up, but the sky remained clear
Changing hairstyles at every turn
Hitchhiking from the nearby asphalt road a loud and at first quite rude “melon guy” picked me up, but the realization that we are exactly the same age was enough for him to became friendly and asking for selfies, then taking me to his spot in the bazaar of Shetpe. After drinking kumys (fermented mare milk) and eating I continued the hitchhike towards Aktau from the crossroads in the other side of the settlement. My new target is the beach named “km 43” (likely the distance from the city). I started by foot in the heat of the early afternoon (see picture above), but didn’t reached too far when some helpful youngsters picked me up

Pretty cool, definitely needed

This area is relatively “crowded”, okay, I mean by kazakh standards. The locals (mostly from Aktau) come here to chill and take a bath. The coast is rocky, but not the “greek-type”, where you can jump directly from the shore. With variable depth, the water is tricky, with new obstacles still appearing after thinking you passed over them. Skal’naya tropa looks more rough because of its big boulders, but actually is easier to swim there

I rested more than the previous night on the windy plateau, probably helped also by the relaxing murmur of the waves. Most people don’t stay here overnight, they return home in the evening. The beach is reachable by car, but there are no facilities at all. As usual, the start is before sunrise, the temperature still warmish
Yeah, I’m pretty alone here
The Tüpkaragan peninsula’s coast continues to the north-west towards Fort-Shevchenko, a small town with military-base
The landscape is fragmented only near the coast, the plateau is very flat with little to no landmarks
Looking towards Aktau from the southern ledge

Nobody around, almost

This lizard is even more common than the camels, you can often spot them while sneaking away in the sparse, hardy grass
Reaching the main road at “km 43” I was questioned by a police patrol about my journey, but they not even checked my passport. I didn’t encounter any troubles relating the authorities during my travel and had the general feeling that the country is both safe and peaceful

The hitchhike to the city went smooth. People generally will expect to be paid for the ride, sometimes they will even tell you the price in the beginning. As the train is the backbone of the kazakh public transport (the bus services are scanty), the more remote settlements are harder to reach for tourists. The best option is probable to hire a car

WW2 memorial in Aktau. Life is not easy here, the economy struggles. The prices are low for western standards, a clear advantage for travelers

Here and there some more modern buildings break the general “soviet architecture” style of the city
MiG fighter plane monument with a characteristic “aktauish” block in the background
The statue of ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, who was exiled to the Mangyshlak in the 19. century. He is likely the most famous historical figure of the area as beside Fort-Shevchenko even Aktau’s previous name was also Shevchenko
Satisfied with the previous experience I returned to the same hotel. The staff was very operative and punctual, calling for taxi when I needed, explaining to the driver in advance my plan. Tomorrow I will go to collect the measuring equipment in the Karagiye Depression and I decided to reach the target from the other side of the basin, starting the hike in the south-west from the Kuryk road. It’s significantly farther from this direction and I will need to cross the salt pan situated at the very bottom
My favorite drink in Mangystau: kumys, fermented mare milk. You can buy it as you buy the beer in other countries. There are more variants, this particular one was the best: refreshingly sour, very fizzy (small bubbles), sufficiently sweet, with just a hint of alcohol (1-2 %). Also, very nutritive. However, you need to be very careful when opening to avoid the lurking disaster (personal experience…)
As the hotel sits close to the southern outlet of the city, the Kuryk road was simple to reach. The pranky azerbaijani driver (many taxi guys are from the Caucasus) took me to the chosen spot very fast, speeding close to 150 km/h on the good turkish asphalt. It barely passed 10 AM when I started the hike. After crossing (or trespassing?) the nearby railway’s (maybe only freight transport related to the ferry) barbed-wire, I maintained the north-east direction towards the depression
The weather in sunny, the heat somewhat less intense than during the first excursion. I have seven liters of water with me, as this time rested and hydrated myself well before in the hotel, compared to the rush with minimal preparation on 11th August. The progress on the flat plateau is easy, in about an hour I reach the ledge and have the first view of the salt pan

From the top I’ve observed a rather straight line which seems to go exactly in the same direction I’m heading to. A pretty long sector was composed of poles, maybe some fence in construction (or the opposite)
Already below -100 meters elevation. I’ve spotted some horses in the distance, which at first looked curious, then became kind of agitated. As I was heading towards them, they just waited watching me, then all at once run away sideways. But when I turned my head to the left to check them, I saw that all three were racing directly towards me!

However, when I raised the trekking pole and shouted once they instantly changed directions and run away to where they came

The camels have a more “phlegmatic” temperament, probably ideal in the heat where you need to be thrifty with your energy
It seems that this dirt road goes straight to the salt pan
Almost there
-132 meters below sea level, the lowest spot of Kazakhstan and fifth in the world
The Zobject feels at home again
The edge of the salt pan was slightly squashy, but afterwards the walk became comfortable on the hard surface
I like the silence
Somewhere in the middle of the white emptiness
There must be my target, I can discern the contours of the isolated sand pile in the distance

Not far from the other end of the salt flat the terrain became less solid again, moreover I started to sink ankle-height in the hot black mud. Yes, it was hot! I could feel through the shoes that it’s much warmer then my feet. There must be some thermal springs below, I don’t think the sun could heat it so much through the white crust.
Probably I got over it. The salt pan’s width was around 7-8 km
Still a little soft, but the danger is over
Around 3:30 PM, peak-heat

Similar but different

Reaching the already familiar sand island, after 4 PM I rested some time in the shade offered by its steep slope before continuing to the weather station

Of course, it’s here! I made around 29 km from the Kuryk road

I checked the results which were very close to my expectations. The maximum temperature exceeded by half a degree (40.6 C) the record of the first day (when I was present), both on 12th and 13th August. Today was “only” 36.4 degrees, while yesterday 36.0 degrees, the weakest maximum. The lowest temp by far (19.3 C) was registered this morning. I stopped the logger at 6:40 PM when the screen showed 33.9 degrees Celsius

Some parts of the basin’s bottom is represented by takyr (turkic for “playa”), the characteristic cracked, dry clay surface. Satisfied both with the trip and the research I will spend the night in the same spot, a little farther, next to the other sand pile

In the latter part of the afternoon I observed some convective rain clouds in the south, south-east, probably between the sea and the depression. The night was starry again, but without ET. Even the mosquitos were more lethargic now

Early morning start the next day, the weather is clear, the temperature pleasant. Following a dirt road at the foot of the hills – which seems to be the main access inside the basin – , this time I was passing through the greener area of the flatland, where a strong “chemical smell” (likely a mix of camel and bird excrement) hit me

Aha, I saw some small ponds on Google Earth. Looks romantic, smells like shit. Literally

Better here. Despite the many signs of recent activity, I haven’t spotted any camels, only birds

Just after sunrise, a little farther there was a scenic place with heavily eroded white rocks

Good timing, no smell here

Yeah, this made my day

The slender tower must be the biblical Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt

I apologize, that story happened near the Dead Sea in Israel. Still below the sea level, though

A giant frog head?

Different frequency for sure

This bug has some capacity which is bordering the skills of David Copperfield: every time I tried to take a photo of him from the front, he automatically adjusted his position to counteract it, like it was a magnetic repulsion

It looks that this is the easiest way to get out of the depression, pretty straightforward, without getting lost in the labyrinth of the badlands. Planned and managed well, I still have sufficient water to finish the trip without risking dehydration

A last steeper part and I’m up on the plateau, very close to the asphalt road. A local resident picked me up soon and before 10:30 AM I was already back in Aktau

Last day in the sunny city

Reaching the coast, I had the opportunity to wash my dirty shoes and trousers in the Caspian and the strong sun guaranteed the quick drying. The desert footwear was so badly hardened by the salt after the water evaporated, that it became completely useless, as – partly due to its shape – I couldn’t put them on again with all my strength and ambition. Thus, I had to use the city sneakers instead for the return part of the hike

Typical residential area in Aktau
The boat, center of the center

More modern part of the city

The road towards Microdistrict 3, where my hotel was. In Aktau the addresses are described exclusively by numbers, as a trio composed of microdistrict, building and apartment. Though, I saw also street names on the sign-posts, those probably are newer establishments

Sandy beach not far from the eastern end of the rocky promenade

Back to Skal’naya tropa

This warship announced his arrival with a huge explosion sound, which I concluded must have been a legit artillery shoot (see the cannon in the front), fortunately not towards the coast…

I was chilling about two hours on the beach at Skal’naya tropa, sitting on a sun-warmed boulder, cooling down in the water (this time a little warmer, 24 degrees) a few times. Very pleasant experience as everything ended well and I’m not even particularly tired
Local youngsters having fun
Above the cliffs are a few hotels

With enough freetime at disposal I was wandering in the city, eating at a nice restaurant before getting a taxi to the airport, where I’ve booked the last night of the voyage. There are many people working as “taxi drivers” as part-time job and they usually will ask for a smaller amount (about half-price), which was also my case

After resting a few hours in the comfortable, air-conditioned room, it came the time to leave. On the whole the journey in Mangystau was a great experience, the weather superb, everything went smooth. Likely not my last time here

As I had around 10 hours to wait for the plane change in Istanbul, I used the day to visit the famous old center of the metropolis. Well, a little in a rush as the new airport is ridiculously far away, having to take three (if you know what you’re doing) different metros to reach close enough. The most touristic part is insanely crowded (peak-season, also Friday), a huge contrast compared with the spacious streets of Aktau. Two completely different turkic worlds…

Karagiye depression: below sea level, above human body (3/3)

Interpretation of the logger’s graph (using LogTag Analyzer 3 software)

The temperature curve of the 6 days/ 5 nights research period. The device was registering a value every 2 minutes (zoom in for better view)

First day (August 11)

It is the single day when I’ve spent significant time nearby the measuring equipment. During the hike towards the bottom of the depression the sky was completely clear, the wind (easterly) light to moderate and these conditions continued also afterwards the entire day. The data logger started the continuous measurements at 12:42 PM, the first reading was 36.6 degrees Celsius. As I set the device for 2 minutes logging (short intervals) the curve has the typical “saw aspect” with many small ups and downs inside the general “big waves”.

The temperature curve of the first day and the following night

Generally, the temperature was constantly rising until 4:48 PM, when the maximum of 40.1 degrees Celsius was reached. I was present, waiting in a camping chair at that time and observed little to no wind near the tripod in the hottest part of the afternoon. The obvious drop started after 7:30 PM and continued to 11:30 PM when the temperature reached 29.0 C. After that the curve became irregular, reaching the night’s minimum shortly before midnight (28.9 C), later climbing back to 31.6 C. As there were no clouds (I saw the starry sky through the transparent mesh of the mosquito tent), the disturbance was certainly caused by the wind. In the final part of the night, before leaving, I checked again the device and observed 29.9 C at 5:10 AM.

Second day (August 12)

The bulk of this day I’ve spent in Aktau after reaching the city around 11:30 AM, hitchhiking from the Zhanaözen road, north-east from the depression. The completely clear conditions continued, in the afternoon it was markedly hot even near the sea.

The graph shows a very regular diagram during the entire day, the temperature continuously climbed until it reached the maximum (40.6 degrees Celsius) at 3:32 PM, which is also the highest value of the entire measuring period. The earlier peak (maybe) could be attributed to the fact that the wind wasn’t dominantly easterly in the afternoon and the sea breeze could have slightly moderated the farther rise in the mid afternoon.

The temperature curve of the second day and the following night

The obvious drop started again around 7:30 PM and lasted until 11:10 PM, when 28.7 C was reached. A very similar pattern with the previous day & night combo, complemented also with the following irregularity (certainly wind again). The main difference is that this time the minimum went down to 24.5 C in the early morning (5:52 AM).

Third day (August 13)

Today I left Aktau and travelled by train to Shetpe town, where I visited the inselberg named Ayrakty. I reached the area after 3 PM and saw no clouds in the sky during the entire day. In the afternoon I observed 38-39 C (hand measurement) around 70-80 m elevation. The wind was light until the evening (even on the elevated plateau), however in the night became consistently stronger. The sky remained clear.

