Physical Geography

The Asian landmass stretches from the Equator to far above the Arctic Circle. It reaches almost halfway around the globe (about 165 degrees of longitude) from Asia Minor on the Mediterranean Sea to the eastern tip of Siberia on the Bering Strait.

Numerous arms of the Indian, Pacific, and Arctic oceans reach far inland, creating great peninsulas. On the Indian Ocean are the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Bordering waters include the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Bay of Bengal. In the southeast, between the Andaman and South China seas, are the Malay and Indochinese peninsulas. Kamchatka and Korea are the principal peninsulas in northeastern Asia; Korea lies between the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, and the Kamchatka Peninsula between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea. Other large peninsulas are the Taimyr Peninsula, in the Arctic Ocean, and Asia Minor, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Great island groups fringe much of the continent, particularly on the south and east. The largest is occupied mainly by Indonesia. Other islands or groups of islands that form countries include the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka.


In the great interior highlands of the Asian landmass, towering mountains enclose large plateaus and basins. The highest range is that of the Himalayas. Here is 29,028-foot (8,848-m) Mount Everest, the world's loftiest peak. The Pamirs, situated where the borders of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China meet, form another great highland area. Converging here are such ranges as the Karakoram, which runs along the China-India boundary; the Hindu Kush, principally in Afghanistan; the Kunlun Mountains of western China; and the Tien Shan, shared by China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

Of the interior plateaus enclosed by the ranges, the largest and highest is the Plateau of Tibet, north of the Himalayas. Between the Kunlun Mountains and the Tien Shan lies the vast Tarim Basin, most of which is occupied by the Taklimakan Desert. Here, too, is the Turpan Depression, an area below sea level and flanked by high mountains.

Southwest Asia, sometimes called the Middle East, is largely an arid region of mountains, plateaus, and deserts. The high, dry Plateau of Iran is rimmed on the west by the Zagros Mountains and on the north by the Elburz Mountains. Between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea rise the ranges of the Caucasus Mountains.

The mountains of the south Asian peninsulas are lower than those of the interior. Along the Indian coasts are the Western and Eastern Ghats; both ranges are edges of the Deccan Plateau. Long, curving mountain ranges extend through Indochina, the Malay Peninsula, and the principal islands of Indonesia.

Much of China is hilly or mountainous and threaded by numerous river valleys. The most extensive flatlands are the Manchurian and North China plains. Toward China's northwest, the land rises to the high Mongolian Plateau, much of which is occupied by the desert wastes of the Gobi.

Asia's largest lowland is that of western Siberia. This vast flatland extends southward through the steppes and deserts of Central Asia, ending in the deserts of Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum. Plateaus cover most of central Siberia. There are numerous mountain ranges, including the Cherskiy, Sikhote Alin, and Yablonovyy, in eastern Siberia. Among the mountains of the Kamchatka Peninsula are a number of active volcanoes.


In Asia's high interior are the headwaters of some of the world's principal rivers. Flowing north to the Arctic Ocean and draining Siberia are the great systems of the Ob, Yenisey, and Lena rivers. Tributaries include the Irtysh, Angara, Lower Tunguska, and Aldan. The Amur is the largest of the Siberian rivers that flow into the Pacific. Throughout most of Central Asia, there is no drainage to the sea; the streams either dry up or end in salty lakes and marshes.

In China, Indochina, and India flow many of the continent's most used and valuable rivers, notably the Huang He, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, and Ganges-Brahmaputra. Their broad valleys, flood-plains, and deltas have extremely productive soils and are highly cultivated and densely populated. The irrigated parts of the Indus Valley of Pakistan also support a large population.

Dry southwestern Asia has few large rivers. Most important are the Tigris and Euphrates. No river on the Arabian Peninsula flows the year round.

The world's largest lake is the Caspian Sea. Its area is about one and a half times that of all five Great Lakes combined. East of the Caspian are two shallow, salty lakes—Lake Balkhash and the Aral Sea, sixth-largest lake in the world. Lake Baykal, in south-central Siberia, is more than one mile (1,600 m) deep—the world's deepest body of inland water. In this lake are many kinds of plants and animals found nowhere else.

For cross reference lists of specific physical features, see the cross references following the articles on individual Asian countries. See also the subtitle Physical Features or Physical Geography in these articles.