Are you ready for another installment in my occasional series on lowpoints? I am.
Everyone always focuses on the greatest of mountains and the highest of elevations. Lowpoints need a little love too, especially those below sea level, and the further down the better. I turned my attention to China, a nation that does not receive nearly as much 12MC coverage as it deserves, and to its Turpan (Turfan) Depression in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The deepest spot on the Turpan Depression descended an impressive 154 metres (505 feet) below sea level, which made it perhaps the second, third or fourth lowest point of land on earth depending on the source consulted.
“The Lowest Point on Chinese Land” by Kgbkgbkgb – Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The Chinese deserved credit for marking the spot rather distinctively. It might not be quite the tourist destination as Death Valley, however it seemed to have a lot more potential than Laguna del Carbón or Lac Assal. It is also located near a sizable city, Turpan, with more than a quarter of a million residents, and it’s already becoming an attraction for extreme sports.
Ancient city of Jiahoe by Farrukh, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
The Turpan Depression exhibited history in abundance as a site along the famous Silk Road’s northern route. Dynasties came and fell over a couple of millennia as they sought to control trade at this pivotal oasis that later became the city of Turpan: Tang, Uyghur, and Moghul all spent time here. The nearby ancient city of Jiaohe dated to the earliest of those times around the same basic period as the Roman Empire, only to be destroyed later by Genghis Khan.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the city of Jiaohe is nearly 2,300 years old. Jiaohe was of great military significance as it was located directly in the path which at the time safely and conveniently connected the Orient to the Occident. Geographically Jiaohe city is located near the nexus of the Flame Mountain and the Salt Mountain, through which was the only course for trade exchanges and military movement. On the other side of the pass ancient cavalries could reach an oasis in the Turpan Basin.
Clearly, this lowpoint of China has potential as a premier tourist attraction in the desert.
Flaming Mountains by momo, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license
It is truly a desert too, and hot.
Turpan is not only special for its low altitude, but also for its strange climate. In summer, the temperature can reach as high as 47°C (117°F), while on the surface of the sand dunes, it may well be 82°C (180°F). It is no exaggeration to say that you can bake a cake in the hot sand. The average annual rainfall is little more than ten millimeters; sometimes there is not a drop of rain for ten months at a stretch.
The extreme lowpoint of the Turpan Depression can be found at a location known as Ayding Lake or Aydingkol Lake.
View Larger Map
As one might suspect, a gouge in the earth created by shearing land masses during continental drift might serve as an excellent basin to catch water. Ayding Lake was indeed an impressive body of water into the early part of the 20th Century. Its name derived from the Uygur word for Moonlight, "gaining the name for the lake water as bright and beautiful as moonlight."
Today it might be described better as a cautionary tale or an ecological disaster. People siphoned the waters of Ayding Lake primarily for agriculture. Now instead of a large lake "…you won’t see moonlit water. What you can see is perhaps dried mud and salt beds."
My typing fingers grew a little rusty over the last couple of weeks. Those of you who follow 12MC on Twitter already knew that I was in Ireland because I posted a steady stream of photographs. What may have been less understood was that I wrote all Twelve Mile Circle articles ahead of time. That’s right, the blog was on autopilot for awhile although I was still able to approve comments, update the complete index map and attend to administrative tasks of that nature.
The next several articles will relate to my Irish adventures and shift towards a travelogue briefly rather than tackle the usual compendium of geo-oddities. Historically, those haven’t been the most viewed articles so I won’t take it personally if readers decide to skip a few until we get back to normal business. I like writing them and that’s what I’m going to do.
When one thinks of Ireland in a somewhat stereotypical sense, one often envisions medieval structures like castles, abbeys, and cathedrals of weathered stone in various states of decay. Maybe that’s just me. Nonetheless, that seemed like a good starting point for the series. My younger son wanted to see "lots of castles" and that’s what I fed him. I think even he was tired of walking through crumbling ruins by the time we left. I’ll focus on four ancient buildings in four different Irish counties that we visited.
This might be my favorite photograph from the trip except for maybe the puffin, although I’m getting ahead of myself.
Achill Island on the western coast of County Mayo appeared as a quiet, unspoiled landscape bypassed by the largest of the tourist hordes. Known more for its beaches and scenery, Achill had only one ancient fortification still standing, Granuaile’s Tower at Kildavnet (map). It had an impressive backstory.
The Tower at Kildavnet, in the south-east corner of Achill Island, is a perfect example of a 15th century Irish tower house. The Gaelic Chiefs of the time copied a Norman design and constructed many such tower houses. The tower at Kildavnet is thought to have been constructed by the Clan O’Malley in about 1429, but is associated locally with a descendant of the original builders, Grace O’Malley or Granuaile. This legendary pirate queen is thought to have been born around 1530 and died in about 1603.
The tower belonged to a woman of significant power and means known as the "The Pirate Queen of Connaught." Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley in its anglicized version) inherited the family business from her father. Some would characterize it a shipping enterprise while others might have noted elements of pirating. The lines were a little fuzzier back then. Nonetheless Granuaile established strongholds along the western Irish coast and this was one of the towers she used to protect and control her domain.
Ross Castle in Killarney (map) was another excellent example of an Irish tower house of the period. It dated probably to the 15th Century, originally built by the O’Donoghue clan, later owned by the Brownes of Killarney and finally served as a military barracks until the 19th Century.
Today it’s an often-visited part of Killarney National Park in County Kerry. Ross Castle sat conveniently along the famous "Ring of Kerry" tourist road so it’s evolved into a more-or-less obligatory stop for sightseers in one of the most heavily visited areas of Ireland. This was the only place where I saw signs in the car park warning people to remove valuables from their vehicles. This was also the only place where we had to be content with external views of the castle because tours were sold out. Still, if one is in Killarney, one should probably visit Ross Castle (if only to book a boat from there to visit Innisfallen Island, which I’ll talk about in a later episode).
