Sunday, June 27, 2010

Korean DMZ: A Wildlife Haven Behind Barbed Wire

The Korean War started on June 25, 1950. Sixty years later, on June 25, we stood inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with a delegation from Pasadena, which has a “Friendship City” relationship with the South Korean city of Paju (37°46'), on the edge of the DMZ. The Pasadena delegation included Alan Lamson and Jane Hallinger as well as Dr. Yung Nam, a Korean-American dentist, who has organized and was dedicating a dental Peace Clinic for residents of the DMZ on this special anniversary. This celebration was at a school in the Civilian Control Area, but plans are to provide another clinic at the Daeseong-dong village (37 °57'N) inside the DMZ. Until we were invited to join this effort, we had no idea that any people actually lived in that zone (controlled by the United Nations), but both South and North Korea maintain small villages within the otherwise closed off land. Most of the 30 students at the Daeseong-dong Elementary School honored us with a drum performance (see the short video clip).They have established pen-pal relationships with a school in Pasadena. This was a unique opportunity for us to enter the DMZ itself, something most tourists cannot do, and made possible by our new friends from Pasadena and our “friendship city” hosts in Paju..
The DMZ is a 150 mile long and 2.5 mile wide strip of land across the Korean Peninsula, more or less following the 38th parallel. With people excluded for 60 years, the land became a haven for wildlife. Behind the barbed wire, many endangered species are thriving, an ironic peaceful outcome from war. The estuary region of the Han and Imjin Rivers and the tideland and riparian vegetation zones are particularly valuable wetlands landscapes for animals. The once ravaged landscape is now green and lush.
Black-capped Kingfisher
The Paju City organizers, understanding our special interest in environmental issues along the 38th parallel, arranged a tour inside the Civilian Control Area along the edge of the DMZ with the DMZ Ecological Research Institute. Jung Rok An is a student at the Korea University in Seoul, only 20 years old, but an eloquent and knowledgeable researcher and organizer of environmental education efforts. He started the DMZ Ecology Research Institute ( along with his father and Mr. Kim, a school teacher, and they now train teams of high school students in research techniques. After a year of orientation and field camps, the students pick projects related to the ecology of the DMZ. We joined a group from 3 highs schools in Seoul on their first day of orientation; on that same day, two other groups , one a full year into their studies, and another group of elementary school students, were taken inside the area by the Institute. At the end of the day, some of the more experienced group shared their thoughts and hopes for the future on our tape recorder...fascinating quotes that we will eventually share in our book. They all hoped that this special place, full of cranes, geese, kingfishers and a host of other birds and mammals, will still be protected, even after the longed-for day comes when peace between the two Koreas opens up this landscape to humans once again. (Our thanks to Julia Kim for permission to use her photo of the egret behind barbed wire)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Alkaline Inland Sea in Eastern Turkey

A vast inland sea with alkaline water whose strange chemistry produces large calcium carbonate structures underwater, in a dramatic setting with snow-covered mountain peaks, and a lake level that is thousands of feet above sea level...that sounds exactly like Mono Lake, our starting place for this 38th parallel exploration, but it also describes Lake Van, the largest lake in Turkey. This was our final stop on a 6-week trip that began in Portugal, took us across parts of Spain, Sicily, Greece, and for the last 15 days, the length of this very large country.

Lake Van also differs from Mono Lake in significant ways. It is much larger: a 270 mile shoreline (Mono's is about 40 miles); an average depth of 560 feet (today, Mono Lake averages about 60 feet deep) with a deepest point that is 1,480 feet! (Mono Lake is only about 150 deep at its deepest point).

Van holds a lot of water, but not much salt. It is primarily a "soda" lake, dominated by carbonates, also containing some sulfates (both key ingredients in Mono), but without our home lake's chlorides--i.e. dissolved table salt. There are fish in Lake Van, but only one species that can handle the unusual water chemistry; Mono Lake, of course, is much too salty for fish. The alkalinity of both lakes is fairly close, around pH 9.8 for Van and 10.2 for Mono. Because Van's water is less harsh, it does have the one kind of fish plus hundreds of species of plankton. Though we did not see many birds on the lake--just a few gulls--the literature says Van supports many migratory and nesting birds. Van even has calcium carbonate structures chemically related to Mono Lake's tufa formations, but Van's are out of sight in the depths, where cyanobacteria build aragonite towers up to 130 feet tall!

