Asia is the largest of the continents of the earth. It has a length, from the extreme south-western point of Arabia, at the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, to the extreme north-eastern point of Siberia - East Cape, or Cape Vostochni, in the Bering Strait of about 11040 km. and a breadth, from Cape Chelyuskin, in Northern Siberia, to Cape Romania, the southern extremity of the Malay Peninsula, of about 8480 km and an area of about a third of all the land of the earth's surface. On three sides, north, east, and south, the ocean forms its natural boundary, while in the west the frontier is marked mainly by the Ural Mountains, the Ural River, Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and the Red Sea. There is no proper separation between Asia and Europe, the latter being really a great peninsula of the former. Asia, though not so irregular in shape as Europe, is broken in the south by three great peninsulas, Arabia, Hindustan, and Farther India, while the east coast presents peninsular projections and islands, forming a series of sheltered seas and bays, the principal peninsulas being Kamtchatka and Korea. The principal islands are those forming the Malay or Asiatic Archipelago, which stretch round in a wide curve on the south-east of the continent. Besides the larger islands - Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Celebes, Mindanao, and Luzon (in the Philippine group) - there are countless smaller islands grouped round these. Other islands are Sri Lanka, in the south of India; the Japanese islands and Sakhalin on the east of the continent; Taiwan, south-east of China; Cyprus, south of Asia Minor; and New Siberia and Wrangell Land, in the Arctic Ocean.
The mountain systems of Asia are of great extent, and their culminating points are the highest in the world. The greatest of all is the Himalayan system, which lies mainly between longitude 70 degrees and 100 degrees east and latitude 28 degrees and 87 degrees north. It extends, roughly speaking, from north-west to south-east, its total length being about 2400 km, forming the northern barrier of Hindustan. The loftiest summits are Mount Everest, 8840 meters high, Godwin-Austen, 8725 and Kanchinjinga, 8582. The principal passes, which rise to the height of 5490 to 6100 meters, are the highest in the world. A second great mountain system of Central Asia, connected with the north-western extremity of the Himalayan system by the elevated region of Pamir is the Thian-Shan system, which runs north-eastward for a
distance of 1920 km. In this direction the Altai, Sayan, and other ranges continue the line of elevations to the north-eastern coast. A north-western continuation of the Himalayas is the Hindu Kush, and farther westward a connection may be traced between the Himalayan mass and the Elburz range, south of the Caspian, and thence to the mountains of Kurdistan, Armenia, and Asia Minor.
There are vast plateaux and elevated valley regions connected with the great central mountain systems, but large portions of the continent are low and flat. Tibet forms the most elevated table-land in Asia, its mean height being estimated at 4570 meters. On its south is the Himalayan range, while the Kuen-Lun range forms its northern barrier. Another great but much lower plateau is that which comprises Afghanistan, Beluchistan, and Iran, and which to the north-west joins into the plateau of Asia Minor. The principal plain of Asia is that of Siberia, which extends along the north of the continent and forms an immense alluvial tract sloping to the Arctic Ocean. Vast swamps or peat-mosses called tundras cover large portions of this region. South-west of Siberia, and stretching eastward from the Caspian, is a low-lying tract consisting to a great extent of steppes and deserts, and including in its area the Sea of Aral. In the east of China there is an alluvial plain of some 200,000 square miles in extent; in Hindustan are plains extending for 3200 km along the south slope of the Himalayas ; and between Arabia and Iran, watered by the Tigris and Euphrates, is the plain of Mesopotamia or Assyria, one of the richest in the world. Of the deserts of Asia the largest is that of Gobi, large portions of which are covered with nothing but sand or display a surface of bare rock. An almost continuous desert region may also be traced from the desert of North Africa through Arabia (which is largely occupied by bare deserts), Iran, and Beluchistan to the Indus.
Some of the largest rivers of Asia flow northward to the Arctic Ocean-the Obi, the Yenisei, and the Lena. The Hoang-Ho and Yang-tse, and the Amoor, are the chief of those which flow into the Pacific. The Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irawaddy, and Indus empty into the Indian Ocean. The Persian Gulf receives the united waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris. There are several systems of inland drainage, large rivers falling into lakes which have no outlet.
