Mountains of Hornocal

The mountain valley of Quebrada de Humahuaca, in the province of Jujuy, in north-west Argentina, is home to some fascinating geology. The Hill of Seven Colors and Painter's Palette in Maimará are famous, but most visitors leave the creek without knowing the mountains of Hornocal or “Serranias del Hornocal”. Located just 25 km from Humahuaca, along a well-graded unpaved road, this mountain range is definitely a must-see for anyone visiting Argentina, yet quite shockingly, this site left out of almost all the tourist circuits because of which Serranias del Hornocal remains unknown to most travelers on the road that leads to Humahuaca.

The incredible colors and the inverted-V shaped formation seen here is part of the limestone formation called Yacoraite that extends from Peru to Salta, through Bolivia and the Quebrada de Humahuaca. The road that leads to this place, located at an altitude in excess of 4,300 meters, is inaccessible by bus, but can be easily reached by a regular car or a 4x4. Despite warnings of inaccessibility and risks involved, those who travel to this place have discovered that it’s actually a pretty easy route.


The Red Earth Terraces of Dongchuan

Some 250 kilometers northeast of Kunming, the capital of China's Yunnan Province, lies Dongchuan, a rural area with the world's most imposing red earth. Spread over vast terraced fields, Dongchuan’s unusual brownish-red color comes from its rich deposit of iron and copper. Exposed to the warm and humid climate of Yunnan, the iron in the soil undergoes oxidization to form iron oxide which is naturally red in color. These oxides, deposited through many years, gradually developed into the extraordinary reddish brown soil seen here today. Every year during spring, when this area is ploughed for agriculture, a large number of visitors and photographers come to see squares of freshly upturned red earth waiting to be sown along with areas of budding green plants. The fiery red soil juxtaposed with emerald green barley, and golden yellow buckwheat, against a blue sky produces one of the richest color palate rarely seen in nature.

Reportedly, the existence of Dongchuan was unknown to the outside world until the mid-1990s, when a Chinese photographer chanced upon the place. The story goes that the photographer kept the location a secret and continued to produce photographs that awed his audience. Details about the secret place eventually leaked and now more and more photographers are making arduous trip into the mountains to get first-hand experience of this amazing place.


The "Great mosque of al-Mutawakkil" in Samarra

The Great Mosque of Samarra is located in Samarra city, in Iraq, about 120 km north of Baghdad, on the banks of river Tigris. It was built in the 9th century, commissioned by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil, who moved to Samarra to escape conflict with the local population in Baghdad and remained there for the next 56 years - a period during which he built many palaces including the largest mosque in all of Islam. The Great Mosque was spread over an area of 17 hectares; the building itself covered 38,000 square meters. It remained the largest mosque in the world for the next 400 years before it was destroyed by the armies of the Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan during the invasion of Iraq in the year 1278. The outer walls and the imposing 52-meters minaret is all that remains of this once Great Mosque.

The mosque has a rectangular layout encompassed by an outer baked brick wall 10 meters high and 2.65 meters thick and supported by a total of 44 semi-circular towers including four corner ones. One could enter the mosque through one of the 16 gates. It has been told that featured over each entrance were several small arched windows. Between each tower, a frieze of sunken square niches with beveled frames runs the upper course of the entire structure. The mosque had 17 aisles, and its walls were paneled with mosaics of dark blue glass. The courtyard was surrounded on all sides by an arcade, the greatest part of which was the one facing Holy Mecca.

27 meters from the center of the mosque's north face stands the Malwiya Tower with its vast spiraling cone 52 meters high and 33 meters wide at the base. At the top of the tower rests a round vestibule, which is adorned with eight pointed-arched niches. It is possible to walk all the way to the top along the spiraling path. As a matter of fact, the caliph Al-Mutawakkil, often did that riding on his donkey to enjoy the view.

The minaret was partially destroyed in April 2005, when insurgents bombed the tower because U.S. troops had been using it as a lookout position. The British claim that the attacked was directed not towards the U.S. but had been done to incite Sunni-Shiite violence and further destabilize the country.


The New Nazca Lines were Revealed

A pilot flying over the Nazca desert in Peru has discovered huge geoglyphs that are believed to be nearly 2,000 years old -- and may shed new light on the ancient Nazca people.

The "Nazca lines" were apparently exposed by recent sandstorms in the area and include a snakelike figure roughly 200 feet long, a huge zigzag line, and a giant bird.

Pilot and researcher Eduardo Herrán Gómez de la Torre, who made the discovery in late July, told the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio that the designs might have been created by the Paracas, a prehistoric culture that ruled southern Peru from around 800 B.C. to 100 B.C., predating the Nazca culture, which ruled the region from 100 B.C. to 800 A.D. The Paracas were known for their exquisite art and textiles.

