Rock Cut, Part 2

On May 11, 2016 · 2 Comments

I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I stumbled across the existence of an entire genre of structural design known as Rock Cut Architecture, described in the previous article. I could hardly contain my glee although there was still a lot of work to be done. There were so many examples from widely varied parts of the world that I couldn’t fit them all into a single article. That made this follow-on post necessary, with additional illustrations from several more nations.

Ellora Caves, India


Great Kailasa From Above
Great Kailasa From Above by Craig Moe on Flickr (cc)

India became such an epicenter for buildings and rooms carved from stone that it had its own distinct subcategory, Indian Rock Cut Architecture. It wasn’t just one culture or religion either. Followers of several beliefs and faiths practiced and perfected this art. These structures rose in numerous places. One of the best was the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

These 34 monasteries and temples, extending over more than 2 km, were dug side by side in the wall of a high basalt cliff, not far from Aurangabad, in Maharashtra. Ellora, with its uninterrupted sequence of monuments dating from A.D. 600 to 1000, brings the civilization of ancient India to life. Not only is the Ellora complex a unique artistic creation and a technological exploit but, with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India.

A Hindu Structure known as Cave 16 or the Kailasa temple (map) was particularly impressive. This massive structure unfolded on multiple levels, so large and complex that it had to be carved from the top down. It dated to the reign of Krishna I in the Eight Century.


Yungang Grottoes, China


Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes by Olga on Flickr (cc)

Sites featuring rock cut architecture in India were often called Caves by English speakers, and in China they were Grottoes. I didn’t know why. I simply observed that China placed a close second to India in terms of rock cut prevalence and impressiveness. There were several expansive sites, notably the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi Province (map). These were Buddhist structures from the Fifth and Sixth Centuries. Buddhism moved north from India as did a penchant for rock cut architecture. At Yungang, devotees carved more than 250 openings and 50,000 statues into the Wuzhou Shan mountains, "a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art."


Vardzia Monastery, Georgia


Vardzia
Vardzia by Tony Bowden on Flickr (cc)

Vardzia in Georgia (map) represented an instance of carving into stone for protection as much using it as a convenient building material.

In desperate circumstances people are often driven to perform feats of mythical proportions. In the late 1100s the medieval kingdom of Georgia was resisting the onslaught of the Mongol hordes, the most devastating force Europe had ever seen. Queen Tamar ordered the construction of this underground sanctuary in 1185, and the digging began, carving into the side of the Erusheli mountain, located in the south of the country near the town of Aspindza.

Once completed, the Vardzia Monastery contained multiple levels and thousands of rooms, stretching over a half kilometre of mountainside. Invaders weren’t a problem although natural forces took a heavy toll. An earthquake caused many of the cells to collapse after only a century.


Coober Pedy, Australia


Underground House at Coober Pedy
Underground House at Coober Pedy by Matthew Klein on Flickr (cc)

The popularity of rock-cut architecture faded many centuries ago. The technique was incredibly labor intensive. In the meantime, other building techniques and materials continued to improve. Nonetheless, this distinctive style survive into the modern era although generally during unusual circumstances such as those found at Coober Pedy in South Australia (map).

Coober Pedy was one of those places that probably had no reason to exist except that it happened to sit atop enough gemstones to crown itself "Opal Capital of the World." Otherwise it was a harsh desert climate not particularly conducive to civilization. For one, there weren’t any local material available to build anything to shelter those who mined for opals. However, the surrounding bedrock was perfect for digging into so local inhabitants did just that and created what were known as dugouts. People simply carved into hillsides.

The early Coober Pedy dugouts were indeed the holes that had been dug in search for opal. Today opal mining in the town area of Coober Pedy is not allowed any more. But hey, you can always renovate or expand, Need another shelf? Dig a hole in the wall. Shelf not big enough for the new stereo? Dig a bit deeper. A walk in robe? Dig a big hole. Another bed room? Not a problem! And always the off chance of finding some opal… In reality nobody digs by hand any more. Any new building work is done by modern tunneling machines.

Many homes and businesses in the area were created as dugouts, as were two churches, one Catholic and the other Serbian Orthodox. Residents of these structures also benefited from a constant comfortable temperature. Whether the desert at the surface hit scorching hot or freezing cold, it always remained nice underground. Rock cut architecture might not be an optimal choice in most places today although it seemed to be a great solution for Coober Pedy.