The temperature curve of the third day and the following night

Likely because the wind became again south-easterly, the maximum (40.6 degrees Celsius for the second time, equaling the previous record) was reached at 4:52 PM, very similar with the first day’s case. The obvious drop now started around 8 PM and except a short disturbance period between 10-11 PM continued pretty constant until the morning (7:02 AM), when reached the minimum of 26.3 C.

Fourth day (August 14)

Starting in the night, this day was a windy one and slightly less hot than the previous three, which were very alike. I hiked in the surroundings of Shetpe (Ayrakty and Sherkala) and observed almost no clouds. In the early afternoon I moved closer to Aktau to the so called “km 43” beach, where the sky became partly cloudy.

The temperature curve of the fourth day and the following night

The day part of the graph looks quite regular again, reaching the maximum of 38.1 degrees Celsius at 3:50 and 3:58 PM. However, the obvious drop started much sooner this time (sea breeze?), around 5:45 PM and lasted until 9:10 PM, when reached 30.0 degrees. From here the curve is more irregular (I suspect wind again), but generally was descending until the morning, when reached 24.5 C at 6:54 AM.

Fifth day (August 15)

Sleeping on the beach, I continued the hike in the morning towards the road, where I hitchhiked back to Aktau before noon. It was mostly sunny with scattered altocumulus clouds in the city, the temperature less hot than before. The wind was much lighter than yesterday in the Sherkala area.

The temperature curve of the fifth day and the following night

The daily graph looks normal again, reaching the peak of 36.0 degrees Celsius at 3:54 PM, which is the “weakest” maximum of the entire measuring period. The obvious drop started around 6:45 PM this time and was clean until around 10 PM, when reached 28.0 C. Then the descend became less regular with some abrupt ups and downs during the night, though the general tendency was evidently downwards. The minimum happened at 5:52 AM in the morning and was much lower than the previous ones: 19.3 degrees Celsius.

Sixth day (August 16)

Today I went back to collect the measuring equipment, this time starting the hike from the Kuryk road, situated on the other side of the depression (south-west). In the early afternoon I’ve crossed the entire salt pan transversely, before reaching the weather station. There were some scattered clouds, but overall much more sun than shade. I stopped the logger at 6:40 PM when the screen showed 33.9 degrees Celsius. In this later part of the afternoon I observed some convective rain clouds in the south, south-east, probably between the sea and the basin.

The temperature curve of the sixth (last) day

The graph of this day is also pretty regular, but can be discerned a little “rush” as the maximum of 36.4 degrees Celsius was reached sooner than usual: 3:06 PM. I attribute this fact again to the changing wind directions (namely the sea breeze), which started to counteract the afternoon heat.

The average maximum temperature of the six day measuring period is 38.6 C, while the average minimum of the related five nights is 24.7 C, giving a mean amplitude of 13.9 degrees Celsius. This combo is above the level of the hottest places of Europe for the month of July, closer to the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan or south-eastern Turkey around the Syrian border. Though this could not be considered a fixed generality as this summer was hotter on average in many places, especially in the mediterranean basin.

General conclusions

  • The sky is usually clear without significant differences between day and night.
  • The temperature rise during the daytime is typically constant and regular, reaching the maximum between 3 and 5 PM, sooner in the case with a stronger sea breeze effect.
  • The evening and the first part of the night is less windy with a more abrupt and fluid temperature drop than after midnight, when disturbances are characteristic.
  • The daily amplitude is medium (11-17 degrees), even slightly small for an arid environment during clear conditions, in part caused by the low elevation, where the thicker atmosphere can trap more heat during the night.
  • It’s a markedly hot area compared with its relatively high latitude (43 N), closer to the level of the subtropical deserts.

Comparison with the weather station of Aktau

The climate chart of Aktau (Wikipedia)

Situated near the coast, Aktau receives the moderating effect of the Caspian Sea, thus the maximum temps are generally a few degrees lower than the ones registered farther inland during sunny weather. If we compare it (see the Ogimet chart below) with the values of my station in Karagiye, the average difference between the two is 4.4 degrees in favour of the depression. The biggest discrepancy (5.7 degrees) happened on 16th, while the smallest one (2.1 degrees) on 13th August.

This latter small difference was certainly caused by the easterly or south-easterly wind, which annihilated the sea breeze even near the coast, while on other days the city’s atmosphere was moderated by the cooler marine currents. As the low elevation of the depression gives an advantage of 1 degree against the level of Aktau, the measured 38.5 degrees would mean around 39.5 at -130 m, which is only one degree apart from the 40.6 degrees Celsius what I’ve recorded at my station.

The statistics of Aktau (Sevcenko) weather station for the 11-16th August period. Note: there is a one day positive shift as “consideration for the last 24 hours”, thus day 12 means day 11, while day 17 means day 16 (Ogimet)

Adding the 4.4 degree advantage to the average maximums of Aktau (see the Wikipedia chart) for the months of July and August will give 36.3, respectively 35.3 degrees Celsius average max for Karagiye, while adding the 2 degree difference (easterly dominance) to the 44 degree absolute maximum of the city will give around 46 degrees Celsius as a hypothetical heat record for the depression.

Addition: I’ve checked before the weather statistics of Aktau airport station on the Wunderground site’s history section (now unavailable) and saw that the maximums were 37, 37, 39 degrees Celsius (rounded values) for 11, 12, 13th August. As it is a little farther from the coast than the city, the somewhat higher peaks are understandable.

Comparison with Europe’s hottest areas

Regarding the extreme high temperatures, this summer was one of the most severe from the very start of the reliable meteorological measurements. The extensive heat domes affected the mediterranean area both in July and August during more successions, climbing the mercury of the thermometers to record or near record levels in many places. The most affected areas were the North African coast (Algeria, Tunisia), respectively Sardinia island and southern Spain where the temperature raised to 45-49 degrees Celsius.

The maximum temperatures recorded on 12th August in Europe (Ogimet)

This amount of heat is about 10-15 degrees above the average summer maximums of the mentioned areas, concretely at the level of Death Valley or of the Iran-Iraq-Kuweit triple border region, which are the hottest places of the Planet. Taking this into account it can’t be made a conclusive comparison between my study area and Southern Europe in the actual situation. Regarding the broader summer max averages Karagiye is probably alike the hottest areas of Andalusia (thus of entire Europe), which is around 35-37 degrees in July and August, while the absolute record potential could be between 46-48 degrees Celsius, also similar.

Altogether, for a “substitute plan” the research went quite well, both the conditions and the results can be considered decent for the context.

Jargalantyn Mukhar: the driest cold (3/3)

Interpretation of the logger’s graph (using LogTag Analyzer 3 software)

The temperature curve of the 6 nights/ 5 days research period. The device was registering a value every 5 minutes (zoom in for better view)

First night (14th January)

I installed the measuring equipment on the bottom of the closed basin in the second part of the night during clear and calm conditions. The logger set for 5 minutes intervals was started at 2:26 AM and the first reading showed -32.5 degrees Celsius. The second value is -33.2 C, which remains constant for the next 20 minutes, so its possible that the debut temperature actually was the same. I left the tripod around 2:40 AM and returned there in the early morning. During my walk from the tent situated aproximatively 2.5 km to the south I measured in the col between -26, -27 degrees with the handheld device, noticing also some wind there. The night remained entirely clear and on the bottom were the same calm conditions as at the time of the installation.

The temperature curve of the first (half) night and the following day

However, the temperature wasn’t lower in the dawn than before, the device showing -32.5 degrees at the first check. The recorded minimum was -34.1 degrees Celsius, which happened at 5:31 and 5:36 AM. A pretty constant night curve. But there are two more interesting aspects, one is the weak thermal inversion related to the context, which is around 6, maybe 7 degrees compared with the col, the other the complete lack of hoarfrost, which denote an extremely low humidity. I left the basin after sunrise. The entire day remained cloudless with only weak wind even on the ridges. The maximum, which I saw after returning in the next morning reached -16.3 degrees Celsius at 2:56 PM. That means a pretty big amplitude (17.8 degrees), which was expectable for a high altitude basin.

Second night (14-15th January)

The dark hours were completely starry again, but the wind intensified in the latter part of the night. Before the instability I measured down to -27 degrees inside my tent, expecting to see an even colder recorded minimum in the endorheic basin. It wasn’t the case, the lowest achieved temperature being only -33.6 degrees Celsius (at 5:21 and 5:26 AM), half degree warmer than before. As these two nights represents characteristic anticyclonic conditions I think that a generalization regarding the relatively weak thermal inversion of this place in snow-free context is very plausible.

The temperature curve of the second night and the following day

While there before sunrise I observed the first cirrus clouds coming from the west. I left the basin soon and around noon also my camp. The day was generally fine but ocasionally windier, the sky partially covered by cirrus and cirrostratus clouds, with some thickening in the late afternoon period. I was spending my time around 10 km to the south of the research area staying in yurt with locals. The maximum of this day reached -13.1 C at 2:06 PM, which combined with the minimum of the dawn gives an amplitude of 20.5 degrees.

Third night (15-16th January)

From now on I will not visit the studied spot until the final day when I will collect the equipment, but will remain in its neighborhood (no more than 15 km away) most of the time. In the morning I measured -20.7 degrees with the handheld device at the yurt. The sky was mostly cloudy, overcast or variable with intensifying wind in the early afternoon when there were some very weak snow showers here and there, covering some parts with a new veil with a thickness of a few millimeters. In the latter part of the day the sky cleared up.

The temperature curve of the third night and the following day

The diagram confirms the unstable weathern pattern, the curve being less regular and showing a smaller amplitude. The minimum reached -25.6 degrees Celsius at 9:25 AM, while the maximum -18.2 at 1:36 PM, the latter actually being colder than the late evening hours of the previous day. The 7.4 degree amplitude is the weakest one in the entire research period.

Fourth night (16-17th January)

While fair in the first part, the sky became overcast during the night. The curve reflects this as the minimum of -31.5 degrees Celsius was reached already in the late evening at 11:16 PM. In the morning I measured -20.8 degrees at the yurt, while observing a cloudy sky. The mostly overcast conditions persisted throughout the day in the whole area, including Ulaantolgoy where we made a trip with the car. Generally it was moderately windy.

The temperature curve of the fourth night and the following day

The maximum reached -10.9 degrees Celsius at 1:56 PM, which is the highest temperature of the entire research. The daily amplitude of 20.6 degrees is also the biggest one, slightly exceeding the one from 15th. However, this can’t be considered a real endogen thermal span like the ones forming during stable weather conditions.

Fifth night (17-18th January)

This night was the windiest, more precisely the second part when I observed the yurt’s rooftop shaking a little at a certain time. In the morning the sky was clear, but because of the instability the temperature was even less cold than in the previous two cloudy days: -19.4 degrees. The minimum was reached again in the first part of the dark hours: -27.5 degrees Celsius at 11:21 PM when the conditions were more stable, while afterwards the temperature rised 10 full degrees during the second part of the night when the wind became dominant.

The temperature curve of the fifth night and the following day

The maximum happened at 2:16 PM when the temperature climbed to -12.2 degrees, the second highest peak of the research. Today the sky was strikingly bright, even more transparent than on 14th, with only a few isolated clouds lingering above the higher peaks on the distance. It remained moderately windy throughout the day. The 15.3 degree amplitude can be considered average.

Sixth (last) night (18-19th January)

This was the coldest night by far at the yurt. The sky remained starry and there was nothing more than light wind. In the morning I measured -26.8 degrees. This time I observed also hoarfrost on the surface, thus the humidity was higher than before. I expected again to found a lower temperature in the closed basin (at least -33 to be precise), but surprisingly the minimum didn’t went below -31 degrees Celsius there, reinforcing my previous conclusion regarding the weak thermal inversion of this high elevation + snow-free combination.

The temperature curve of the sixth (last) night

The low temp was reached at 7:21 and 7:26 AM in the morning after a relatively regular night curve with some mild to moderate disturbance between 1 AM and 4 AM. Leaving the yurt, as we started our way back to Khovd, I went to collect the measuring equipment. The logger was stopped at 10:18 AM, the last reading showing -25.4 degrees Celsius. During this period it was calm and the sky was partially covered with cirrus and cirrostratus clouds.

The mean temperature of the 6 nights/ 5 days research period is -22.5 degrees Celsius, with the average minimum -30.6, respectively the maximum -14.1 degrees. The average daily amplitude is 16.3 degrees.