While scholars contacted by El Comerico said they suspected the geoglyphs were created during the transition period between the Paracas and Nazca cultures, archaeologists still need to confirm the origin of the designs.

Nazca lines blanket about 280 square miles in the coastal plain region of Peru and were created between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, according to the UNESCO website. Often depicting animals, plants, and geometrical designs, they are believed to have had "ritual astronomical functions." Yet Edward Ranney, a photographer whose forthcoming book, The Lines, centers upon the geoglyphs, suspects the designs may have served a different purpose.

"Though their purpose is not definitively known, [the designs] clearly served a ceremonial purpose, and were continually used and recreated over several centuries, perhaps to honor sacred mountains and sources of water," Ranney said in a recent interview with the art blog PetaPixel. "It was previously thought they were astronomically and calendrically aligned, which could be true in some cases, but now that idea is not widely accepted."

No matter what their function was, the lines continue to capture the imagination of archaeologists. As the UNESCO website puts it, "The Nazca lines and geoglyphs form a unique and magnificent artistic achievement that is unrivaled in its dimensions and diversity anywhere in the prehistoric world."


The Citadel of Erbil

At the heart of the city of Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, lies an ancient mound of earth some 25 to 30 meters tall from the surrounding plains. On top of this mound lies one of the oldest town in the world. Known as the Citadel of Erbil, this fortified town, measuring a meager 430 by 340 meters and occupying 102,000 square meters in area has been in continuous occupation since at least the 5th millennium BC, and possibly earlier. The imposing yellow-ochre color structure with a solid perimeter wall is one of the most dramatic visual experiences in the Middle East.

The mound rises at an angle of 45 degrees until it reaches the perimeter wall which consist of the facades of approximately 100 houses that have been built against each other. The houses are contiguous and form a solid wall very similar to fortified citadels of medieval times. Three ramps, located on the northern, eastern and southern slopes of the mound, lead up to gates in the outer ring of houses. Originally, there was only one ramp – the southern slope that led to a huge and arched gateway. The gate led to a small open square which, in turn, led to four main alleyways which branched out in all directions like a tree.

The town is largely occupied by traditional courtyard houses and with few public buildings reached through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways. Before the introduction of modern building techniques, most houses on the citadel were built around a courtyard. A raised arcade overlooking the courtyard, a flat roof and a bent-access entrance to prevent views of the courtyard and the interior of the house were characteristic elements of the houses on the citadel.

Although pretty small by itself, the citadel was once divided in three districts or mahallas: the Serai, the Takya and the Topkhana. The Serai was occupied by notable families, the Takya district was named after the homes of dervishes, which are called takyas, and the Topkhana district housed craftsmen and farmers.

During the 1920s there were about 500 houses inside the citadel. The number of inhabitants gradually declined over the 20th century as the city at the foot of the citadel grew and wealthier inhabitants moved to larger, modern houses with gardens. According to a 1995 census, some 1,600 inhabitants were living in 247 houses in the citadel.

The Kurdistan Regional Government has recognized the importance of this architectural gem, and is currently working with UNESCO to preserve and restore this ground. In 2007, the citadel was cleared of residents so construction work could take place for a restoration project. One family was allowed to continue living on the citadel to ensure that there would be no break in the 8,000 years of continuous habitation of the site, and the government plans to have 50 families live up here once it is renovated.

Satellite view of the Citadel

Statue near one of the gates of the Citadel.


The Well of Souls, Argentina

Pozo de las Animas or the “Well of Souls” is a pair of two spectacular sinkholes located in Mendoza province, in Argentina, along Provincial Route 222 near the village of Los Molles. Both sinkholes were created by the collapse of underground voids created by the dissolution of gypsum deposits by groundwater. The holes are divided from each other by a thin crumbling wall, which is assumed that over the years will eventually erode away to unite the two wells into one.

The Northern sinkhole has steep, crumbling sides and it is dangerous to approach the rims of it, as the sinkhole is still eroding. The sinkhole is roughly 300 m across and 101 m deep, of which the bottom 21 m is filled with water. The Southern sinkhole exceeds 300m in diameter, but is visually less impressive. The slopes of this sinkhole are less steep and covered with sparse vegetation. There is a small, light blue lake on the bottom of sinkhole. The water level and the size of the lake is changing.

The name derives from an ancient Aboriginal legend that a group of Indians were being chased by a rival group. When the night came, the pursuers could not see their enemies anymore upon which they returned to their homes. The next morning they went back to search for their enemies and on reaching the scene, began to hear moans and calls of distress. Advancing cautiously, they found to their great surprise that two huge wells had sunk beneath the feet of their enemies, and people were dying in the rising waters of lakes at the bottom of wells.

The wells were since been called as "the place where souls cry" and is a place of worship.

Panorama of the two sinkholes