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I would like to imagine an isolated town. In my mind the town has large buildings, but has a small geographical footprint. I'd like the town to be isolated in the sense that to reach it from other 'nearby' towns, it takes a relatively long time by ground, and perhaps even by air. Do such places exist? Can such places exist, or has our mastery of transportation made reaching even the farthest human settlements on earth a trivial thing? If such a place already exists, where is it, and why is it so isolated?

Example: A town in the mountains that was placed for a mine. The mine emptied but the town remains, unreachable by air due to mountains, reachable by vehicle only in the summer, and it takes a couple of days. Something like that, but completely realistic.

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    $\begingroup$ You may wish to have a look at Sark, an island lying off the coast of Normandy. It's pretty isolated, even now. Until just a few years ago, they were technically ruled by a lord - as in, a feudal lord - which gives you an idea of how isolated it is. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sark EDIT: This is a European country we're talking about, a European country lying between cosmopolitan France and modern England. $\endgroup$ – drunkBrain Mar 24 '15 at 9:55
  • $\begingroup$ How long is "relatively long"? $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 24 '15 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ You could look to settlements in, perhaps off the coast of, northern North America, Eurasia (Siberia!) and similar places for inspiration. Also, does this need to be within the constraints of our real world today, or can we make changes elsewhere as well? (As a perhaps slightly contrived example, could we put the town in a valley surrounded by Mount Everests?) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 24 '15 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ If the mine is depleted, the town loses reason to be and dwindles rapidly. But if it's a hard-to-reach place still abundant in resources, it could thrive and expand into the scarce available space. Best if the mined material is very expensive and rare, so that the transport volumes don't necessitate a better transportation grid. Maybe some gems? $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 24 '15 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ For another real example, check out Whittier, Alaska, an isolated town where people ended up living in a single large building: news.com.au/travel/world-travel/… $\endgroup$ – Peter S. Jun 27 '15 at 11:56
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There are plenty of places like that, but you have to consider that remoteness is relative to other places. Even in a major capital you will find small neighbourhoods that are a pain to get to, even if getting there is not particularly difficult - like a district with poor public transport that you need a taxi to get to. Note, that they wouldn't be completely isolated, but would require more effort to get to than similar settlements.

Where would that be?

  • Islands are a pain to get to, because you need either an aircraft which is expensive or a boat which is slow. See Pitcairn Islands, Svalbard, Galapagos, for less remote - Channel Islands. The limited space available also tends to turn the whole islands into one large settlement.
  • Mountainous area can make transportation difficult and dangerous, especially if the town is surrounded by passes. These do not have to be fa away from other settlements, but the trouble to travel might add to the remoteness. Also, mountains hinder aerial traffic, as bad weather or low visibility interferes with navigation.
  • Great wilderness is another example. Siberia features quite large cities being so remote from Moscow's point of view, that they are grouped around each other, with little access to the most populous regions. You will find that in such environment building a large city is preferable to several smaller ones, due to cherry-picking favourable locations and strength in numbers. See Siberia (Magadan) and Canada.
  • Desert is a similar environment. While large oases with artesian wells can support large cities of thousands of people, small settlements would be scarce to the point of negligibility.
  • Marshes and wetlands - some cities can be considered remote for only certain parts of the year. During monsoon season in Asia or wet season in Africa many settlements become isolated, because suddenly there are rivers everywhere, terrain is flooded and it rains all the time. Some people have to literally arrange their life around their village being cut off from civilisation for half a year.

But why would anyone live there?

