Ob River

From snow-covered tops of the Altai Mountains, past thousands of kilometres of thick taiga forests, boundless boggy areas and tundra plains, the mighty Siberian Ob River can be seen flowing towards the Arctic Ocean.

The Ob is a two-horned river. It begins in the mountains with two large branches. The left river head – the Katun River – starts from the glacier at Beluha – Altai’s highest mountain. This rapid mountain river flows through narrow gorges rising in the summer due to an abundance of glacial melt-water and becoming shallow during other seasons. The Biya, Ob’s right arm, flows from the picturesque Teletskoye Lake which is referred to as Altai’s golden lake. Unlike the Katun, the Biya is a quiet river which is only sporadically obstructed by rifts and rapids.

Following the junction of its arms the Ob passes through the vast Western Siberian Lowland turning into a great full-flowing river whose width reaches several kilometres. The river flows into the Gulf of Ob and the lower Salekhard town. The length of the river is 3650 km.

The Ob has the biggest catchment basin compared to other Russian rivers. The basin area is almost one million square kilometres and it is no surprise given that the river collects its waters from Altai and Kuznetsky Alatau mountains, the eastern slopes of Ural, endless steppes of northern Kazakhstan and the plains of Western Siberian Lowland.

If you sail down the Ob from its origin and to the ocean, you can see the high mountains give way to low hills which turn into hilly steppes and forest steppes and then there is only taiga everywhere for thousands of kilometres which, in turn, yields to tundra – the only climate zone capable of tolerating the icy cold of the Arctic Ocean.

The river bears the name of the Upper Ob until the Tom flows into it. Barnaul – the major industrial city and the center of the Altay Territory – is situated at the Upper Ob. Fertile steppes, the Kulunda and the Baraba, are spread out to the left of the river until the Irtysh. Just recently it was a wild land but people ploughed the soil and turn the grassy desert into a cultivated area.

Near the mouth of the Inya River the biggest Siberian city, and a major scientific and cultural center, Novosibirsk stands on both banks of the Ob River. The part of the river enclosed between mouths of the Tom and the Irtysh is called the Middle Ob. It flows through the boggy Siberian taiga. The vast moors spreading along the river’s left side bear the name of Vasyuganye; the area between the Ob and the Yenisei is called the Narym Territory.

On its way to the ocean the Ob acts like a sponge that absorbs the water of the surrounding bogs. Occasionally, the high and steep edges of the plain (so-called “main land”) come close to the river. Following the fall of water, sandy beaches appear at the flat shores of the river; people call them “sands”.

From the mouth of the Irtysh the Lower Ob begins. The Irtysh is the biggest and most abundant of Ob’s tributary. It is considered as one of Russia’s great rivers – and not without reason: its length is more than 4,000 kilometers. Many legends exist about the river since ancient times. After having swallowed the Irtysh’s water the Ob becomes even wider and more powerful. From this point the river directs straight to the north and never changes this direction.

The taiga flanks the river banks. Fir-tree, cedar, larch-tree, birch, pine and aspen are the main tree species. Their wood is used for the manufacture of various goods. There are many bogs in the Narym Territory. The Vasyuganskoye bog, the biggest of them all, spreads across five hundred kilometers of Ob-Irtysh interfluve area. It is wrong to consider bogs as a wasteland. Their economic value is very big. Bogs are inexhaustible deposits of fuel and fertilizers. The exploitation of the bogs may well result in enormous benefits.

There are also major oil-fields in the Middle and Lower Ob: Samotlorskoye oil-field (Nizhnevartovsk) and Ust-Balykskoye oil-field (Nefteyugansk). The ancient Russian town of Surgut, founded as early as in 1593, is the place where the famous Surgut-Polotsk oil pipeline starts. It is approximately in the center of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District – the Berezovo village – that the Ob leaves the taiga and enters the tundra. The ever-frozen ground area results in a dramatic change of the landscape. The forests disappear and there is only dull boggy plain covered with dwarf shrubs.

Thus, flowing widely the Ob comes to Salekhard – the last city on its course. The city is an important river-port; there are always many boats, both Russian and foreign ones. The river’s estuary begins from the Big Yary Island. Here, the Ob divides into two arms and flows into the Gulf of Ob – the sea gulf that formed at the bottom of the plain.

The Ob freezes in winter and stays caught in the ice for 180-220 days depending on how cold the winter is. In spring the river breaks free from the ice at its upper course. The large masses of melted water and broken ice flow down the river and act as a battering ram, breaking and splitting motionless ice and moving it to the shores. Sometimes the so-called ice-jams are formed in the water-course. The chaotic masses of ice block the course. The river overflows its banks and floods the surrounding area. Sometimes there are catastrophic floods that bring much damage. In order to prevent such catastrophes the river bed is cleared by ice-breakers or with the help of explosives.

The Ob is a major water way of Western Siberia. Its tributaries penetrate deep into taiga areas where it is very hard to get to by land. An enormous amount of cargo and passengers is transported via the rivers of the Ob basin; much timber is transported down these rivers. trans siberian railway