Stephen F. CUNHA

The Tian Shan range, even from a distance, dominates the landscape. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The Tian Shan range, located mainly along the border between China and Kyrgyzstan, is 2,414 kilometers long and covers more than 1 million square kilometers. Oil and gas extraction, mining of nonferrous metals, and tourism are all important industries. The highest point in the range is 7,439 meter Pobeda Peak, famous among mountaineers.

The great arc of the Tian Shan range and its intervening valleys stretches 2,414 kilometers east to west along China’s frontier with Kyrgyzstan and southeastern Kazakhstan and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of southwestern China. The range is 320 to 480 kilometers wide and covers 1,036,000 square kilometers. The Pamir ranges lie to the southwest, the Dzungarian and southern Kazakhstan plains lie to the north, and the Tarim Basin lies to the southeast.

A central cluster of tall peaks reaches 7,439 meters on Pobeda Peak, which is also the highest point in Kyrgyzstan and lies on the border with China. The second-highest peak of the Tian Shan is Khan Tengri (Lord of the Spirits). At 7,010 meters it lies on the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border. These two peaks are known among mountain climbers as the two most northerly mountains of more than 7,000 meters, although whether or not Khan Tengri qualifies as a 7000m peak is a matter of debate: its geographical elevation is 6995m, but its glacial cap brings the peak to 7010m.

At 154 meters below sea level the Turfan Depression is the lowest elevation in the Tian Shan and the lowest point in central Asia. Issyk-Kol, in western Tian Shan, is the ninth-largest lake in the world by volume.

The Silk Roads that linked China and Southwest Asia to the Mediterranean world followed the southern edge of the Tian Shan. To early travelers of the Silk Roads these “heavenly mountains” (tian is Chinese for “sky” or “heaven”) offered an alpine respite from the steppe (a vast, usually level and treeless tract in southeastern Europe or Asia), forests, and glacial lakes. The interior continental location of the Tian Shan produces short, cold winters that are followed by long, hot summers. Winds of Gulf of Arabia and Mediterranean origin bring moisture to the windward western and northwestern slopes (up to 800 millimeters annually) but leave the eastern and interior regions in an arid rain shadow (less than 100 millimeters annually). Common fauna include bear, snow leopard, wolf, fox, wild boar, mountain goat, Manchurian roe, and mountain sheep.

Mount Tian Safari Park, located north of Liumu Lake, covers 63 square kilometers and is part of the Bogeda South Foot Conservation Area. It is home to sixty-nine species of animals. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is considering naming the western Tian Shan to its World Heritage List.

The Kyrgyz people predominate in the western Tian Shan; Uygurs predominate in the eastern Tian Shan. Ethnic Kazakhs, Tajiks, Russians, Chinese, and Tartars also settle the periphery. The economy revolves around irrigated agriculture (in the lowlands) and livestock herding (in the uplands). Oil and gas extraction, mining of nonferrous metals, and tourism are also important.

The eastern Tian Shan contains an autonomous county for Mongols, who remain Buddhists. Sunni Islam predominates among the Uygur and Kyrgyz communities, whereas small Russian Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities are settled in and around Ürümqi in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Further Reading

Howard-Bury, C. (1990). Mountains of heaven: Travel in the Tian Shan Mountains, 1913. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Khan Tengri. (2006). Retrieved February 25, 2009 from

Poole, R. M., & Nebbia, T. (1988). Tian Shan & Pamir. In Mountain worlds. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2007). Sub-regional meeting on the nomination of the West Tien-Shan as Transboundary Natural Heritage Site. Retrieved February 25, 2009 from

Source: Cunha, Stephen F.. (2009). Tian Shan. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2266–2268. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Snow on Mount Tian, 1755, Palace Museum, Beijing. This painting by Hua Yan (sometimes considered one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou) is reproduced in Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting.

Roof tiles found on the shores of a lake at the foot of the Tianshan mountains.

Tian Shan (Ti?nsh?n ??)|Ti?nsh?n ?? (Tian Shan)

Download the PDF of this article