Kazakhstan is a huge country, the 9th largest in the world and as big as Western Europe. This vast territory was ruled by nomadic tribes until the middle of the 19th century, when it was incorporated within the Russian Empire, later becoming a part of the Soviet Union. Following independence in 1991, Kazakh remains the official language, although Russian is commonly used for everyday communication. Much of Kazakhstan is dry 'steppe' or grassland, with 'Siberian' forest in the north and Central Asian desert and oases in the south. The capital Astana is in the north of the country, while the largest city is Almaty in the south-east. Almaty is the gateway to the Tien Shan Mountains, a region that includes lots of opportunities for trekking and for superb mountain biking, in sight of such dramatic peaks as Khan Tengri (7010m / 22,999ft) and Peak Pobeda (7439m / 24,406ft). The Tien Shan is one of the greatest ranges on earth, with the most northerly of all 7000 metre peaks.