General conclusions

  • The elevated basins situated on the lee side of the Mongolian Altai’s main ridge are characterized by very dry winters, receiving scant amounts of snowfall, often remaining without snow cover for the biggest part of the cold season. The stronger solar radiation and more active wind also helps to maintain the already desiccated state, sublimating the thin layer of white powder. This combined with the seasonally dominant anticyclonic conditions make these places some of the best contestants to produce the lowest temperatures in snow-free context.
  • The thermal inversion formed at the bottom of these bare basins are not really strong, the surrounding ridges and slopes cooling down to almost the same degree during the night. The main cause in this respect probably is the absence of the snow cover and not the elevation itself, also maybe because the plateau as a whole could be partially inside the inversion layer.
  • Compared with similar topographical contexts situated at lower elevations the daily maximums are higher (the inversion here brakes completely), while the minimums can be close to each other.
  • The air is very dry on the high plateau, sometimes also in the night, restraining the formation of the hoarfrost even at extremely low temperatures.
  • The wind in the wintertime is generally not strong.
Satellite image taken on 14th January 2023 showing the marked snow-cover discrepancy between the outer and inner sides of the Mongolian Altai with Jargalantyn Mukhar basin inside the red ellipse

Comparing my logger’s results with the minimums registered at the official local stations situated also in generally snowfree areas

During my staying I visited the weather stations of Möst, Mönkhkhairkhan and Khovd where I asked about the parameters observed in these colder winter days. On 14th Khovd (Khovd aimag/ 1406 m) and Ömnögobi (Uvs aimag/ 1590 m) both recorded -28.7 C, the latter -31.2 C the day before, while Nogoonnuur (Bayan Ölgiy aimag/ 1480 m) -26.2 C, respectively -30.8 C on 13th. Möst (Khovd aimag/ 2020 m) reached -30.1 C on 14th and was slightly warmer both on 13th and 15th, while Mönkhkhairkhan (Khovd aimag/ 2090 m) was colder on 13th with -30.3, while having only -28 on 14th.

The coldest station which reported no snow cover at that time was Tsetsegnuur (Khovd aimag/ 1715 m) situated in a closed intermountain basin near the lake with the same name: -34.4 degrees Celsius on 14th January. This is even slightly colder than the value registered by my station. However, I checked the satellite image of the Tsetseg basin for that day (lower-right corner of the above image) and saw that actually there is a thin layer of snow in most parts. This doesn’t mean they gave incorrect data as the stations are obliged to report the snow depth they see at the rulers placed on the weather platform. The snow often can disappear sooner there, while in the surroundings still remains some.

At the weather center in Ulaanbaatar I asked if they have some statistics regarding the lowest temperature measured in snow-free conditions. They didn’t have, but together we searched for Tsetseg specifically and found a minimum of -36 degrees on 23th January 2012. At home I checked the satellite image also for this day and the result was similar: the basin wasn’t completely bare (see the picture below).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Tsetseg_Eosdis-1024x675.jpg
Satellite image showing the snow cover situation in the Tsetseg basin on 23th January 2012 with the location of the weather station (red dot)

As a conclusion I would say that between the official weather stations of Mongolia indeed Tsetsegnuur has the biggest chances to reach the lowest temperatures. This because of the combination between the good topography (high+closed), respectively the rain shadow effect caused by the Mongol Altai’s main ridge which blocks the humid airmasses on the other side. The same as in the case of Jargalantyn Mukhar.

Final question: How cold can get in snow-free context and exactly where in the world are the best chances for this to happen? My opinion is that some areas of Mongolia and the northern part of the Tibetan Plateau could reach even slightly lower than -40 degrees in the best circumstances. As I am determined to research this little studied domain farther, the future certainly still has many other thrillful things to offer.

Jargalantyn Mukhar: the driest cold (2/3)

Journey photo album

My plane landed on 12th January in the morning at New Ulaanbaatar International Airport (Sergelen area). After solving the main issues regarding the forthcoming trip in Khovd aimag (local SIM card, arrangement with 4 wd driver) with my old friend/ guide Gansukh, I rested a little in my hotel room (lucky number 1111!) then went for a short evening walk to the city center. I take this as a humble acclimatization-intro as the weather forecast rushes me to reach the research area as soon as possible.
First measurement near my hotel. The city is significantly warmer than the airport area, especially the old one, which reaches 6-7 degrees lower temps during characteristic “good weather” pattern. Now the difference is small as there was some wind: -28.4 at Buyant Ukhaa (falsely named “Songiin” station in the Ogimet database). Bayan Uul (false “Gandan Huryee”) of Dzavkhan aimag was the coldest in the country: -47.2 C, followed by Tsetsen Uul with -45 C. The anticyclone is here, I definitely want to reach the research area during the following night.
View from my hotel room. The famous UB smog is not so bad today, the wind had somewhat dispersing it. We soon go back to the airport as my plane to Khovd will depart in the early afternoon. The driver knows my plan, he contacted a local family who lives in a yurt not far from my target and told them that I will stay around a week in the area.
Flying above Otgon Tenger (4030 m), the highest peak of the Khangai and one of the most iconic mountains of Mongolia. The weather is great, the awaited cold snap descended and covered the entire country.
In Khovd the driver was waiting me and we went for shopping a few things (mostly food for the one week home-stay), respectively eating and repack my luggage before starting the trip towards Möst sum after sunset. Most part of the road is good chinese asphalt. Nonetheless, we just started when the car already showed signs of internal troubles. After passing Mankhan it broke down completely. It seemed that I will lose this first important research night, but miraculously some good people of the village helped to repair the car in the evening. No problems from now on. We met our host where the asphalt ended and following him on the dirt track we made the last 20 km or so to the spot from where I will start the lonely walk to the research area. No snow, nor moon yet, still better without the headlamp as the contours of the track are visible in the dim light. It’s around 11 PM, pretty cold with some light wind, probably around -25 C or lower.
The enthusiasm softens the combined tiredness (little sleep, cold car, acclimatization deficit) and after around 5 km I decided to rise the tent. The col is a little farther, but there should be more wind. My head is somewhat confused, still can properly handle the challenges. After a quick “dinner” on my knees I am heading towards the main target. The moon appeared just when started the descent into the endorheic basin. The light color of the bottom (salt marsh) is in front of me, the direction is evident without any gadget. Around 2 AM I’m there and soon the tripod is rised on the northern fringes of the solonchak, where the gravely surface meets the saltier one. The attached logger was started at 2:26 AM. Before leaving I saw -33.2 degrees Celsius. I’m content.
I rested a little at the camp, then returned to the basin (2.5-3 km) in the early morning. Usually I don’t put the tent so far from the measuring equipment, but now the context was different (night, wind, tiredness). As I don’t need to cover big distances otherwise, it’s okay this way. The night was entirely clear and there was only weak wind. In the col I measured -26, -27 degrees with some wind. Meanwhile complete calm dominates the basin floor.
Marco Polo sheep (argali) horn not far from the tripod
The installation before sunrise. The sensor of the logger was placed inside the Barani radiation shield at around 170 cm ground elevation.
Success, the logging is okay. The temperature wasn’t lower than in the deployment period, actually exactly the same
More happy than tired
The night’s minimum reached -34.1 degrees Celsius, a decent value in this context without any doubt. I never saw a lower temp without snow cover anywhere. Below -35 is certainly possible, -40 …maybe? I must confess, this is the Holy Grail for me 😉
Real serenity, strong feeling of fulfillment
I took a small reddish pebble with me as a souvenir, it’s very representative here
The sun will reach soon the salt marsh on the bottom
View of Jargalantyn Mukhar from a smaller peak just east of the col. The mountain in the background is over 3600 meters high, still mostly snow-free. This place reminds me of the Atacama Plateau in Bolivia, around 4500 meters elevation.
Descending the other side towards my tent
After a little rest I went back to the col to make some photos in the more pleasant early afternoon period
There is an “invisible motorcycle” in this picture, approaching the col. He probably will be amazed to see my tent beside the dirt road.
From the top I can see the ice covered Mönkhkhairkhan range. This high mountain is the cause of the rain shadow effect here, so I am thankful of its existence.
Let’s check the elevation
The Zobject at sunbathing
View towards SSE, from where we came yesterday
The first sign of life, a big herd of mixed sheeps/ goats with the shepherd also present
Three yurts not far from here. I knew it could be as I saw the dark spots on Google Earth, but wasn’t sure about the winter situation.
The bearded vulture is pretty common in the area. This big bird’s diet consists mostly of bones (scavenger), he even drops down the bigger pieces from above to broke them.
Heading back to my camp. A very long second night is waiting for me soon.
The next morning, checking the instrument. This night was also entirily starry, but towards the end became windier. Thus the morning temperature was a little moderated too, the night minimum being -33.6 C, quit close to the previous one. I measured -27 degrees inside my tent, so it seems that the inversion is not that strong here, probably because of the lack of snow. What’s really weird is the complete absence of hoarfrost at these frigid temperatures, the humidity must be extremely low here.
Before sunrise the first cirrus clouds appeared
Cracked clay surface (takîr) surrounds the dried salt marsh (solonchak)
After securing the tripod with some improvised weight (hanging rocks in a bag) to can handle windier conditions too, I left the research area
The road on the western side of the basin
Lichens on the desolate surface, another peculiarity of this weird place
Modern art-like “double-head” structure not far from the col
Around noon I’ve packed my things and soon was heading towards the meeting point with the driver (same spot)
Another herd was just beside the road. No dog?
With some delay he appeared and started running in my direction. After he was convinced that I’m pretty far to constitute a danger for the herd calmed down and just watched me from the distance
Looking back towards the col
Incredible synchronization: even if there were more than 20 minutes to the exact meeting moment, the driver came there in the same minute as myself
First we went to take water from a nearby source (breaking the ice). Our host filled 5 big 20 l canisters in a pretty short time.
Approaching my new home. The driver already slept two nights here, there will be four more before we leave. The yurts are situated between 2600-2700 m elevation, a few km’s from Davst Nuur lake. The all area is named Davst (salt).
The locals knew that there is some signal near the lake, so we went there to use the Internet. Pleasant atmosphere inside as the greenhouse effect was warming the car before sunset.
First night in the yurt was nice, the dogs were surprisingly calm, no barking at all. The morning was overcast, thus the temperature moderately cold.
Day start in the Altai mountains
There are three yurts, the middle one is our home
The right one is only for younger sheeps/ goats during colder weather
Today I went to a hike in the surroundings, starting with Davst Nuur
The ambience is pleasant as there is no wind at the moment
The lake is shallow and extremely salty, therefore doesn’t freeze even in the frigid winter
Yeah, that was expectable. Who wants a bath? 😉
You again. Forgot it, I need my bones.
The clouds are thickening from the south-west
On the way to Nogoon Nuur (green lake) the wind became active, thus the real feel was much colder than before
So that’s why “green” is its name. Some plants are sticking out under the (probably) very shallow frozen waters. The locals said it’s a fresh water lake.
Some very weak snow showers here and there. The severe cold make the cumulus clouds look more like a “low flying” cirrus spissatus.
These guys are very resilient, I saw them thrive in the harshest climates, on almost any kind of terrain and elevation
On the way back, while mainly following the contour lines I decided to climb the highest peak of the surroundings
The last, steeper part. The wind is not active on this side.
On the top there is a little new snow, the same can be seen in the distance on the mountain which I climbed on 14th. This one is slightly higher, the GPS shows around 3150 m elevation.
The crescent shaped Nogoon Nuur seen from near the top
The other, slightly lower peak is the one above our yurt. That’s my direction, maybe I can see some ibexes.
On the top I spotted a guy watching around, then disappearing soon
Davst Nuur, the unfreezable lake
Wind sculpted strange formation of the rocky peak
Another, even more interesting
Baatar Khairkhan (3984 m) in the eastern background
Again a cloudier morning with similar temperature
He/she came for breakfast too
The locals say that the wolves are coming from the other side of this mountain
Heading to Möst sum’s center (also known as Ulaantolgoy) to buy fuel
This is not the same dirt road we came on 13th, the previous pass was higher and with more snow
The 4200 m high Sutai Uul, the tallest mountain in Gobi-Altai province
Soon we reach the smooth chinese asphalt which gently descend into the Tsetseg basin where Ulaantolgoy is situated. The bottom of this deep endorheic basin contains Tsetseg Nuur (lake) and the nearby settlement with the same name, which is the coldest populated place in Khovd aimag.
At Möst weather station. I found out that the lowest temp on 14th January was -30.1 degrees Celsius here (also without snow) and actually was the coldest day of this winter until now, slightly colder than both 13th and 15th. Tsetseg instead reached -34.4 C, even slightly lower than my logger in Jargalantyn Mukhar, situated more than 1000 meters higher. Actually I kind of knew that the medium-high basins of Mongolia can be the same or even colder then the highest ones, the inversion strenght being stronger with the decrease of elevation. Though, I’m not very sure if Tsetseg station’s surroundings is completely snow-free, which could change the game.
Okay, they have the Vaisala too
But the good old Stevenson screen with the graphs inside can’t miss from a remote place like this, right?
Finally this was our main purpose. One litre of gasoline is around 75-80 cents here, the UAZ consumes around 20 l/ 100 km.
View of the village from a nearby rocky outcrop. Möst in mongolian means ice, maybe because the flooded plain freezes in the often snow-free winter.
Two cinereous vultures were feasting on a horse corpse beside the road and they doesn’t looked too bothered because of our presence
It’s the largest old world vulture (and flying bird for that matter) with its wingspan up to 300 cm, exceeded only by its relative from South America, the andean condor
Horses on the way back to Davst
Before returning to our yurt we went up the mountain pass where the son of out neighbour lives
The host showed me a small frozen pond which in the warmer season is a mineral water source…
…but I was more interested in climbing to the top of the huge red sandstone boulder (from behind). Yeah, there was some adrenaline in the latter part, especially on the descent.
Aha! He was the guy I saw yesterday on the mountain top. Actually he was looking for yangyrs (ibex) and saw around 20 of them on this side.
Driver Ganbold with his old UAZ and “my rock” in the background. From the reactions I concluded that they think I’m a little crazy. Could be true.
Big bustle in goatland
A typical mongolian evening
Next morning just a few meters from the yurt
Even milder now than in the previous two days, but the sky cleared up completely after a pretty windy night. The old black dog went crazy and literally barked almost all night long. Maybe the wolves, who knows?
Yeah, this is a nice refreshment after the noisy dark hours
A neighbor with his companions
Today we will do a trip to the small salt lake, which according to my online searching sits in the very highest endorheic basin of Mongolia (around 2935 m elevation). The place is about 20 km from here in the direction of my research area.
While passing near the salt marsh I checked with the max zoom if everything is OK with the tripod. It was.
Crossing the rusty landscape of Jargalantyn Mukhar
This is it, the frozen shallow lake is named “Tavyn Tolgoy” (five heads) referring to the surrounding peaks. The windchill is pretty strong here.
They say its salty, but looking at the rockhard surface must be far from the concentration of Davst Nuur
The basin is around 20 meters deep which per se should be enough to cool down efficiently during the night, but I think that the location in a high pass makes it susceptible to the wind most of the time
On the border between Möst and Mönkhkhairkhan somoni, looking down towards the latter
The rain shadow-maker high ridge in the south-west
The highest peak is 4230 m, second in Mongolia after Khüiten (4374 m) in Bayan Ölgiy aimag
An eerie place for sure
The ice has a grey hue, probably because of the sediment underneath
On the way back we stopped to measure the lowest col of Jargalantyn Mukhar, situated on the NE corner. It seems that the elevation is a little lower than Google Earth shows, thus the endorheic depth is closer to 70 than to 80 meters.
Some local shepherd boys visiting our car
Indeed, despite the cold, there is some activity going on here
Crossing the arid plateau
View of Jargalantyn Mukhar from the southern col
The sky is extremely clear today, this photo was taken using a pretty big zoom
My host searching for yangyrs
As the man is determined to help me see the ungulates we climb the pass from the other direction, which seems even more difficult than where we first went up. Ganbold certainly knows his job very well.
Altaian atmosphere
From the col we headed towards the rocky peak
He just went to check the other side when I saw his body language turning enthusiastic
That’s right, we found them
A herd of 15-20 exemplars. They were pretty far, but not too far to can observe and film them.
8 days old mongol bankhar (also known as tibetan mastiff) puppies
In the afternoon we went to Davst Nuur to collect the local treasure: salt. They said it’s naturally pure, doesn’t need any posterior treatment.
Back to the mountain yurt
Relaxing after work. The salt plates were left to dry on the rocks.
My bed with the many horse race medals hanging above. How I didn’t dreamed with them?
The last night was the coldest. I’m glad, also because the dog behaved well this time. Maybe he just needs more cold.
I think his alive
Ganbold preparing his car for the long trip back to Khovd. This time there is frost on the ground, I’m curious how cold was in the researched basin.
Before 10 AM we said goodbye to the nomad family and headed to collect the measuring equipment
Last time here, at least this year
Okay, the installation looks right
Now -25 degrees and the minimum didn’t surpassed the old record. The maximum reached -10.9 degrees on 17th.
In 4 out of 6 nights the temperature dropped below -30 degrees, including this last one.
That’s it, the research is over. The results are good, I’m content.
The UAZ is waiting for me
Surprize: before leaving the closed basin we will visit the family who lives the closest to my measuring spot. Our host announced him beforehand about my presence and activity and now we brought them a little present. The final part of the road to this yurt was even more extreme than the second climb to the local boy’s place. Pure insanity.
So they are the guys living in Jargalantyn Mukhar during wintertime. Through my driver’s russian translation I found out some interesting infos from the family head, like that the “biggest snow” here is around 5 cm, there are 8 wolf families in the surroundings and that in the summertime a lot of rain can occur and the formed lake can reach 2 meters depth.
Melting the ice on the stove. It’s the single reliable source of water here, they are collecting the chunks from a few km’s away.
We left the mountain people and started our journey towards Khovd. This time we will travel on another, more difficult dirt road until Mankhan, passing through Mönkhkhairkhan village.
The highest pass (above 2950 m) is the one near Tavyn Tolgoy lake, where I already made a short hike yesterday
Starting the descent. Pretty steep, but without ice seems okay.
The road first went down into a valley then climbed back to another pass above 2800 m elevation
Approaching Mönkhkhairkhan settlement
“We are searching the weather station”. – “I am the meteorologist”, said the archer guy.

