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.
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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."
I couldn’t change my personality quirks even though I changed my location. In fact, a few peculiarities rooted in my mild compulsion to count and collect seemed to be enhanced in this kind of situation. I searched earnestly for attractions aligning with those interests and pursued a means to incorporate them into the larger itinerary. They didn’t dominate the trip, however they always lurked below the surface.
Several lists grew.
Valentia Island Ferry
The Valentia Island Ferry (map) represented a couple of new achievements for me. It was my first international car ferry ride and the first time I’ve entered a ferry while driving on the left side of the road.
I love ferries and I enjoyed the brief 800 metre ride from Knightstown on Valentia Island to Renard Point, Cahersiveen on the mainland. I wondered about its true purpose, though. A bridge at the other end of Valentia Island connected it to the mainland at Portmagee. My rough calculation demonstrated that this seaborne route saved maybe 24 kilometres at the most optimistic end of the spectrum, only for the two hundred residents of Knightstown. Everyone else saved less. That didn’t seem cost effective.
The explanation dawned on me as I reviewed the ferry’s Facebook page. It ceased operations during the colder months, roughly October through March. Thus, the ferry didn’t exist solely for Island residents although it certainly added a level of convenience. Rather, it served more as a means of bleeding tourists away from the Ring of Kerry and onto Valentia Island where they would hopefully stay at a local Bed and Breakfast, stop at a pub, or stroll along the strand of shops in Knightstown, leaving a stream of Euros behind in their wake. Well done, Valentia Island.
I added another ferry to my Personal Ferry Travelogues.
I’d consider my waterfall list to be somewhat less compulsive than other things I track. I won’t seek them out exclusively, although I’ll gladly stop if one happens to be nearby and doesn’t involve a hassle. Torc Waterfall met those parameters perfectly. I could access it from a car park set directly along the Ring of Kerry in Killarney National Park, then take an easy walk lightly uphill for about 300 metres (map). We snagged the only available parking spot in the small lot during the height of Summer tourist season. It felt like it must have been preordained.
A healthy stream cascaded 20 metres down several ledges to the base of Torc Mountain. We paused for awhile to ponder its majesty and then took a path to the top of the waterfall for a little extra perspective. Then we returned to the car park and walked across the road to the jaunting car stand. We hired a driver to guide us through the grounds of Muckross House in a horse-drawn carriage. That was a great way to finish the afternoon.
The Waterfall Collection increased by one.
Longtime 12MC readers already guessed that I’d focus some love and attention on breweries and brewpubs, however there weren’t as many of those available in Ireland as one might expect. The microbrewery concept seemed to be getting a decent foothold, although it remained years behind what I’ve experienced elsewhere. Dingle Brewing fell directly on our path and we stopped for a self-guided tour of their small facility in a former creamery building (map). Dingle Brewing produced only a single beer as of our visit, Tom Crean’s lager, and we enjoyed a pint at their outdoor biergarten.
The Smithwick’s brand originated at the St. Francis Abbey Brewery in Kilkenny (map), although it’s part of a brewery conglomerate today and is made elsewhere too. Brewery tours were suspended during our visit because of renovations — as I’d learned ahead of time when conducting my research — so we hadn’t gone out of our way and nobody felt disappointed. The brewery walk-by happened coincidentally while we strolled between Kilkenny Castle and St. Canice’s Cathedral. It didn’t "count" as a brewery visit although I can never resist taking a photograph of anything breweriana.
I also sampled several beers in traditional pub settings, such as these pints of cask ale from West Kerry Brewing.
Someone will probably ask so I’ll go ahead and answer preemptively: No, I didn’t visit the Guinness brewery. First, actually foremost, I don’t like crowds and we drove away from Dublin as soon as the plane landed. That made it impossible to visit Guinness. Second, I’m not a fan of doing what everyone else does just because everyone else does it. I didn’t visit Guinness, I never got near the Blarney Stone and I approached the Ring of Kerry on my own terms. That’s how I do things. I keep away from crowds and I count stuff.
My brewery visits increased by one, plus a near miss and some nice tries.
Maybe only my lighthouse list didn’t grow. I had some candidates in mind and the scheduling never seemed to work out. Overall I think I scored well on my various lists, though.
The Ireland articles:
I enjoy boat rides. Ireland is surrounded by water. Is it surprising that I found myself cruising over the waves? No of course not, although I didn’t expect it to happen four times during my trip even if a couple of those were fleeting encounters.