The largest lake of Asia (partly also European) is the Caspian Sea, which receives the Kur from the Caucasus (with its tributary the Aras from Armenia), and the Sefid Rud and other streams from Iran (besides the Volga from European Russia, and the Ural, which is partly European, partly Asiatic). The Caspian lies in the centre of a great depression, being 25 meters below the level of the Sea of Azof. East from the Caspian is the Sea of Aral, which, like the Caspian, has no outlet, and is fed by the rivers Amoo Daria (Oxus) and Syr Daria. Still farther east, to the north of the Thian-Shan Mountains, and fed by the Hi and other streams, is Lake Balkash, also without an outlet and very salt. Other lakes having no communication with the ocean are Lob Nor, in the desert of Gobi, receiving the river Tarim, and the Dead Sea, far below the level of the Mediterranean, and fed by the Jordan. The chief freshwater lake is Lake Baikal, in the south of Siberia, a mountain lake from which the Yenisei draws a portion of its waters.
Geologically speaking large areas of Asia are of comparatively recent date, the lowlands of Siberia, for instance, being submerged during the tertiary period, if not more recently. Many geologists believe that subsequently to the glacial period there was a great sea in Western Asia, of which the Caspian and Aral Seas are the remains. The desiccation of Central Asia is still going on, as is also probably the upheaval of a great part of the continent. The great mountain chains and elevated plateaux are of ancient origin, however, and in them granite and other crystalline rocks are largely represented. Active volcanoes are only met with in the extreme east (Kamtchatka) and in the Eastern Archipelago. From the remotest times Asia has been celebrated for its mineral wealth. In the Altai and Ural Mountains gold, iron, lead, and platinum are found; in India and other parts rubies, diamonds, and other gems are, or have been, procured; salt in Central Asia; coal in China, India, Central Asia, etc; petroleum in the districts about the Caspian and in Burma; oil in Arabia and Iran and Russia, bitumen in Syria; while silver, copper, sulphur, etc, are found in various parts.
Every variety of climate may be experienced in Asia, but as a whole it is marked by extremes of heat and cold and by great dryness, this in particular being the case with vast regions in the centre of the continent and distant from the sea. The great lowland region of Siberia has a short but very hot summer, and a long but intensely cold winter, the rivers'and their estuaries being fast bound with ice, and at a certain depth the soil is hard frozen all the year round. The northern part of China to the east of Central Asia has a temperate climate with a warm summer, and in the extreme north a severe winter. The districts lying to the south of the central region, comprising the Indian and Indo-Chinese peninsulas, Southern China, and the adjacent islands, present the characteristic climate and vegetation of the southern temperate and tropical regions modified by the effects of altitude. Some localities in South-eastern Asia have the heaviest rainfall anywhere known. As the equator is approached the extremes of temperature diminish till at the southern extremity of the continent they are such as may be experienced in any tropical country. Among climatic features are the monsoons of the Indian Ocean and the eastern seas, and the cyclones or typhoons, which are often very destructive.