The weather station of Mönkhkhairkhan
The office with a red-billed chough flying above. The coldest day here was 13th January, when the minimum reached -30 degrees Celsius, while on 14th only -28 C (also without snow cover).
The road became even more adventurous downstream the village
Golden eagle patrolling
There were 3 or 4 aquilas and while I was observing them, first I didn’t saw the fox which was actually hunted by them. But the photo camera captured the red coated just before he was attacked.
The driver checking the ice
Other winged creatures trying to reach higher on the rocky slope
We are literally driving on pure ice
There are a few wood bridges also
Ganbold stopped to help a family with their broken car. This is very common among mongolians and it’s based on the harsh reality that it happens pretty often here and anybody could be the next victim.
Yes, this is the road
Wild, remote cliffs on the right side of the gorge. Snow leopards probably live there.
The worst part is over. We are out from the mountains and slowly descending towards Mankhan through the barren gravel desert
Jargalant Khairkhan (3800 m) seen from the asphalt road around sunset. From here the remaining km’s will pass much faster.
In the dusk we spotted a pair of saiga antelopes
Khovd the next day after spending the night at a very hospitable family. As there were no free hotel rooms in the entire town because of the forthcoming “Ice Festival” at Khar Us lake, Gansukh saved the day by contacting some local aquintances.
Awaiting for the challengers
The weather station of Khovd, just from the balcony of our hosts. I got important infos also from them, namely the minimums of some local stations of the aimag for each year between 2012 and 2022. Tsetseg stands out by a mile with -47.5 C recorded in January 2016 (of course with snow cover).
They even gave me a huge bottle of sea buckthorn concentrate as they saw I liked so much
Leaving Khovd province
First the plane went to Ulaangom and only then to the capital
Ulaanbaatar the next day. It’s colder now and on 23th the weather could turn especially frigid.
Chinggis Khaan history museum is a huge collection of old artifacts housed inside a well maintained monumental building on 6 levels, each representing a particular period. Downside: no photos allowed.
And no mongolian journey could end without Gandantegchinlen monastery. Thanksgiving time.
Cold and warm at the same time
Giant Buddha inside (26.5 m), claimed to be the tallest indoor statue in the world
The number was indeed lucky
Next day we visit a tuvan man who stays in the wintertime near the capital with his two reindeers as tourist attraction beside the local hiking trail. Tuvans are living in the northermost parts of Mongolia in Khövsgöl aimag, respectively in southern Siberia’s Tuva Republic
I couldn’t resist…
Later we went to the old airport to visit the weather station. We hardly could found anybody in the whole area. But nice decoration, anyhow.
I chose a place in a dried riverbed for the tomorrow morning cold hunt, when we will come back here for measurements
Next morning near my hotel, waiting for Gansukh. That’s pretty good for the city center…
…and that’s VERY good: back to Buyant Ukhaa
I mounted on the tripod another logger, which can measure below -40 degrees (it was for the hypothetical “B Plan”) to record the coldest early morning period
I can feel that it’s brutally cold, my hands are unusable after very short time while doing the photos
The sun reaches the higher topography
It’s probably rare when a selfie can be really helpful. This time it was: uncovered, my face was literally on the way to playback Han Solo’s case from the Starwars
We visited the weather center in the capital where I asked the unusual question if they have a statistics regarding the lowest temperatures measured without snow cover. They didn’t have, but together searched for Tsetseg station (which I think it could be the best in this context) specifically and found a -36 degrees Celsius on 23th January 2012. Nice value, the quest will certainly continue.
This was the minimum recorded by my device in the morning. Could have been even close to -44 as the gadget was set for 5 minutes intervals and there were pretty big fluctuations in a short period of time around 8:30 AM. Nice bonus for the final part of the journey anyhow.
It’s my last day in Mongolia, tomorrow in the early morning we are going back to the airport, this time to the new one
Mission accomplished

To be continued…

Jargalantyn Mukhar: the driest cold (1/3)

Choosing the target

Regarding my research plans, overall the best fitting country is definitely Mongolia, so it’s not a coincidence that I chose it again. It’s the perfect amalgam between an excellent natural context and decent travel conditions, even more now, when some other countries, which are on my bucket list from a long time are going through turbulent times.

The strong Central Asian anticyclone is the solid base for the severe cold in this part of the globe, north-western Mongolia being the actual center of this major baric system, bringing stable weather with clear skies, which favorizes the nocturnal cooling and the formation of thermal inversions in the valleys and basins.

Digital Elevation model (DEM) of Mongolia with the “eye-like” feature marking the location of the chosen spot

From a long time I have a dominant wish regarding the extreme climates. It’s the particular case, when there is no snow on the ground, but it’s still unusually cold. I would even say that this is my favorite research context between all the existing combination possibilities. It’s the certain kind of “otherworldliness”, reminiscent of Mars or Moon, which gives it the special charm.

For many years I followed and remotely monitored the weather’s evolution in the spots with the best potential, waiting for the ideal congruence to occur. However, as a generality covering many aspects of life, the best things usually doesn’t happen easily. Even if you are ready to pay the price. But this is the “entry level” without any doubt. So here I am now targeting the fragile equilibrum between extreme cold and bare ground.

The arid plateau (reddish area) on the eastern side of Mönkhkhairkhan range with the location of the research area (red dot)

Some people could ask, why is this so difficult to achieve? Well, there are two major causes:

The first is based on simple physics, namely the fact that the snow cover seriously enhances the cooling of the air above, partly because of blocking most of the Earth’s internal heat under its isolating blanket (air particles between the snow flakes), then because its white color reflects the Sun’s heating rays during the daytime. In short: without snow cover can’t be that cold.

The second is related to the weather patterns, which have their own limitations regarding the relation between snow fall and snow melt/ sublimation in a certain situation. Thus, during very cold weather if a little bit of new snow falls (even less than 1 cm) it will last pretty long time on the frozen ground. All these together are severly narrowing the range of possibilities to found a proper context regarding this plan.

