Places of isolation: ten locations cut off from the rest of the world

author photo
Rachel Lawrence
4/30/2020

History is littered with examples of communities who, whether by choice or necessity, have sought to separate themselves from the rest of society. Even today, there are myriad temples and monasteries which shun the outside world. We take a look at ten locations – including sights of refuge, meditation, scientific research and even incarceration – defined by their remote locations and hardy inhabitants.

1. Eyam, Derbyshire, England

It’s hard to believe that this pretty Derbyshire village was once the setting for one of the most remarkable events in British history. Following the arrival of the Plague in 1665, its inhabitants agreed to quarantine themselves: for 14 months nobody entered or left the village. Money was left at a boundary stone, still visible today, in exchange for medicines and food from nearby villages. Many people died but this selfless act – and the leadership of the village rector – saved many lives by preventing the spread of the disease. The event is marked on Plague Sunday each August.

Eyam's churchyard © Dale Lorna Jacobsen/Shutterstock

2. Taktsang Palphug Monastery, Bhutan

Balanced precariously on a cliffside of the upper Paro valley in Bhutan, this temple and monastery dates back to the seventeenth century, but the sacred origins of the “Tiger’s Nest” go back further to Guru Padmasmbhava, the eighth-century founder of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, who chose this implausible spot for meditation. Getting here involves a three-hour, 700-metre ascent but the views from the complex, comprised of four temples and accommodation quarters for the resident monks, are breathtaking.

Taktsang Palphug Monastery © Avik/Shutterstock

3. Hanging Heng mountain temple, China

This gravity-defying construction clings to the foot of Mount Hengshan, one of five sacred mountains in China. Seeking silence for meditation, a monk named Liao Ran began construction of this ornate temple in the fifth century and it was gradually expanded to include 40 halls and pavilions. Building materials were lowered down by rope and oak crossbeams were inserted into the cliff face. It is also remarkable for being the only temple in China to enshrine Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

The mountain temple clings to the cliff face © mi jun/Shutterstock

4. Metéora monasteries, Greece

As if the idea of building a monastery on top of a high pinnacle of rock weren’t mind-boggling enough, the Plain of Thessaly in central Greece was once home to 24 of them. In the face of mounting Turkish attacks in the fourteenth century, the monks who had inhabited the caves of Metéora since the eleventh century sought refuge on top of the unusual rock formations found north of Kalambáka. The six monasteries still in use today can be accessed by staircases carved into the rock.

Holy Trinity Monastery in Metéora © Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

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    5. Key Monastery, India

    Whilst not the highest monastery in the world (that particular accolade goes to the Rongbuk Monastery at the foot of Mount Everest), this fort-like Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Himachal Pradesh lies at a dizzying 4,166 metres above sea level and in the deep snows of winter it appears to float above the valley. Home to around 300 monks, it has been in existence for over 1,000 years, surviving Mongol invasions, war, and earthquake and fire damage. It has a valuable collection of ancient murals and thangkas.

    Tibetan Key Monastery © otorongo/Shutterstock

    6. Choquequirao, Peru

    Perched high above the Apurimac River in the Vilcabamba Valley, this well-preserved Inca citadel is a demanding two-day trek from the nearest road. Not only was it never found by the Spanish conquistadors, it has also escaped the excesses of tourism that its more famous sister, Machu Picchu, has experienced – although that may change if plans for a cable car come to fruition. It is believed to have been an agricultural centre and its precipitous terraces are decorated with images of llamas set into the intricate stonework.

    Choquequirao © Christian Declercq/Shutterstock

    7. Supai, Arizona, USA

    This hidden corner of the Grand Canyon National Park is home to one of the United States’ most remote communities, the Havasupai who have lived here for many centuries and whose way of life is intrinsically linked to water. Their village is only accessible by helicopter, mule or an eight-mile hike, but the rewards for intrepid visitors are great – dazzling turquoise waterfalls and travertine pools. Whilst the area attracts thousands of visitors per year, the Havasu Canyon is subject to flooding and reservations at the Supai village campground are hard to come by.

    Arresting Supai © SHoener/Shutterstock

    8. Ushuaia, Argentina

    The world’s southernmost city owes its existence in part to the penal colony established here in 1873. In a bid to further colonize the region, the Argentine state transferred prisoners here from Buenos Aires and by 1914 the austere prison housed almost 1,500 inmates. Dubbed the “Siberia of Argentina”, the prison’s inhospitable location between the icy waters of the Beagle Channel and the jagged mountain range of the Martial Glaciar made the chances of survival outside the prison extremely slim. It finally closed in 1947 and is now a museum. The town itself is a popular tourist destination as the southernmost city in the world. It's also the departure point for expeditions into the Tierra del Fuego National Park and journeys to Antarctica.

    Ushuai at night © LMspencer/Shutterstock

    9. Amundsen Scott South Pole station, Antarctica

    There are 70 permanent research stations in Antarctica, the largest of which is the United States Amundsen Scott South Pole station. Staffed year-round, the population of this extraordinary facility ranges from 50 during the unrelentingly dark winter to 200 during the summer operational season (Oct–Feb). Scientists here study the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems and analyze ice samples to compare current conditions with those of thousands of years ago.

    Pretty in white: the Amundsen Scott South Pole station © Shutterstock

    10. Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland

    This remote outpost on the eastern coast of Greenland is frozen in for nine months of the year, during which time its brightly coloured buildings provide the only relief in a stark, but beautiful landscape of snow and ice. On clear nights during the winter, the sky is lit up with spectacular displays of the Northern Lights. Hunting is a way of life for the town’s Inuit population, but tourism is a growing part of the economy. Visitors are transferred from the airport to the town by helicopter or arrive on expedition cruises to explore Greenland’s National Park, home to polar bears, muskox and reindeer.

    Ittoqqortoormiit village © Oleksandr Umanskyi/Shutterstock

    Top image: Tibetan Key Monastery, Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India © otorongo/Shutterstock

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