The plants and animals of Northern and Western Asia generally resemble those of similar latitudes in Europe (which is really a prolongation of the Asiatic continent), differing more in species than in genera. The principal mountain trees are the pine, larch, and birch; the willow, alder, and poplar are found in lower grounds. In the central region European species reach as far as the Western and Central Himalayas, but are rare in the Eastern. They are here met by Chinese and Japanese forms. The lower slopes of the Himalayas are clothed almost exclusively with tropical forms. Higher up, between 1200 and 3000 meters, are found all the types of trees and plants that belong to the temperate zone, there being extensive forests of conifers. Here is the native home of the deodar cedar. The south-eastern region, including India, the Eastern Peninsula, and China, with the islands, contains a vast variety of plants useful to man and having here their original habitat, such as the sugar-cane, rice, cotton, and indigo, pepper, cinnamon, cassia, clove, nutmeg, and cardamoms, banana, cocoa-nut, areca and sago palms; the mango and many other fruits,
with plants producing a vast number of drugs, caoutchouc and gutta-percha. The forests of India and the Malay Peninsula contain oak, teak, sal, and other timber woods, besides bamboos, palms, sandal-wood, etc. The palmyra palm is characteristic of Southern India; while the talipot palm flourishes on the western coast of Hindustan, Sri Lanka, and the Malay Peninsula. The cultivated plants of India and China include wheat, barley, rice, maize, millet, sorghum, tea, coffee, indigo, cotton, jute, opium, tobacco, etc. In North China and the Japanese Islands large numbers of deciduous trees occur, such as oaks, maples, limes, walnuts, poplars and willows, the genera being European, but the individual species Asiatic. Among cultivated plants are traditionally wheat, and in favourable situations rice, cotton, the vine, etc. Coffee, rice, maize, etc, are extensively grown in some of the islands of the Asiatic Archipelago. In Arabia and the warmer valleys of Iran, Afghanistan, and Beluchistan, aromatic shrubs are abundant. Over large parts of these regions the date-palm flourishes and affords a valuable article of food. Gum-producing acacias are, with the date-palm, the commonest trees in Arabia. African forms are found extending from the Sahara along the desert region of Asia.
Nearly all the mammals of Europe occur in Northern Asia, with numerous additions to the species. Central Asia is the native land of the horse, the ass, the ox, the sheep, and the goat. Both varieties of the camel, the single and the double humped, are Asiatic. To the inhabitants of Tibet and the higher plateaux of the Himalayas the yak is what the reindeer is to the tribes of the Siberian plain, almost their sole wealth and support. The elephant, of a different species from that of Africa, is a native of tropical Asia. The Asiatic lion, which formerly inhabited Arabia, Iran, Asia Minor, Beluchistan, and some parts of India, is smaller than the African species and now found only in India. Bears are found in all parts, the white or polar bear in the far north, and other species in the more temperate and tropical parts. The tiger is the most characteristic of the larger Asiatic Carnivora. It formerly extended from Armenia across the entire continent, being absent, however, from the greater portion of Siberia and from the high table-land of Tibet; it extended also into Sumatra, Java, and Ball. In South-eastern Asia and the islands we find the rhinoceros, buffalo, ox, deer, squirrels,
In birds nearly every order is represented. Among the most interesting forms are the hornbills, the peacock, the Impey pheasant, the tragopan or horned pheasant, and other gallinaceous birds, the pheasant family being very characteristic of South-eastern Asia. It was from Asia that the common domestic fowl was introduced into Europe. The tropical parts of Asia abound in monkeys of which the species are numerous. Some are tailed, others are tailless, but none have prehensile tails like the American monkeys. In the Malay Archipelago marsupial animals, so characteristic of Australia, first occur in the Moluccas and Celebes, while various mammals common in the western part of the Archipelago are absent. A similar transition towards the Australian type takes place in the species of birds. Of marine mammals the dugong is peculiar to the Indian Ocean; in the Ganges is found a peculiar species of dolphin. At the head of the reptiles stands the Gangetic crocodile, frequenting the Ganges and other large rivers. Among the snakes are the cobra de capello, one of the most deadly snakes in existence; there are also large boas and pythons besides sea and freshwater snakes. The seas and rivers produce a great variety of fish. The Salmonidae are found in the rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean. Two rather remarkable fishes are the climbing perch and the archer-fish. The well-known goldfish is a native of China.
Asia is mainly peopled by races belonging to two great ethnographic types, the Caucasic or fair type, and the Mongolic or yellow. To the former belong the Aryan or Indo-European, and the Semitic races, both of which mainly inhabit the south-west of the continent; to the latter belong the Malays and Indo-Chinese in the south-east as well as the Mongolians proper (Chinese, etc), occupying nearly all the rest of the continent. To these may be added certain races of doubtful affinities, as the Dravidians of Southern India, the Cingalese of Sri Lanka, the Ainos of Yesso, and some negro-like tribes called Negritos, which inhabit Malacca and the interior of several of the islands of the Eastern Archipelago.
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