The chosen high altitude basin with the contour lines (5, 10, 20, 40, 60, 80 meters) calculated on GoogleEarth

After a thorough analysis of concrete weather/ climate data, satellite images and topography I got to the conclusion that the best chances to produce very cold without snow on the ground are some areas of Western Mongolia, respectively the northern part of the Tibetan Plateau. These regions receive minimal precipitation during winter, while at the same time cooling down to almost arctic levels. Tibet has the altitude, Mongolia the latitude advantage.

How about to have both? Maybe a compromise between a relatively high elevation and a sufficiently nordic setting will be the best choice. Let’s check this out.

There are some parts in the arid interior side of the Mongolian Altai where the elevation is above 2500, even 3000 meters, while the latitude is between 46-47 degrees N. A closed basin here should be great for sure. I was very glad when realizing there are some promising topographical settings.

Soviet topo-map with Jargalantyn Mukhar basin in the upper-middle part of the image

The best seems to be the one named Jargalantyn Mukhar, a 75-80 meters deep bowl situated on a semi-desertic plateau of rusty nuance in the central part of Khovd province. Its bottom is situated at 2780 m elevation and looks like it’s completely dried up (only solonchak, no lake). It’s the second highest between all the endorheic structures with significant depth in Mongolia, surpassed only by a smaller one with a quarter of its depth and also more exposed.

According to the statistics of the weather stations located on the mongolian side of the Altai range the average precipitation of the winter months is around or even less than 1 mm, Tonkhil receiving no more than 0.5 mm during each. I think it could be similar in my target area too. Certainly rain shadow, respectively föhn effect, the other side getting almost all the rain and snow.

After analyzing the seasonal satellite images of the last two decades which prove that in more winters the snow cover was completely missing there, I became optimistic that with some luck this particular place could deliver what I am searching for.

Brief summary of the research

Because in this plan the uncertainty factor was significant, I was prepared with a “Plan B” for backup, in case that the bare ground context could not be found in the targeted area. This is a little more complicated as it sounds, as the “Plan A” location is strictly reserved for snow-free conditions, thus in case of a new snowfall the study area will move to a different place. This is because the intermediate situation when there is only a thin snow-cover is not good for any kind of research, therefore I will rather go to an area which already had snow before to be able to reach lower temperatures.

Satellite image showing the snow cover distribution on 14th January 2023 with snow-free Jargalantyn Mukhar basin in the center (red ellipse)

Actually there were some chances to snow a little just before my plane will land in Mongolia, so I was very pleased when checking the newest satellite imagery while in transit in Istanbul saw that the snow-free condition persisted in the chosen basin.

My plane landed in Ulaanbaatar on 12th January in the morning. Because of the forthcoming anticyclone I was rushed to reach the target as soon as possible, thus didn’t spent the next night in Khovd, but headed in the evening directly towards the high plateau in Möst sum with the 4wd driver. Little sleep, even less acclimatization. The biggest part of the road is brand new chinese asphalt, only the latter 20 km’s or so is dirt track. At the start of the latter our host was waiting to guid us towards the target. Pushing the limits, after mounting the tent nearby, on 14th January in the night I managed to reach the bottom of Jargalantyn Mukhar basin.

The weather station in the early morning

The exact coordinates are: 46.8586 N, 92.2189 E, the elevation 2780 m. The height of the sensor above the ground is around 170 cm. At 2:26 AM the mini weather station started its operation. The device is recording a temperature value every 5 minutes. First reading was -32.5 degrees Celsius, then, just before leaving I saw -33.2 C.

After the installation I went back to my tent and rested until the early morning, when returned to the tripod to check the night’s minimum. The lowest recorded value was -34.1 C while the actual temperature was slightly rising despite there were no clouds nor wind on the bottom.

In the nearby col, situated 80 meters higher I measured between -26, -27 degrees, accompanied by some breeze. It seems that the inversion is not so strong here, despite the very dry air, which holds back the hoarfrost to form even at below -30 degrees.

Checking the gadget before sunrise

I spent the day and the next night too in the surroundings, sleeping in tent and returning again in the second morning to verify the instrument. The minimum wasn’t lower, but pretty close: -33.6, while the maximum reached -16.3 degrees Celsius. The sky was completely clear during this interval, but in the latter part of the second night the wind became more active.

After securing the tripod with some improvised weight (hanging rocks inside a bag) to can handle windier conditions too, I left the research area on 15th January around noon and except a short trip to Möst sum’s center, I spent the next four days just a few km’s away, sleeping in yurt with locals. During this interval the sky was variable (sometimes windy) with some very weak snow showers here and there on 16th.

View of the basin from the south

I’ve done a few hikes to the nearby rocky peaks and visited Davst Nuur hypersaline lake, meanwhile observing the nomadic activity (sheeps, goats, horses, yaks) and wildlife (bearded vulture, ibex, hare). No wolves, but the locals said there are many on the other side of a range, coming over and attacking the livestock regularly.

While there, the studied basin itself looked empty, but I saw herds of animals and yurts not far from the salt marsh (2-3 km), also a few motorcycles passed by. All in all, despite the remoteness and harsh conditions there is some human activity in the whole area, the signs of grazing being often visible.

My tent near the col

I returned to collect the equipment on 19th January in the late morning and found the installation in its place with the gadget intact and functional. All data was correctly recorded. The lowest temperature remained the one from 14th, while the maximum reached -10.9 on 17th January.

A productive research for sure.

The instruments used on the field

-One LogTag UTRED30-16 data logger with the measuring range between -40 and +99 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of 0.5 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.

-One Greisinger GMH 2710-T digital precision thermometer with the measuring range between -199.9, +200 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of +-0.1 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.

-One photo camera tripod serving as the support for the instruments.

-One helical solar radiation shield from Barani Design Technologies:

The logger doing its job in the night

To be continued…

Lake Assal: nothing cool, but still cool (3/3)

Interpretation of the logger’s graph (using LogTag Analyzer 3 software)

The temperature curve of the 6 days/ 5 nights research period. The device was registering a value every 2 minutes (zoom in for better view)

First day (June 21st)

It is the single day when I’ve spent significant time nearby the measuring equipment in the wadi. It was haze during my hike through the salt flats of Lake Assal before entering the gorge, with little wind. The logger started to record at 10:43 AM and the first reading can be considered legit as I waited sufficient time with the sensor placed under the helical shield to accomodate the ambience before pushing the start button. As I set the device for 2 minutes logging (short intervals) the curve has the typical “saw aspect” with many small ups and downs inside the general “big waves”. The temperature was rising more abruptly until 2:17 PM when reached 47.0 C, after which slowly increased until 3:59 PM when recorded the day’s maximum temperature of 47.4 degrees Celsius (quite normal evolution). During this time the sky was clear or partially covered, but the north-western clouds never managed to block the sun.

I left the area after 5:18 PM, when the temperature was already descending and the sun was reached by the clouds just a little before disappearing behind the walls of the valley. After spending some time outside the gorge where encountering a sandstorm after 6 PM I later returned to the tripod to see if it survived the strong wind (luckily yes). This interval coincides with a more abrupt drop of 2.3 degrees between 6:09 and 6:25 PM (from 46.3 to 44.0 C), following a more constant period even if the sun was already gone for almost an hour.

The temperature curve of the first day and the following night

After this the descend is more natural until 2:57 AM when it reached 39.4 C, the lowest temperature of the night. Before 5 AM it was a strange rise from the already very high base to 40.9 C, then started to drop again. The lowest reading of 38.1 C happened shortly before 8 AM in full daylight, but the sun probably reach inside the gorge only later. I’ve spent this night around the lake and measured similar temperatures with my handheld device (38-40 C between 0 – 6 AM). Meanwhile the sky became cloudier.

Second day (June 22nd)

I left the area during this morning and returned only in the last day (26th in the late afternoon) to collect the equipment. This second day is a weird one as it is composed of the lowest maximum (44.3 C at 3:15 PM) sandwiched between the two highest minimums (38.1 and 37.6 C).

The temperature curve of the second day and the following night

This and the fact that it has some shorter abrupt drops in the early evening (again between 6 – 7 PM) suggests that it was windy, another sandstorm is very likely. However the mentioned max and the min were both registered in the expected period (afternoon, respectively early morning).

Third day (June 23rd)

During this day I was on a trip around the western part of the Ghoubbet bay, so not too far from Lake Assal (25 km from the gorge). The morning was cloudier, while the midday and early afternoon sunny and very hot. I measured 46 degrees on the black lava field with my handheld thermometer, while the wind was moderately blowing.

The temperature curve of the third day and the following night

From the morning there was a constant rise until 3:03 PM when the day’s maximum of 47.2 C was registered and the same value was reached again at 4:25 PM after a small setback. This second peak was instantly followed by a big drop of more than 3 degrees in 6 minutes, then the curve became more normal. This coincides with the time when I was finishing my hike and saw some bigger clouds forming in the north-west. Probably it was again only wind, without rain. We can also observe on this day an unnatural 3 degree warming in the evening between 9 – 10 PM (exceeding 40 degrees again), certainly khamsin. The descend happened only after midnight, while the minimum was 35.2 C in the early morning.

Fourth day (June 24th)

This day the temperature has a quite normal evolution, reaching 44.6 C at 3:07 PM following a constant rise, while after 4 PM starts the descend, which has no abrupt changes (except a slight rise in the evening) until 5:05 AM, when recording the minimum of 33.3 C. This will be also the lowest temperature of the entire measuring period.

The temperature curve of the fourth day and the following night

I was in Djibouti city on this day, so I don’t have direct info about the cloud cover over the area.

Fifth day (June 25th)

On this day I was again on a trip to Ghoubbet bay, this time in the south-eastern part, thus a little farther from my study area (around 45 km). It was less haze than on the other days, from the high ledge of the plateau I could see the other side of the bay (though only barely).

The temperature curve of the fifth day and the following night

This day the max was reached a little earlier than usually: 44.5 C at 2:29 PM, with a slight setback (almost constancy) afterwards, the concrete drop starting only after 5 PM with some abrupt changes in the first half hour. It was again a +2 degree rise in the evening, followed by a less constant decrease until dawn, when the minimum of 35.8 C happened.

Sixth, last day (June 26th)

Today in the late afternoon I came back to Lake Assal to collect the equipment. It was haze again with a few clouds in the sky (not clearly seen). The timing was good as I reached the gorge only after 6 PM when the temperature was already decreasing, thus having the daily maximum recorded also for this day.

The temperature curve of the sixth (last) day

The peak of 46.1 C was reached at 3:59 PM, exactly in the same minute when the first day’s 47.4 C happened. We can observe on the graph an abrupt early morning rise of 1.6 degrees, respectively a +2 degree unnatural drop after 1 PM. The rest is more or less a constant rise until 4 PM, then decreasing. The last reading was 43.6 C at 6:07 PM when the logger was stopped.

The mean temperature of the 6 days/ 5 nights measuring period in the wadi is a round 40.0 degrees Celsius, an unusually high average for sure. The mean maximum was 45.7 degrees, while the mean minimum, 36.0 degrees. The maximum is similar to the ones measured at the hottest weather stations in the world: Death Valley (Furnace Creek), Persian Gulf states (Ahvaz, Basrah, Jahra), central-western Sahara (In Salah, Reggane), Pakistan (Sibi, Jacobabad) and the Ethiopian Danakil (Dallol). The minimums seems to be higher than anywhere else on the planet, no station recording above 35 C average lows in any month.

General conclusions

  • Lake Assal area is one of the hottest places on the Planet, having a similar climate with the Ethiopian Danakil, where the highest yearly average of 34.6 C was recorded between 1960-1966 at Dallol.
  • The daily maximums are usually happening in the afternoon around 3-4 PM, after a more or less constant rise from the morning.
  • The late afternoon/ evening hours are characterised by instability and more abrupt changes, the wind velocity being the highest in this period.
  • Temperature rise of 2-3 degrees can happen at any time during the dark hours, exceeding 40 C even at dawn.
  • The daily amplitude is small, especially for a tropical desert. This is caused mostly by the hot and dry khamsin wind, which mixes the layers. Clouds can keep the heated air under their blanket during night, enhancing this phenomenon.
  • There are more clouds in the night and morning than at midday.
The satellite images of Djibouti taken on June 21st (left) with khamsin effect vs June 11th (right) with normal sky

Comparison with Djibouti (Ambouli International Airport) weather station

According to Wunderground’s history, but also mentioned by my driver Houmed, the temperature in Djibouti city reached 45 degrees Celsius on 21st June (2-3 PM), when the 47.4 C peak was recorded in the gorge near Lake Assal. This is only one degree shy of the city’s absolute record and certainly was caused by the khamsin. As Ambouli’s available values are all rounded I must work with these: in 21st the difference is 2.4 degrees in favour of Lake Assal.