12MC’s brief video from the Skellig Islands
Skellig Michael ranked high on my list of priorities as I planned the trip. A skellig is rock, in this instance the Rock of Michael, mirroring the Irish language Sceilig Mhichíl. Skellig Michael and its sister Little Skellig jutted sharply from the Atlantic Ocean a dozen kilometres from the Iveragh Peninsula (map). While just a stone’s throw from the famous Ring of Kerry and its tourist busloads, Skellig Michael stood a world apart in approachability and was equally difficult to conquer.
Irish authorities severely limited access to this fragile UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only small boats could dock at Skellig Michael and only a handful of licenses were awarded each year to charter operators working primarily from Portmagee. This limited visitors to about 150 people per day give-or-take, and only in the summer months when ocean swells calmed sufficiently. Even that could be a crapshoot. We had to reschedule our original reservation after all five sailing days leading up to it were canceled due to high waves. The island caretakers wouldn’t let boats land there in perceptively dangerous conditions.
So why would anyone want to go to Skellig Michael? Lousy weather, seasickness, expense and inconvenience were all possibilities. These were all offset by the actual experience. The difficulty of the journey only enhanced the rewards.
The two Skelligs, out by themselves and surrounded by water, attracted huge colonies of birds. These included about ten thousand Atlantic Puffins on Skellig Michael, and I think many people would agree that puffins are about the cutest birds that exist. They’re like the pandas of the avian world. They also seemed to lack all fear of human visitors. We got as close to puffins on Skellig Michael as we would to pigeons in a park, and they were everywhere. Our kids loved them. I wouldn’t have ridden an hour on a cabin cruiser through an intermittent drizzle to a rocky shard simply for a few birds, though. They were a bonus.
The main attraction was the ancient monastery built high atop Skellig Michael around the 6th Century. The monks who settled here were sometimes called "white martyrs" because of their lives of suffering, deprivation and absolute devotion to their Christian faith, albeit without bloodshed. This must have felt like the most isolated place on earth 1,500 years ago.
We climbed the steep unprotected steps carved into the mountainside centuries ago, several hundred feet up to the monastery, as the horizon disappeared into clouds. It seemed otherworldly as we explored in a thick fog through beehive huts constructed by those early monks as crude shelter. I thought to myself as we walked along, that it seemed like a setting out of Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings. I’ve since learned that this will likely be a filming location for Star Wars: Episode VII. It’s a good thing we visited Skellig Michael when we did. Reservations will become a lot more difficult once the secret gets out and Star Wars fans put it on the pilgrimage list.
The Seafari cruise out of Kenmare became our consolation prize on the day we planned to visit Skellig Michael originally and had to postpone it due to the weather. The waves were much calmer in protected Kenmare Bay (map) than the open Atlantic so we diverted to Kenmare that morning to see the Harbor Seals instead of Portmagee to see the puffins. It’s good to be flexible.
The ship’s captain explained that a gloomy day actually worked to our advantage. Sudden movements spooked seals, and sunny days created shadows they detected as motions. More seals should be sitting out on the rocks when cloudy. I wasn’t sure if that was something like rain supposedly being "good luck" on a wedding day — designed to make someone feel better — or whether there was truth behind his statement. Either way, we saw plenty of seals including a few tiny pups that resided with their parents only for a brief period each Summer before striking out on their own.
We kept returning to a recurring theme during our journey: how to separate ourselves from larger crowds in popular tourist destinations. Case in point, several sites in Killarney National Park just outside of the town of Killarney all drew healthy gatherings. However, Innisfallen Island (map) in the middle of the park’s Lough Leane, did not. That required a boat and most people did not want to go through the effort.
I think large excursion boats went to Innisfallen at certain times of the day although none were there when we visited. Instead, we hired a boatsman to ferry us from the concession stand at nearby Ross Castle to the middle of the lake. There we climbed through the ruins of Innisfallen Abbey, founded originally in 640 and lasting through 1594. There were only two other people on the island during our brief layover, and then we got a guided tour around the lake afterwards to boot.
Valentia Island Ferry
Our fourth journey across water involved the Valentia Island Ferry (map). I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming article so I’ll just mention it for now.
Comment spam seems to have returned to the Twelve Mile Circle. It took a nosedive a few months ago after Google started penalizing link-back schemes in its page-rank algorithms. The spammers have responded by linking back to YouTube and Yahoo Answers pages instead, and I’ve noticed a steady upswing in those tactics. Of course, I moderate every comment on 12MC and I delete spam before readers ever see it. It’s interesting to watch the cat-and-mouse games from my little corner of the world.
The Ireland articles: