Oymyakon is a small village located in the north-eastern Russian Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). It is commonly considered the coldest populated place on Earth. Situated in the heart of Siberia an area nicknamed “Stalin’s Death Ring” (a former destination for political exiles), Oymyakon boasts an average winter temperature of -45C, with a one-time world record low of -71.2C. Ironically, Oymyakon means “non-freezing water”, situated as it is to a nearby hot spring. Before the 1920s and 30s, Oymyakon was a seasonal stop for reindeer herders. But the Soviet government, in its efforts to settle nomadic populations, claiming they were difficult to control and technologically and culturally backward, made the site a permanent settlement.
Today, the village is home to some 500 people, and until recently had a single hotel with no hot water and outside toilet. While a flurry of snow in Western Europe can cause schools there to close for days, Oymyakon’s solitary school shuts only when temperatures fall below –52C. Most homes in Oymyakon still burn coal and wood for heat and enjoy few modern conveniences. There is no mobile coverage in Oymyakon and even if did, it would be unusable as most electronics stop working in freezing temperatures.
Fur is considered a luxury in the West but it is the only thing that keeps you warm. Nothing grows here so all people eat is reindeer and horsemeat. There is a short summer season during which people can grow things, but for the most part people don’t eat fruit or vegetables. Medics say the reason they don’t suffer from malnutrition is that there must be lots of micronutrients in their animals’ milk. A single shop provides the town’s provisions and with jobs in short supply most locals resort to reindeer-breeding, hunting and ice-fishing for their livelihoods.
Life in Oymyakon is tough. Pen ink freezes. Batteries lose power faster. Metal sticks to skin. Cars cannot be started without lighting a bonfire beneath the fuel tank. Axle grease also freezes and is warmed with a blowtorch. The local power station burns coal to keep hot water flowing to the homes. When coal deliveries are irregular the power station starts burning wood. If the power ceases, the town shuts down in about five hours, and the pipes freeze and crack.
Another problem posed by frigid temperature is burying of dead bodies. It takes two or three days to dig a grave in frozen ground. To dig a grave, a bonfire is lit for a couple of hours, which allows the ground to thaw a little. The hot coals are then pushed to the side and a hole couple of inches deep is dug. The process is repeated for several days until the hole is deep enough to bury the coffin. There is not much to do in Oymyakon, but that doesn’t stop travel companies from offering tours to the village in the middle of winter. Tourists make the journey simply to experience what it’s like to be in a place that cold. In addition, they are often taken on tours of local farms and museums and get to experience ice fishing. And there’s always an opportunity to take a dip in Oymyakon’s hot spring when the air temperature is in the minus-fifties Celsius.
Dongyang is a Chinese city in the center of Zhejiang Province, about 200 kilometers south of Hangzhou, reputed for producing some of the most elegant woodcarvings in the world. This ancient art goes back by more than 1,300 years at the time of the Tang Dynasty. In the Song Dynasty, it became highly developed as an art, and reached its peak in the period of Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty. Dongyang woodcarving is characterized by high relief, multi-layers, and a rich composition of pictures, presenting the third dimension. The carvings often told stories from history and Chinese literary classics and poems, others reflected local customs.
Examples of Dongyang’s magnificent woodcarvings can be found throughout the imperial palaces in Beijing, Suzhou City, Hangzhou City and Anhui Province. During the reign of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong in the 1700s, hundreds of craftsmen came to the capital of Beijing to decorate the palaces and carve the lanterns. Those woodcarving articles are present to this date in the Imperial Palace in Beijing.
Modern architecture has almost uprooted this centuries old tradition. Many skillful carvers gave up the career and the craft was reduced to the making of souvenirs and decorative pieces. Dongyang woodcarving is still used, but only to decorate houses and furniture with realistic depictions of galloping horses, cranes, lotus flowers and human figures.
Stone Columns Along Crowley Lake
After California’s Crowley Lake reservoir on the upper Owens River in southern Mono County was completed in 1941, strange column-like formations were spotted along the reservoir’s eastern shore. These stone columns rose up to 20 feet tall, were ringed at intervals of one feet and were connected by high arches like an ancient Moorish temple. For millions of years these pillars were completely covered by soft rock and hidden from view, and would have remained so, if not for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Once the reservoir was created, the incessant pummeling of the lake’s powerful waves eroded the more malleable rock at the base of the cliffs encasing these pillars, exposing them to the world. Even then, the columns were regarded as little more than curiosities until very recently in 2015, when geologists at the University of California, Berkeley, decided to conduct serious studies.
Using a slew of different methods and equipment, including X-ray analysis and electronic microscopes, geologists determined that the columns were created by frigid water from melting snow seeping down into hot volcanic ash that was spewed by a cataclysmic explosion 760,000 years ago. The details are a bit sketchy, but the researchers said that as the water boiled, it created evenly spaced convection cells similar to heat pipes. These convection pipes were literally bonded into place by minerals that were able to resist the corrosive force of the lake’s waves.
Researchers estimate that there may be nearly 5,000 of these pillars, which appear in groups and vary widely in shape, size and color over an area of 4000 acres, with some of the columns standing as erect as towering pylons and sporting ringed apertures approximately a foot apart. Others are bent or leaning at various angles, while some are still half-submerged and is said to look like fossils to an untrained eye.