The temperature curve of Djibouti weather station on June 21st (Wunderground/ History)

Also 22nd was a very hot day in the capital, when 44 C was measured in the same early afternoon interval. As I spent this day in the city, I can confirm from personal experience that the heat was extreme indeed. More than that, this day the two peaks were very similar, my logger measuring its lowest maximum in the gorge: 44.3 C

On 23rd the difference is bigger, the city recording 42 degrees, while Lake Assal 47.2 C: 5.2 degrees. June 24th was the “mildest” day in the capital with only 37 degrees (but likely with high humidity), while my station recorded 44.6 C: 7.6 degrees difference, the biggest one. On 25th the discrepancy is smaller again, Djibouti reaching 41, while Lake Assal 44.5 C: 3.5 degrees. In the last day, on 26th, the disparity is again high: 39 vs 46.1 C: 7.1 degrees.

The average difference between the maximums for the six days is 4.3 degrees in favor of Lake Assal. Due to the coastal placement Djibouti is usually more humid with a high heat index even with only 35-36 degrees Celsius, while Lake Assal is much more affected by the dry wind.

Comparison with Dallol (Ethiopian Danakil)

As Dallol weather station operated only between 1960-1966 and the datas are also kind of questionable, this comparison will be less concludent.

Weather statistics for Dallol (Wikipedia)

If we take into consideration the month of June, Dallol’s mean maximum is one degree higher than the average max of my six day research near Lake Assal: 45.7 degrees. However, I have some doubts regarding Dallol’s value, which compared to its absolute June max looks unusually high: only 1-1.5 degrees difference between them. That’s just too small even for 6-7 years of measurement. As I saw a lot of suspicious climate charts and tables in my life with significant differences even between the same locations, my general opinion is that many of them is based on algorythms and are not coming from real, ground based measurements.

Final question: Could Lake Assal’s depression beat the actual World Record for the highest temperature? We could not exclude this, but my opinion is that the upper limit must be somewhere between 50-52 degrees Celsius here. I think there are more chances to beat the highest low temperature for one night, the actual record being 44.2 degrees Celsius in Khasab (Oman).

I consider this research a successful one, actually it’s the first one flawlessly completed with all days and nights correctly monitored.

Lake Assal: nothing cool, but still cool (2/3)

Journey photo album

First day in Djibouti: befriending the local climate

Mosque in the center area

On the way to Arhiba square to see from where are the Tadjoura minibuses depart. The air is hot and humid with very high heat index

It seems that Menelik hotel, the iconic building of the old colonial center was recently renovated

My hotel room at “City Guest by Citylife” with the mandatory air conditioning in this climate

Palace Kempinski, the most luxurious hotel in Djibouti seen from Heron Beach

The coastal breeze is great for kiteboarding

In the early morning of June 21st (which btw is my 44th birthday) we started the journey to Lake Assal. Here we are on the Ethiopian main road with heavy truck traffic near We’a settlement

Hard life on the side of the road

We left the main road and continued on the Tadjoura way

Canyon d’Adaile, known to the local afar people as Dimbia is one of the places along the road where all tourists stop

The other is less well defined, but can happen at any time while crossing the barren plateau: hamadryas baboons

They are used with people and represent no danger, just curious and looking for food

Wind turbines near Ghoubbet bay with Ile du Diable (Devil’s Island) on the background. It’s heavy haze today, which means the hot and dry Khamsin wind is active

Near Karta village

Descending the plateau towards Lake Assal

We are lucky to see a “salt caravan”, which is carrying the manually collected salt from the lake. Afars do this even in the relentless summer, hard to belive!

Now we are well below sea level, the bottom of Africa (-155 m) is close. I can see the salt factory on the shore

The hot spring near the lake is another touristic attraction where every driver stops. It’s only around 8 AM and already very hot outside, hard to tell how much is caused by the air and how much because of the water

The classical view of Lac Assal shortly before the end of the asphalt road

My driver asking the local guy if there is a chance for me to found a truck tomorrow from here to the Tadjoura road. The answer is not very positive, it seems that now the traffic is restrained (could be seasonal), also tourists are much less in the off-season. We’ll see

With a 20 kg backpack from which half is water, around 8:15 AM I started the hike towards my target. There are a few tracks on the salt pan used mostly by the salt worker trucks, one even appear (!) on some maps as a “national highway” 🙂

The surface is pretty solid in the first part

As I am approaching the foothills became a little grainier…

…then changes to the characteristic polygonal crusty aspect

Even farther there was dark mud, fortunately enough solid for walking. Certainly not the same thing for cars…

Yeah, definitely more moisture in the ground, the small pond must have similar composition as the big lake

I was a little surprised to see them here, it’s no more than 1 km to the target

The last part is on sandy-gravel surface, I am approaching the gorge

And here we are: the place looks good for my purpose also in reality. The heat is oppressive after carrying the heavy luggage for two hours, but I dont’s waste the time, only drink some water and start the preparations
The mini weather station is soon rised on the wadi’s floor and after leaving the sensor under the Barani shield at least 15 minutes to accomodate to the ambience, at 10:43 AM the logger started its operation
First reading: 42.4 degrees, a decent start
General view of the measuring spot on the lower “course” of Kadda Galeita
The legs of the tripod were secured with rocks to can handle the wind
I found a shelter under an overhang of the gorge’s southern wall, which seems to be the single proper one in the surroundings. Divine providence, definitely
Even in the shade it’s insanely hot
“The Black Midget”, my shadow around noon on the tropics
1 PM: the temperature is rising
At this period the ground must be the hottest. I check it on the sandy surface, which is the best for the highest readings
2 PM: went over 46 degrees, I am content
Around 3 PM have reached 47 degrees, the atmosphere is hellish
Good to have this shelter, the sun is extremely punishing
I used the umbrella as an auxiliary to block the heavy afternoon rays
It’s almost unbelievable how in complete shadow the hot wind can burn your feet. I measured even above 50 degrees near the ground, where I was laying on my mattress as the sun-heated air from the outside was carried inside the shelter
During the afternoon the shadowy area under the overhang lessened, fortunately my head and upperbody remained protected
4 PM: Peak Heat. I managed to catch live the highest air temperature recorded by the data logger
Yeah, this selfie is more than necessary 🙂
Shelter or… prison?
A little after 5 PM the sun disappeared behind the rocky slopes and while the temperature was still very high, it started to slowly descend. I decided to leave the gorge and spend the night in a more open place to have a little advantage with the nocturnal radiation
Not my best decision: outside the conditions were even worse as the hot wind was blowing from the south-east. It was the hottest feeling I ever experienced regarding weather conditions. Out of curiosity I measured the temperature while the wind velocity was rising and saw that actually it was slightly decreasing, while the subjective feeling was of an abrupt heating. The 46 degrees felt like it was at least 60! This is the same thing but reversed as it happens during cold weather, when the moving air feels much colder (windchill). At higher temperatures than your body’s if no evaporation can happen to cool you off (sweating or wetting) your body temperature will be “attacked” stronger, you will fight harder to keep it at normal level. With an air so dry as it is here, your sweat is disappearing sooner as it can cool you, especially with wind.
And then came the “birthday-bonus”: a violent sandstorm hit my camp and took my mattress and pillow. For a few minutes I was laying on my luggage trying to keep everything on the ground, while also protecting my nose with the arms. Fortunately the gorge’s walls stopped the “flying carpet” between the boulders and I could recover it later
I was glad to see that the tripod survived the Khamsin’s blow (certainly the gorge was also protecting it), this was a solid proof for me that its stability is really good
After a difficult evening spent outside, I decided that the best strategy to finish this excursion is to start moving back to the asphalt road much sooner and not wait for the dawn when it will be “cooler”. It is so hot that you can’t even rest, sleeping is completely out of question. I need to drink almost constantly, the water (which was also hot until now) is decreasing. So I walked back around 8 km and stopped near the lake around midnight, some 1.5 km from the parking lot. Now came another big question: should I enter the lake to cool off? I knew the salt will be another risk factor. Fortunately it was again a good decision. The 33 degrees saline solution was enough to keep my body temperature controlled and while it was quite unpleasant feeling the salt crystals thickening on my skin (especially hair) after drying, the heat was the bigger threat.
After almost four hours spent inside the brine (mostly partially, regularly sprinkling it on my body) I even managed to sleep half an hour on the mattress when the temperature “dropped” to 38 degrees. The heat was trapped under the dust filled cloudy sky, the “venusian” ambience was absolutely surreal
Good morning Lac Assal…or something like that 🙂
Okay, the Garmin watch is still working…
With the local guys near the parking lot: I became “the biggest souvenir”, covered in salt like the goat skulls which they sell for tourists 🙂
I called my driver already in the evening to come after me this morning as the return to the Tadjoura road was too risky because of the difficult weather conditions combined with the uncertainty of the traffic in the off-season. He was very prompt and picked me up before 7 AM. After a well needed bath in the balmy waters of the Ghoubbet bay we were on the way back to Djibouti Ville
Khamsin is no joke: at a certain time we couldn’t see anything in front of us. Hard work, great experience
Birthday dinner at one of the best restaurants is the city: Signatures. The indian food (lobster on the right) is served professionally, it’s very tasty, strongly condimented. The mojito cocktail with ice was also impecable. However, will not tell you the price 😉
Next day I used public transport (the Tadjoura minibus) to visit the Ghoubbet bay area. Much cheaper this time as my plan is less difficult to carry out, I have smaller luggage and there is no need for precise timing. I started the hike at the “touristic beach”, well…not so touristic in the off-season (nobody, outside the two supervisors)
Not a norwegians dream, but still cooler than the air
Nobody also here. I could have waited at Lake Assal for “my lucky truck”…
This small volcanic cone near the road invited me to a visit
Definitely worth it, the view from the rim is spectacular. I decided to cross the rugged lava field to reach the other cone near the beach
Magical land, Godzilla is watching me
On the afar highway (lava flow)
Some parts are smoother…
…but most parts not really. This must be very new lava, probably from the 1978 November eruption of the nearby Ardoukoba volcano
The cool, turquoise color of the sea is very tempting as the temperature rises over the barren landscape. Of course, a refreshing bath is in the plan too
That’s precipitated salt. There is seawater inside the rocks below, just enough to wash my face
This structure is a double cone, the two craters form an “8” shape. I am standing now between them
View of the other crater with the bay were I planned to have the bath
After seeing some rubbish on the shore I decided to change to the other side, closer to the road
I hope the ground will not swallow me before 🙂
I know it’s 32 degrees, but still very nice to approach
Looks great, I even have the diving mask with me
No stress, even if I want
And again: a perfect shelter from the midday sun under the rocky ledge
The Zobject on the solidified lava
Paradise…for me
After about two hours of hedonism it’s time to leave and continue the hike. In just a few minutes the owerwhelming presence of the heat is back, the otherworldly, rugged surface only enhances the experience
As it is windy this must be close to reality. And it really was: at Lake Assal the logger recorded the second highest temperature (47.2 C) on this afternoon
Lunar or martian?
While approaching the road the terrain became even more irregular and fragmented
I can see some nice souvenirs for home 🙂
You need to be patient here, both for the terrain and the climate
The double-cone seen from the road
Beside acacia, this plant is one of the very few which can survive in the volcanic wasteland. I heard that it’s toxic, camels and goats avoid to eat them
Acacia was mentioned, here it is: the tough small tree with the distinctive umbrella shape is also known as “parachute tree” and, contrary to the one in the previous picture, it is very nutriend for the animals
Not too many cars on the road. No problem, I have enough water to reach the nearest settlement if nobody will pick me up.
Ardoukoba is somewhere there behind
Devil’s Island, the iconic landmark of Ghoubet bay
Around 4:30 PM I reached the small village, part of Lac Assal district. It was a very hot day, a need a cold Coke, maybe two
My wish was fulfilled and more than that: I was very pleased to talk in almost fluent english with a local youngster who even mentioned the “austro-ungarn” term what he learned in history class, when I told him about my hungarian roots. I wish him to continue the learning and use the knowledge for the development of his country
Finally, the Tadjoura minibus came and until dark we reached the outskirts of the capital. No AC on these cars, but they are moving fast with natural ventilation (windows down), thus except the parts inside the city when it waits or moves slowly the ambience is not oppressive
Next day in the more quiet part of the old center, I exchanged some dollars
These buildings retained the french, colonial aspect more than the newly renovated Menelik hotel
At the market. Here and generally in the center area, on the beaches, around buildings (well, almost everywhere) locals don’t really like to see visitors taking photos. The police will go a step farther: they will fine you. That’s right: basically it is forbidden to take photos in the city
One of the minibus terminals. The actual fares are very cheap (even more for the otherwise expensive Djibouti), but the drivers and their helpers often will try to overcharge the tourists. I’ve seen both during my stay, there were also honest ones. Local people are typically communicative and helpful
Taxis are constantly honking and the drivers sometimes can be a bit pushy in trying to take you inside even if you told them multiple times that you are okay or already have another way of transport. Not this guy 🙂
Another trip on the penultimate day: the starting point was the “the memorial of two japanese” (they died in a road accident) on the Ghoubbet plateau. I’ve chosen this exact place as I could show to the driver a picture taken from the Internet. First he was a little evasive, but later agreed to drop me here (maybe nobody does it before)
My main target is a viewpoint situated above the sea, which is at the end of the plateau about 5 km away, where it abruptly drops more than 600 meters. I found it on GoogleEarth, randomly checking the topography and concluded that it must be spectacular
There were a few steep slopes with unstable rocks, but generally the terrain is without serious elevation differences
Of course, you again
A last steeper portion
Nothing but a few goats
Oh yeah, that’s something! Today the haze is less, so I can see to the other side of the bay
Massive drop for sure. There could be a lot of fossils inside the exposed layers
The vivid turquoise sea is contrasting with the beige nuances of the barren land
Let’s have even more contrast 🙂
In the beginning I only saw two smaller birds (swallows I think) and then came the local boss
Devil’s Island is barely visible on the other side
I tried to identify some wild animals on the slopes, but couldn’t
Before 1 PM I started the way back, not exactly on the same path as the road is closer if I turn a little to the left. No need for the GPS now, the electric pilons are showing the direction
Gotcha! They (dorcas gazelle) were 4-5 under a big, lonely acacia tree, hiding from the strong midday sun when suddenly the stranger with the backpack disturbed their picnic
Yes, I like yours ears both from the front and the backside
Crazy: I think that I saw this exact tree on GoogleEarth!
I must disagree with Pierre Loti who stated in his writing “Obock for a day” regarding the acacia tree: “…is of no use, does not even cast a shade”. Well, it does cast a shade and a very nice one
Curious to see if the gazelles are hiding now in this valley. No, they were moving farther
These tracks in the sand could be theirs. Meanwhile the heat became oppressive, even if here we are above 600 meters elevation
Some afar nomads were here, but who knows when. In the summer the life is very hard
Just look at these plants and you will understand
Saw only a few, maybe they live more at higher elevations
The topography is less fragmented on the return way, after a single and smaller steep slope I am on a flat, dusty plain, from the other side of which the road is very close
Pure sand is not very common here, the terrain is mostly rocky
From the ground temperature I conclude that the air is probably not above 40 degrees Celsius now, but also not far
More dust devils were visible on this plain
Takîr in the turkic language, playa in the spanish, this terrain is composed of clay and is intermittently flooded. The cracks appear after drying
One steep climb and the asphalt road is near
Same thing as at Ghoubbet bay: only a few cars are passing and I have both time and resources. Tomorrow it’s my last day in Djibouti, let’s feel the african heat now!
Beside camels, goats are the single domestic desert survivors. I also saw some donkeys, but I think they are not wandering alone in the wasteland as the other two do
Close-up of the “toxic plant”. Meanwhile the “gendarmerie” situated at the meeting of the Tadjoura and the Ethiopian road is approaching. From there (after some cold Coke) I took a cheap minibus to the city
At Heron Beach: Last day in Djibouti. I’ve checked out from the hotel, also my local SIM expired today. Nothing left but recovering the equipment from Lake Assal. My driver will take me there in the afternoon, then we go directly to the airport
City Guest, I’ve spent a great week here. Many thanks for the manager, Leila and the staff!
Soon we are on the way to the hottest place of Djibouti. Haze again, that’s poetical
Karta village, the baboons were in the surroundings
More trucks now on this road, but I think they are coming from Tadjoura
The most important road sign in Djibouti
As we descend below the sea level the temperature rises
We can’t waste the time and continue on the salt pan. None of my two drivers were farther from the parking lot as no tourists were going farther
That means the adventure is mutual. Soon we are driving completely off-road on the sharp salt crust
Time is starting to press us a little as we are not sure how close can go with the car, the terrain becaming more insecure. I am prepared to do a 8-10 km walk if necessary, but that would take some time. Finally we managed to go sufficiently close (around 1.5 km), only the black mud is separating us from the gorge
Ready for the last trip, a short one
Sunset is close, I must be fast
Success: the tripod is still standing on the wadi floor, the device functional, everything intact
All data was correctly recorded. The 47.4 degrees from 21st was not exceeded later, while the minimum was 33.3 degrees Celsius
That’s all folks, it’s time to stop the logger
View of the sensor after dismounting the Barani helical shield
With its afar friend
Bye George, I mean Gorge!
Labyrinth inside the gypsum layer
Still daylight, the car is close
Houmed, a reliable driver and a nice person. It was a great collaboration, many thanks for the help!
We left Lake Assal in the dusk, Ambouli airport is waiting for us
Bye Djibouti. It was a hot journey for sure…