Rock of Cashel
The Rock of Cashel was a real castle (map), not simply a tower house for pirates or lesser nobility. The imposing Rock of Cashel, Carraig Phádraig, served as the home of the Kings of Munster, in what is now County Tipperary.
It was here that St. Patrick converted the reigning king to Christianity in the 6th Century according to legend. A later king, Muirchertach Ua Briain, gave his mighty fortress to the Church around the year 1100. An imposing cathedral was added to the grounds in the 1200′s. The site fell into disrepair over several centuries although more recent restorations preserved what remained, and visitors are allowed to wander the grounds mostly unimpeded.
St. Canice’s Cathedral
I enjoyed St. Canice’s Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, in County Kilkenny (map). The church itself was remarkable although I’d recommend its Round Tower as something to be included on the itinerary too.
Round towers – a particularly Irish feature – were built at major religious sites as places of refuge for body and treasure, during the times of the Viking raids from the end of the 8th century. St Canice’s round tower offers a breathtaking 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside from its summit – hardly surprising since that was the other reason they were built. The presence of the round tower here is the clearest sign of the antiquity of St Canice’s as an important religious site. There is a reference that suggests a mid-9th century date for it, making it the oldest standing structure in the City.
The thought of climbing a 30 metre (100 ft.) tower that was 1,200 years old might seem unnerving to many visitors, and as a case in point my wife and older son decided to remain earthbound. It was up to my younger son and I to uphold the family honor and reach the summit. I won’t lie — it wasn’t for the faint of heart. The climb involved a succession of seven ladders leading to small wooden platforms in increasingly narrow spaces as the diameter of the tower tapered towards the top. This wouldn’t be enjoyable for those with claustrophobia, acrophobia, or irrational fears of old towers crumbling at any moment whatever phobia that might be named. Fortunately my son and I had none of those fears and we reaped a splendid bird’s eye view of surrounding Kilkenny.
My kids never did understand why I quietly muttered "You Bastards!" every time someone mentioned Kilkenny.
We visited a number of other medieval structures, too.
Some of these may be featured in later installments. Others may not. Feel free to check images I’ve posted on each of these places using the photo links provided.
The Ireland articles:
I’ve written about elevation lowpoints previously including Lake Assal (Africa), Lake Eyre (Australia) and Death Valley (North America). It’s been awhile since I wrote about one of those so it seemed like a good opportunity to turn my attention to South America. I don’t provide as much content about that area as I should, probably because the best sources are in Spanish or Portuguese and translation software only goes so far.
The lowest elevation in South America is Laguna del Carbón within the Gran Bajo de San Julián, in Argentina at -105 metres (-345 feet). This elevation is repeated in numerous reputable sources including the CIA World Factbook so it seemed to be accurate. As stated in Geology.com for example,
San Julian’s Great Depression is located in southeastern Argentina. It is the lowest land location in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres. The deepest part is Laguna del Carbón, at approximately 105 meters below sea level.
Laguna del Carbón easily outpaced California’s Death Valley which registered at -86 metres (-282 feet), making the site in Argentina the lowest of the Americas. Yet, few people know about it and fewer people ever visit it.
Laguna del Carbón, Argentina
There didn’t appear to be much of anything at the lowpoint except for an intermittent salt lake at the bottom of a large endorheic basin, in Argentina’s arid Patagonia. It was so unvisited that I could not find a single image with a creative commons license to embed and share within this page.
Gran Bajo de San Julián
Argentina’s Province of Santa Cruz is its southernmost mainland province (only Tierra del Fuego sits farther south) and cuts across the width of the nation. The province’s official website included a Relief & Hydrography page, which described its general layout and included a nice elevation comparison map:
The territory has two well-defined zones: the Andean one, to the west, and the plateaus in the centre and the east. The Chico River is born in the plateau called "the Plateau of death", it flanks the central plateau from the south, branching out in various arms, and flows into an estuary in which the Santa Cruz River also flows.
Plateau of death. It didn’t sound inviting.
A depression formed on the plateau between the Chico River and the Atlantic Ocean, the Gran Bajo de San Julián. One can appreciate the depth and the suddenness of the depression from this random video I found on YouTube. One can also hear the howling wind of an empty, treeless expanse.
Exploring Laguna del Carbón
A tourism industry did not develop around Laguna del Carbón as it did around Death Valley. It remained private property and cannot be visited without permission. Nonetheless a few hearty explorers made the trek and shared their stories on the Intertubes.
South American Explorers posted all back issues of its magazine on its website including Issue 38 (September 1994). It contained the article "Exploring the Gran Bajo de San Julian" In the article, the author noted that the designation of Laguna del Carbón as the lowest point of elevation in the Americas had been fairly recent. The identification of Laguna del Carbón dethroned Death Valley, which was considered to be the lowest point of the Americas up until then. I didn’t find the year that official measurement happened although it would have been well into the second half of the Twentieth Century more than likely. Perhaps that was why the site remained closed to general tourism. Nobody thought it was special until recently.
A site called 7 Lows, dedicated to the noble pursuit of visiting the lowpoints on each of the seven continents, featured Laguna del Carbón even more recently.
There is no major logistical problem getting to the general region where Laguna del Carbón is. The nearest major airport is located at Río Gallegos which is about a 3 to 4 hour drive away. There are several commercial flights each day including flights from Buenos Aires. Laguna del Carbón is located on private land and the biggest logistical problem is obtaining permission to visit.
The trip report and photos included on that site are well worth checking out. Certainly people will travel out of their way to visit the spot. Maybe the economics will allow easier access and perhaps even a small tourism industry to blossom nearby someday.