The Only One, Part 2

On November 22, 2015 · 4 Comments

If it were Only One, how could there be a Part Two? I discarded that paradox and decided to plow forward. The premise, to recap, was rather simple. I typed the exact phrase "The only one in [name of a country]" into various Internet search engines and observed the results. Part 2 focused on a set of major countries that would be large enough to generate interesting superlatives even though they had smaller Twelve Mile Circle audiences than the previous exercise. I also confronted the distinct possibility that the chosen topic interested me more than other 12MC readers judging by reactions to my previous effort that reminded me of crickets chirping. That never stopped me before so I ignored obvious signs and continued with my little game.

The only wildlife sanctuary designated specifically for the only ape native to India


Hoolock gibbon
Hoolock gibbon by michael bamford on Flickr (cc)

Only one ape (superfamily Hominoidea) inhabited India natively, the Hoolock Gibbon. Well, except for 1.25 billion humans I supposed, although I set that little inconvenience aside and focused on the gibbons anyway. Hoolock gibbons ranged from northeast India into nearby neighboring areas of Bangladesh and China. They hadn’t fared particularly well recently due to deforestation and general loss of habitat. The World Wildlife Fund noted that "populations of western hoolock gibbons have declined by almost 90% over the last 30 years, and it is now considered to be one of the most endangered 25 primate species in the world." The Indian government created the Hoollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Jorhat district as part of an effort the protect the species as well as other rare primates located within a 21 square kilometre (8 square mile) domain (map).

Hoollongapar Sanctuary contains India’s only ape family – the Hoolock Gibbon, numbering about 106. Other primates in the sanctuary include the Stump-tailed Macaque (Henduri Bandor in Assamese) which are some 233 in number, the Pig-tailed Macaque which are left with a population of 75 only, the Capped Langur with just 162, 174 Rhesus Macaques, and the Slow Loris (Lajuki Bandor) whose estimation is yet to be made.

The numbers didn’t look promising although maybe this could be an important step in preserving the species.


The only French settlement in New Zealand


French Origins
French Origins by Michael on Flickr (cc)

I hadn’t realized that France coveted the islands that became New Zealand although I probably shouldn’t have been surprised given that every European power sought to colonize every far-flung corner of the world during that period. The French sent ships to the South Island to establish a whaling station in 1840 at Akaroa. However the English had already claimed the area a year earlier so that created a bit of a problem for French territorial aspirations. The British dispatched their ship the Britomart to Akaroa to confirm their sovereignty while the French continued to occupy their whaling port. Oddly enough the two managed to coexist peacefully. Over time French settlers began to acculturate to British rule and became fully absorbed within the local English populace. Few remnants of the French settlement remained although it certainly left its mark on local street names (map), many of which are still in the French language.


The only place in Russia with geysers


Kamchatka 2010 084
Kamchatka 2010 084 by Einar Fredriksen on Flickr (cc)

I wasn’t sure what impressed me more, that the Valley of Geysers on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula were the only significant geysers in Eurasia or that they weren’t discovered until 1941. The area was so remote that this spectacular geological formation escaped notice until recent times. Even then, they weren’t fully explored until the 1970’s and opened to foreign visitors only in the 1990’s. Tourists hoping to experience the hundred-or-so remaining geysers needed to arrive by helicopter.

Kikhpinych, a quite active stratovolcano, generated tremendous heat that fed geothermal waters pushing from cracks in the ground (map). This dynamic nature continued to scar the landscape, creating a large landslide in 2007 that covered about half of the original geysers. Another landslide happened in 2014. Scientists and tourists continued to flock to the valley in spite of possible dangers.


The only tea museum in China


Entrance to Tea Museum
Entrance to Tea Museum by Clyde Bentley on Flickr (cc)

With the well-worn cliché "all the tea in China" could it be possible that there was only one tea museum in China? Apparently that was the case and it was located in Hangzhou in the Zhejiang province (map). The China National Tea Museum featured an interesting construction technique with open walled buildings commingling with natural flora of the surrounding countryside. Visitors could walk fluidly amongst several open structures while appreciating the history, culture, varietals, production and preparation of tea. Around them grew rows of Longjing (Dragon Well) tea plants, one of the most well-regarded of Chinese green teas.


The only natural arch with flowing river in France


Pont d'Arc
Pont d'Arc by Brian Smithson on Flickr (cc)

Only one place in France had a natural stone arch formed by a river, with the river still flowing through it. This was the magnificent Pont d’Arc above the Ardèche River, a tributary of the Rhône in southern France (map). The natural beauty of the area attracted numerous tourists, many of whom chose to canoe or kayak along gently flowing waters through the 30 km (19 mi) Ardèche Gorges. The river cut deeply through surrounding limestone, with the highlight being Pont d’Arc where it bored a tunnel directly through rock.

Turpan Depression

On August 10, 2014 · 2 Comments

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.jpg
The Lowest Point on Chinese Land” by KgbkgbkgbOwn 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
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
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."

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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