What a fitting place to end this segment of our around-the-world travels. We arrived by bus in the city of Van (38°29'N; 43°23'E) on the southeast shore of the lake. Adem, a medical student at the university in Van, was on our bus, and as so many other helpful Turkish people have done, he answered all our questions, was interested in our project, and when the bus deposited us in the city center, walked with us to find our hotel. Following Adem's directions, we took a mini-bus out to the lakeshore where local kids were swimming. We felt the water, which was slippery, as expected. The water here, as at Mono Lake, has been used to wash clothes. We tasted a bit from our wet fingertips (like baking soda), and waded in the water.

There is so much we could have investigated here, given enough time. We understand that climate scientists are drilling down through Van Lake's bottom mud because they can find there a half-million years of climate data from the sedimentary record. We'd like to have seen more of the lake's bird life and volcanic features nearby, but this is our last night in eastern Turkey. Tomorrow we fly to Istanbul, spend one night, then fly all the way home for a break before finishing the around-the-world exploration by crossing Asia.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mt. Nemrut: Where the Gods Lay Their Heads

Today we stood knee-deep in Euphrates River water, north of Malatya in southeastern Anatolia. Only a few miles further east, archaeologists are presently uncovering a 7,000-year old city called Arslantepe. Along this river (and the Tigris, which we will visit soon) some of the oldest known human settlements occurred. This water has supported some of humanity's earliest agriculture and communities, along with the dreams and follies of kings.

On a 7,000 foot mountaintop to the south (with distant views of the Euphrates River valley as it curves east, turns back to the west, and then bends south toward Syria), a 1st century B.C. king named Antioches built a monument to Roman and Persian gods so he could place his own statue among them. The exquisitely sculpted heads were forgotten by history until they were rediscovered in 1882. Major restoration was not complete until the early 1980s. The remote summit of Nemrut Dagi National Park lies exactly on our line at 37°59'50''. This is one of Turkey's must-see treasures, though it takes considerable effort for travelers to reach the mountain. We opted for an overnight trip from Malatya that required a 3-hour shuttle to a hotel that nestles one mile below the summit. With two other tourists (from Croatia) we visited the 2 terraces and sculptures at sunset and were woken at 4 AM to return for sunrise.

The massive heads, fallen from their bodies above, have a mystical quality that immediately captivates. Fine sculptors shaped the likenesses of Apollo, Zeus, Hercules, Tyche and, of course, King Antiochos. Honey- colored stone reflects the changing light, and the setting, on a summit crowned with small stones that may cover burial chambers, is magnificent. The green valley, rock outcroppings and wildflower gardens reminded us of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite.

King Antiochos left a truly striking memorial behind two thousand years ago, and visitors today can share a bit of his dream of being with the gods on a mountaintop.

As for that wading experience in the Euphrates, we were actually in the Karakaya Reservoir. Turkey has built many dams in this region in recent decades...and that is our next topic to explore when we reach the Tigris River.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia

Volcanic ash, hardened into rock and capped by basalt from later eruptions, then eroded by water through the ages, has created a fantasy landscape in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey. Fairy chimneys, towers, and mushroom shapes became houses and fresco painted chapels as local people carved caves into the whitish tuff--but around here everyone uses the name "tufa." In our many years of telling visitors about Mono Lake's tufa towers--the photogenic limestone formed when springwater and lakewater mix--we often heard about the "tufa" formations of Cappadocia, which actually have more in common with the Bishop tuff formed near Mono Lake by the Long Valley volcanic eruption.

Beyond that terminology story, words cannot do justice to this landscape (so we've posted a lot of photos here). The fact that people still live in many of the caves and grow gardens and apricot orchards nearby adds to the Hobbit-y feel of the place.
Visitors may stay in "cave hotels" complete with windows, terraces and satellite dishes. Huge horse stables have been carved into some of the larger rocks. Where people have moved out, birds have moved in (we watched a momma bird feed her baby chicks). Entire underground cities in multiple layers provided refuge during long ago raids. A huge, snowcapped volcano stands sentinel in the distance.

Most of our time was spent hiking, seeking the high viewpoints to look down and across the valleys. Many tourists seek similar views in the dawn balloon rides that contribute significant amounts of money to the local economy.

We met Hayriye Ciner selling her beautiful jewelry in one of our favorite parts of the valley.
Wildflowers abounded, with Turkey mullein (that exotic pest at home that is native here) and irises decorating the hillside. A fox even gave us a glimpse. Camels are a sign of the historic Silk Road connections to China in this part of Turkey.

We spent 3 days here and barely began to explore the lovely spot, but our eastward journey pulls us on toward the Euphrates River region.