To be continued…

Lake Assal: nothing cool, but still cool (1/3)

Intro: the warmest capital city

Together with Khartoum in Sudan, Djibouti city is the hottest capital in the world, having a yearly average temperature just a little shy of 30 degrees Celsius. While the “winters” are warm (kind of an european summer), the hot season is sweltering and the high humidity, characteristic for the coastal areas make the tropical ambience even more oppressive. The heat doesn’t go away even in the night, thus the living is very challenging without air conditioning, especially for non-natives. In the dark it almost feels unreal, like you are trapped inside a giant sauna without walls.

The city has a population of around 600.000, represented mostly by issa (somali) and afar ethnic groups with some arabs, french and other minorities beside. The former french colony is a busy strategic port close to the Red Sea’s Bab-el-Mandeb strait and more countries have military bases here. Before known as “French Somaliland”, after gaining the independence in 1977 the small country received the same name as its capital. Unknown for many travelers, the tourism is not very well developed here, but is rising in the recent years. Security is taken seriously, police presence is common. Djibouti’s downtown is quite noisy, with many honking green/ white taxis and old minibuses looking for the next passenger. Ambouli International Airport is close to the city and greeted me before midnight on June 18th with the first dose of african heat.

Mosque in the center area of Djibouti Ville

Choosing the target

The most iconic place associated with heat in the meteorological sense is undoubtedly the Sahara desert. An endless, empty place with the size of a continent presenting huge, sunbaked sand dunes and barren, rocky terrain. Temperatures are known to be very high there, often exceeding 50 degrees in the shade. Wait. Is this really true? Well, partially. Actually there were only a few cases when reliable temperatures above 50 degrees were measured here, the 51.3 degrees Celsius recorded in Ouargla (Algeria) on 6 July 2018 being the most certain one. Some old readings like the famous 58 degrees from El Aziziya were infirmed in the later years after specialistic investigation of the used equipment and measuring conditions. Long story short: naturally occuring +50 C air temperature is less common than people think.

Regarding my personal research, from the three main extreme categories (Cold, Heat, Amplitude) heat was the last to come. Actually it’s not exactly the first time, a few years ago I’ve visited the Ethiopian side of the Danakil depression with the same purpose, but the research was unsuccesful as I couldn’t collect the equipment from an inactive volcanic crater because of … let’s say “bad luck”, having to deal with unreliable local collaborators. Thus it’s understandable that I felt a strong need to come back to the Danakil and “finish the job”.

The sunken desertic area of tectonic origin is situated on the territory of three countries: Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. While the first one has the biggest portion, Djibouti owns the lowest spot, represented by the shores of Lac Assal at 155 meters below the sea level, also the deepest land in Africa and second in the world after the Dead Sea’s depression*.

The relief of Djibouti with Lake Assal in its center (teal color represents below sea level areas)

While second to the Dead Sea regarding the elevation, the raport between the two is reversed when we are talking about the salt concentration, Lake Assal being the saltiest lake of considerable size in the world (ten times more than the ocean), surpassed only by two small ponds (one in Antarctica, the other also in the Danakil), so one can easily float on the surface without sinking.

I have an old passion for below sea level places, which usually have a very hot climate (Death Valley in the USA is the best example). Why? There are two main reasons for this: first because of the general rule that normally temperature drops with elevation (6.4 degrees by 1 km), secondly because these places are parts of very dry, desertic environments, strong evaporation being a basic condition for their formation. A consequence of the latter is that they are often associated with salt marshes, the residue of the former lake. Badwater in Death Valley (-86 m), the southern part of the Dead Sea (around -400 m), Aydingkol in the Turpan Basin (-154 m) and Lake Assal (-155 m) all have these same two things in common: salt flats and extreme summer heat.

Soviet 500K topographical map of the Gulf of Tadjoura with Lac Assal on the left-center part

Dallol in the Ethiopian Danakil is considered to be the place with the highest average temperature in the world with a whopping 34.6 degrees Celsius, according to the short period of measurements from 1960 to 1966. June is the hottest month with a mean maximum of above 46 degrees, very similar to the well known “heavyweights” of the domain like Death Valley, the Kuwait-Iraq-Iran border area near the Persian Gulf (July-August) or the Jacobabad-Sibi plain in Pakistan (May-June). However, unlike the former mentioned ones which all reached 52-54 degrees at a certain time, no temperatures above 50 were ever recorded in Dallol, 48.9 C being the highest measurement. An unusually small gap of less then 3 degrees between the typical and the extreme values for sure, even for only 6-7 years of data. The heat is “at home” here, it’s never coming from somewhere else as in the case of most places (like Saharan origin heat in Europe for example), this must be the main reason for this constancy.

While before I’ve chosen the more interior part of the Danakil (Afdera Lake area) to completely avoid the moderating effect of the sea, now I knew that Djibouti’s Lac Assal is definitely not “too close” to the coast as in the summer months the wind (known as Khamsin) is blowing from the land, heating and drying everything on its way. The difference between the two regions is in the cooler part of the year when the wind is coming from the east (Indian Ocean), internal areas remaining warmer than coastal ones. Lake Assal’s southern shore is situated only 10 km away from the Ghoubbet-el-Kharab bay, an almost completely closed part at the very end of the Gulf of Aden. Actually the highly saline lake gets its water from this bay through the tectonic fissures.

The salt flats west of Lake Assal with the red dot marking the location of the data logger in the gorge

The general area was defined, let’s look at the small scale features. Basically I want to set the equipment at a little distance from the lake (respectively the salt pan) to have such ground below, which can heat up more (sand or gravel). Beside this I try to identify some topographical enhancement, without loosing too much elevation. After looking thoroughly everything around on GoogleEarth I found the right spot inside a gorge, just a few hundreds of meters from the salt flats. The dried riverbed’s name (known as “wadi” or “oued” in the arab world) is Kadda Galeita. Regarding the elevation the satellite data is not so precise here because of the small sizes, thus I partially concluded from the visual aspects that this place must be the best one for my purpose. Beside the general “canyon effect” (part of the solar radiation is reflected back by the walls), the concave curvature of the gorge is looking exactly to the NW, from where the strong sun will strike the slope in the early afternoon hours. Despite being on the Northern Hemisphere, because it’s inside the tropics, in this period of the year the sun passes slightly to the north above the land and June 21st is when the northern deflexion is the biggest.