The Sculpted Hedges of Schönbrunn Palace
The Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, is one of Europe’s most impressive Baroque palaces and an important architectural, cultural and historical monuments in the country. The palace was the former residence of the Hapsburg emperors from the 18th to 19th century. The grounds originally had a small hunting lodge and later a summer residence of the Habsburg family, but during the last Turkish attack in 1683, the house was totally destroyed. It was rebuilt and remodelled in the 1740s and 50s during the reign of empress Maria Theresa who received the estate as a wedding gift. During construction work the project was expanded into an Imperial summer residence of the court, and an impressive baroque garden was laid around the palace. The baroque gardens were intended to be an impressive symbol of imperial power, and were often seen as an external continuation of the magnificent interiors of the palace.
The largest area behind the façade of the palace facing the gardens was occupied by the Great Parterre consisting of symmetrical beds made of boxwood hedges on colored gravel arranged in intricate patterns taken mainly from embroidery motifs, a style known as parterre de broderie. To either side of the parterre were ornamental boskets boskets of severely clipped walls of trees and topiary hedges forming passageways, small openings and hidden enclosures.
The hedges and avenues of trees were planted around 1750 and have a total length of over 30 km. They are trimmed each year using specially constructed frames that allow gardeners to reach the top of the trees. Until a few decades ago, the frame was pulled by horses. Today, they are pulled by tractors or electric vehicles, and the gardeners work with electric hedge trimmers. The job takes 7 months to complete.
Schönbrunn Palace is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the top tourist attractions in Vienna.
The Booming Ice Chasm of The Canadian Rockies
Booming Ice Chasm is a stunning ice cave in the Crowsnest Pass area of the Canadian Rockies in Alberta. The cave is so called for it’s incredible acoustics. It is said that as rocks tumble down and crash to the cave floor, 140 meters below, it causes booming echoes. The cave is located about 700 meters up the side of a mountain with its entrance tucked behind a rocky ledge and nearly impossible to see. No wonder it remained undiscovered until 2005 when spelunker Chas Yonge first spotted the chasm as a mysterious dark spot on Google Earth.
Booming Ice Chasm is what’s known as a “cold-trap” cave, where cold air enters the cave and sinks to the bottom displacing any warmer air which rises and exits the cave. The cold dense air is never able to escape keeping the cave frozen all year round.
The entrance to Booming Ice Chasm is a gaping hole in the side of the mountain, several meters across. It slopes downward, lined with loose stones and snow that gives way to a sheer ice slope, dropping some 200 meters. This natural icy slide is extremely treacherous as anything dropped here shoots down the steep slope to the bottom of the cave at fatal speeds.
Because of the booming echoes, conversing inside the cave is difficult as each word sets off a series of echoes that makes sentences unintelligible. So cave explorers have to speak in hushed whispers into their radios or speak in syllables, by halting several seconds between each to allow the echoes to die down.
The cave was first explored in 2008, but there are several passages that are yet to be explored and mapped.
The Painted Cliffs of Maria Island
The beautifully patterned sandstone rocks of Painted Cliffs are one of Maria island’s most popular attraction. The mountainous island located in the Tasman Sea, off the east coast of Tasmania, Australia, was once a penal colony for convicts who committed offences against the French colonists. Today, the entire island and the ocean around is a national park full of birds, animals and marine life.
The Painted Cliffs are located at the end of Hopground beach. The wonderful patterns on the exposed rocks along the shore were caused by ground water percolating down through the porous sandstone rocks and leaving traces of iron oxides, which have stained the rock formation. The regular patterns of red, orange and yellow bands and rings are due to fractures, joints and layers present within the sandstone.
The iron in the groundwater probably came from two prominent hills known as Bishop and Clerk and Mt. Maria, located at the highest point of Maria island. These peaks are composed of iron-rich dolerite rocks that weathered over millions of years ago when the climate was monsoonal, contributing to the iron-oxide staining on the Painted Cliffs.
Aside from the painted patterns, weathering of the rocks by salt crystal from sea spray have created a beautiful honeycomb pattern. Rock fragments moved around by the water have gradually worn small potholes and notches into the cliff face, eventually resulting in the undercutting of the cliff.
The Floating Forest of Homebush Bay, Sydney
The affluent suburb of Homebush Bay on the south bank of the Parramatta River, in the inner west of Sydney, was once the dumping ground for a large range of industrial wastes including a few decommissioned ships. Private companies would pay a monthly fee to the Maritime Services Board, and tow in vessels that had outlived their useful lives in order to break them up to salvage steel and parts that could be reused. Ship-breaking operations began in 1966, but ended prematurely before all the ships moored in the bay could be broken down. At least four ships’ hull and the remains of several barges and smaller vessels are still visible in Homebush Bay. These are protected under the historic Shipwrecks Act, 1976 which applies to all shipwrecks over seventy five years old. One of the most photogenic shipwreck in Homebush Bay is that of SS Ayrfield.
SS Aryfield began its life as SS Corrimal at Grangemouth Dockyard Company, United Kingdom in 1911. It was a steel-hulled, single screw, steam collier of 1,140 tons and 70 meters in length. SS Corrimal was purchased by the Commonwealth Government and used to transport supplies to American troops stationed in the Pacific region during WWII. In 1950, it was sold to Bitumen and Oil Refineries Australia Pty Ltd and in 1951 sold to the Miller Steamship Company Ltd and renamed Ayrfield. The ship was decommissioned in 1972, and sent to Homebush Bay for breaking-up.
The shipbreaking yard ceased operation before SS Aryfield could be torn apart. Now abandoned and lying in the shallow waters of Homebush Bay, the ship has become home to a lush green, miniature floating forest.