In Djibouti the meteorological measurements are scarce. It seams that outside the capital’s airport there are no other weather stations at all, anything else is based on hypothetical approximations (both the regional forecasts and the climate diagrams). The city’s highest recorded temperature is 46 degrees Celsius (June and July), also just a few degrees above the summer months average maximums (40-42 degrees), a characteristic of the lower latitudes.

At present industrial scale salt extraction is happening at Lake Assal, consequently in the recent years can be reached on paved road. However the area is still kind of remote as there is no public transport from the Tadjoura main road, usually only expensive private tours and taxis are taking the tourists there. My target is about 10 km far from the “parking lot” (the end of the asphalt road).

*The Sea of Galilee (-212 m) often mentioned as the second lowest basin in the world actually is a part of the bigger Dead Sea depression. They are linked by the Jordan river, so can’t be considered a separate basin. However it is the second lowest lake.

Brief summary of the research

I arrived in Djibouti on June 18th in the late evening and after two days of rest and some acclimatization in the muggy heat of the capital, in the early morning of June 21st I was heading with a private driver to Lake Assal, which lies about 110 km west from the city.

After leaving the main Ethiopian road with heavy truck traffic, we continued on the Tadjoura way around the gulf of Ghoubbet, then turned left and reached the end of the asphalt road on the lake’s southern shore after 8 AM. From here I started the hike on the salt pan towards the target situated inside the gorge.

Haze on the salt flats of Lake Assal

The weather was already hot and became oppressive while reaching the exact location in the wadi after 10 AM. There were only a few clouds, but the characteristic summer haze caused by the hot and dry khamsin wind was present. However, I felt only weak air movement until now.

The bubble-aluminium foil protected data logger (I positioned the device’s screen to face south) and the Barani solar radiation shield under which its sensor was sheltered were mounted on a tripod whose legs were farther stabilized with nearby rocks.

The weather station in the gorge

The exact coordinates are: 11.686346 N, 42.341225 E, the elevation around -130 meters. The height of the sensor from the ground is 160-170 cm. At 10:43 AM the mini weather station started its operation. First reading: 42.4 degrees Celsius.

I waited in the shade nearby the research equipment until late afternoon, meanwhile checking the temperature more times and measuring also the ground in the early afternoon. With some luck I caught the highest air temperature live: 47.4 degrees Celsius around 4 PM and saw 73.9 C on sandy surface around 1 PM. The sky was partially covered in the hottest period, but the clouds coming from the NW never managed to block the sun.

The highest temperature of the day and of the entire measuring interval

After a sandstorm, which hit my camp in the early evening, I’ve spent the following night outside, hiking back to the asphalt road until the morning were my driver picked me up. The evening and night was still extremely hot, this phenomenon felt even more outlandish than the peak heat of the day.

I couldn’t sleep or even rest until dawn as the temperature never dropped below the human body’s and the hot wind was making the real feel even worse. Meanwile the sky became cloudier. This night’s minimum temperature in the gorge was 39.4 C !

My diurnal shelter, an overhang of the rock wall

I’ve spent the next days sleeping in the city with two separate trips to the Ghoubbet-el-Kharab bay using public transport: one to the volcanic area with new lava fields on the western side of the gulf and one to the higher plateau on the south-eastern part. Because of the proximity to the ocean, the capital is much more humid than the internal areas, having the heat index higher for the same temperatures. Here you are constantly sweaty, while at Lake Assal the khamsin sucks out all moisture from you.

I returned to collect the equipment on 26th in the late afternoon (haze again) and found the tripod standing in its place on the wadi’s floor with the logger functional and everything intact. The research was successful, all data was correctly recorded. The first day’s 47.4 degrees wasn’t surpassed on any other day, but was approached on 23rd with 47.2 degrees. The lowest daily maximum was 44.3 on 22nd, while the minimum of the entire measuring period 33.3 degrees Celsius in the morning of 25th.

Dromedaries grazing in the desolate landscape

During my staying in the Lake Assal area I didn’t encountered any wild animals outside of four camels and hearing some high pitched bird noises inside the gorge. The vegetation is completely missing on the salt flats and is also very scarce on the sandy-gravel surface. No acacia trees, only some small tufts. At the end of the asphalt road live some locals (mostly youngsters) who sell salt and other mineral related souvenirs and there is some activity at a chinese salt extraction plant. No other tourists were present as it is low season because of the heat.

The instruments used on the field

-One LogTag UTRED30-16 data logger with the measuring range between -40 and +99 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of 0.5 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.

-One Greisinger GMH 2710-T digital precision thermometer with the measuring range between -199.9, +200 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of +-0.1 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.

-One photo camera tripod serving as the support for the instruments.

-One helical solar radiation shield from Barani Design Technologies:

Sand surface measurement with the Greisinger precision thermometer

To be continued…

Burgastyn Els, Mongolia’s highest desert (2/3)

Journey photo album


Every year new ice sculptures appear on the Chinggis Square, Ulaanbaatar


Gandan monastery


We are here but the flight is delayed to the next day because of snowstorm in Zavkhan aimag


Arriving at Donoi airport, Uliastai


On the way to Erdenekhairkhan (85 km of emptiness)


Arriving in the small village


Maybe this will be my home for the next two weeks


Halo, a very common optical phenomenon in the mongolian winters


Some of my roommates. I think all of us like the cold


Near Mukhart river source in the next morning (30 km snow covered track). This will be the starting point of all my trips to the research area


Pretty chilly, it was -25 degrees in Erdenekhairkhan, which is not a particularly cold place as it lies on a plateau in slope. The next night can be promising


At sunrise, approaching the natural amphitheatrum of Mukhart


Another nice optical phenomenon


I know this scenic place from two years before. One quarter of the way is done


The windchill is playing with my senses


Okay, so that’s my direction. Burgastyn Els desert in front of me


Despite the isolation, the dunes are covered with many animal trails


Looking back, more than half part is done. Pretty tiring terrain for a heavy backpack and big snowboots


Deers are common in this area


But most of the trails are made by these…


…and these guys. Horses and yaks are left to graze on the dunes unsupervised


In the afternoon I reached the planned camping spot on the southern col of the chosen basin


First view of the unnamed sandy depression


Arriving at the bottom. Looks good, the weather also


At 5 PM the mini weather station started its activity: -28 degrees now


Soon after the sun disappeared the temperature was falling fast


-33.5 degrees at 17:40, still sunshine on the ridges


Time to go back to the tent (1 km in straight line)


Only a thin layer of snow here, the wind cleared the exposed parts. On the bottom is 20-25 cm, but some areas have even above 50 cm


Dinner time: dried fruits, one of the best and simplest solution for extreme cold


The first part of the night was completely clear and calm, later cirrostratus clouds were invading the sky. Near surface measurement at my camp (dawn). In the basin must be much colder


That’s right, went well below -40. Still no wind, but because of the thicker cirrostratus the morning temperature was only -35 degrees


The surface was two degrees colder, very common on the negative topography (convex and inclined terrains can have much more differences)


After 10 AM I started the way back. The tent will remain here, I trust the calm of the anticyclone


My closest neighbor


These are the most tiring parts: steep, snow covered sand. Beside the legs it needs also significant upper body strength


Lunch time


Some parts are completely full with horse and yak trails


Mukhart’s outer (convex) contour is closer and closer


This view is always welcomed. Now also means that the most difficult part is over


First and last guy seen during the two day trip. He came on horseback to the base of Mukhart, than climbed the abrupt part on foot


He has an efficient style to descend 🙂


I can see the car. Actually I saw it first from the rim of the amphitheatrum


Good to see that the driver is very conscious, coming here much sooner to wait me with warm food


A very rare ocasion here: another car


Playing cards is the main program in a yurt. Unfortunately usually accompanied by smoking…


Magpie is the most common bird here in the winter


And I can’t miss out this: Erdenekhairkhan’s weather station


Yurt change the next day: too many children (including an infant) made the essential rest impossible. Sorry guys…


My street


Domestic goats on the hill near the village. Much smaller and with thicker coats than european ones


Yeah, that’s a vulture. Only 100 meters from the settlement


Altan Khairkhan (Golden Holy Mountain), a proeminent landmark


Back to the cards. And smoke. Okay, it’s not that bad


Village center


Traditional lifestyle


Climbing a rocky peak a few km from the settlement. Ibexes are living here…


…but not today


Second research trip: Mukhart again


Much cloudier today, but the following night looks promising


Yaks again, more exemplars this time. The snow partially disappeared from the exposed slopes. Beside the sun and the wind, the animals are also contributing to this, eating it in place of water


I got you!


The backpack is less heavy and I can follow my tracks from the previous trip. Feeling stronger I climbed the rocky peak instead of circumventing it. Worth it


A snow shower started, but it was short and weak


I found my tent moved from its original place. The south-eastern wind carried it inside the neighboring hollow. Maybe a better place to spend the next night, if it’s windy


Goji berries, pecan nuts and a local meal “aaruul” (kind of dried yoghurt) is the menu today. Let’s check the tripod with the thermometer


-38.5 degrees for the missing period (13-17 January)


Observing on GoogleEarth,  I was curious to see what kind of vegetation is on the slope of the nearby mountain. As I later understood from the locals, this is exactly the “burgas” (bush), which gave the desert’s name


I also made a walk to the northern col (another 1 km in straight line) to measure its elevation (center of image). It was almost the same as GoogleEarth showed: 2221 m. That means the tripod is 27 meters deep inside the basin


This hollow is the actual bottom of the basin (2192 m), but I left the tripod in the original place because of the better sky view factor


Warmer than the first time: -21 degrees in the afternoon


Back to the camp. I’ve moved the tent only a few meters from the place the wind was carrying it. Here is more protected, relatively flat and still not on the hollows bottom


The evening and the first part of the night was fine (clear and calm), but after midnight the wind started to intensify and till the morning completely destroyed the inversion of the basin. Minimum of the night: -40.9 degrees Celsius


Because of the wind I was constrained to pack the tent (it wasn’t able to stay in place even in the hollow). On the way back I met the horses again


The driver was there well before my arrival, this time with the second yurt’s owner


Lunch at the mayor’s house the next day. They heard about my activities and invited me


This time I was lucky and saw the ibexes on the rocky slopes (younger ones)


The last research trip started with some difficulty because of the snowdrifts. But we were three and solved the problem soon


Warmer today, very low temperatures are unlikely for the following night


The amphitheatrum have some visitors this morning


I had the strategic advantage observing them from the rim, therefore plenty of time to make pictures


Partially cirrus covered sky today. This setting will continue also in the night


Hind (female deer)


The horses are still in the area


Now it’s calm, I will leave the tent on the ridge again


-39.6 degrees is the minimum for the missing period (18-22 January) and only -16.5 now


I’ve climbed to the highest peak of the western ridge (around 2390 meters) to see Ulaagchiin Khar lake on the other side


View in the opposite direction


The researched basin from the ridge. You can observe the “burgas” vegetation on the mountains slope


-26.3 degrees at dusk. Not very cold, but the decrease was significant (10 degrees in less than two hours). I didn’t slept much this night. Beside that I’ve often checked the sky, wolfs were howling an entire hour in the latter part


And here is the main event of the night and maybe of the entire research: the small hollow beside my tent had -37 degrees (at head level) in the early morning and -39 degrees near the snow surface. That’s a solid 20 degrees lower than the temperature at my camp (only 50 meters away!) where it was -17 degrees. Even weirder is that there was colder in the early evening (-19 degrees), despite the clear and calm conditions during the entire night


The main basin reached -36.8 degrees. That means the small one was the same, actually even slightly colder (!)


This was a characteristic night with generally constant temperature drop. The instant morning temperature was close to the minimum (around -36 degrees)


It’s time to say goodbye to the big…


…and small hollows


Sixth and last time on the same track, became familiar until now


The more exposed parts of the dunes lost the snow cover during the last days


An entire labyrinth of trails in this area


You again


Mukhart for the last time. Remember how white was in the first day?


This wild cereal is very common on the dunes


That’s it guys. Still alive 🙂


The way back to the village…


…and to Donoi airport in the next morning


Otgontenger (4008 meters), the highest peak in the Khangai mountains and one of the most sacred in Mongolia


See you next winter!


To be continued…