That is you main concern. There has to be a strong incentive for people to build and support large cities in the middle of nowhere. Examples follow:

  • Wealth of natural resources - especially if it's scarce or very valuable, like rare earths, oil, uranium, precious gems but also valuable flora and fauna for hunting, lumber etc.
  • Important trade routes - desert cities might be in a middle of nowhere with little resources around, but supplying caravans with food, water and shelter enabling trade is one of the foremost purposes for existence of such cities. You would find such cities are extremely wealthy but with costs of living to follow.
  • Strong military positions - you must not forget that sometimes forts are placed in mountain passes or islands with little to offer, just for the sake of being a highly defensible area - a gateway to your state or conversely a stepping stone in case you would like to invade your neighbour. Soldier's families, providers of entertainment and all that follows form a city nearby.
  • Religious settlements - monasteries and cloisters are often placed in remote areas seeking isolation as a philosophical or religious ideal. Surely, supplier satellite settlements follow to trade with the good monks.
  • Artificial cities - China is the leader of building cities in the middle of nowhere for the sake of central planning. Soviet Union did similar. The process implies that some central authority looks at a map, sees a blank space and thinks "well, if we had a city there everyone would benefit...". This is also how you get 10-lane carriageways from nowhere to god-knows-what.

How long is too long to travel?

Nowadays you can get almost anywhere if you have a plane or a helicopter. This is basically your "travel anywhere" perk. However, travel by planes is restricted by airstrips (though a city would have one if it's needed for sure), bad weather (constant fog, high winds, frequent storms) and terrain (mountain peaks, having to land on a slope).
With that in place you might find that roads take days to travel by 4x4 car, especially in the winter and railways are too expensive to maintain or impossible to build. Remember that dangers of the travel might be more important than length. If every year several trucks are being buried in mud or lost in an avalanche there might be little incentive to use that mean of transportation.
Travel by sea can be equally perilous. For the longest time Galapagos Islands remained unexplored because access required sailing around Cape Horn, a feat of seamanship that not every naval vessel could boast. With advancements in sea travel most places are definitely reliably reachable, but it might be simply too expensive and uneconomical to maintain frequent sea routes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wealth of resources and important trade routes contradict the idea of an isolated town. If you've got scarce resources everybody likes to have you're done with isolation. $\endgroup$ – Ghanima Mar 24 '15 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ I disagree. Take an example of Bilma, a Saharan oasis town that save for travel by plane remains remote, despite being a major trade hub for centuries and now remaining a center for evaporite products. Or Dawson City in Canada, a mining town of more than 1k people hours driving from anywhere. Or Alaska in general. No, wealth of resources or trade does not equal lack of isolation if the place is remote enough. $\endgroup$ – eimyr Mar 24 '15 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ Forget Bilma, and consider Las Vegas. It's out in the middle of the desert, and close to a day's travel (except by plane) from major population centers. And of course there are many small communities in Alaska & Canada that are reachable only by air, or dogsled in the winter. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 24 '15 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ You surely picked strange examples of Siberian cities. All of them (except Palana, which is just a tiny township) are positioned along the Trans-Siberian, a major transportation route. Magadan would be more convincing. $\endgroup$ – user58697 Mar 24 '15 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I'm not a Russian citizen so my knowledge of that is limited. I'll include your suggestion. $\endgroup$ – eimyr Mar 24 '15 at 20:17
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The city of Magadan is a good example of isolation. Shortest ground connection is a 1200 miles long unmaintained road (to another not-so-reachable city of Yakutsk), impassable during summer. A boat trip to mainland (summer only) takes about a week. Exaggerating weather conditions just a little bit would make air communication next to impossible.

The city exists solely as a gateway to a very rich (gold, iron, other metals, coal) and equally inhospitable Kolyma region.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with you that Magadan is isolated on the whole; however, I suspect you'd have to exaggerate the weather more than just slightly in order to make all air travel impossible; while the climate in my hometown is more temperate overall, we do get significant weather here, and our airport has adapted to it, with full CAT IIIb ILS, enhanced lighting, and a SMGCS for operations down to 600' RVR. Magadan/Sokol, OTOH, only supports basic CAT I approaches, and lacks many of the lighting enhancements needed for true low-visibility operations. $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Mar 25 '15 at 1:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Shalvenay I am not an aviation expert. I am a humble geophysicist. I did land at Sokol once (Ан-24; you know what I mean), and I have no intention to repeat that experience. I guess it is possible to make even Cat I approach unfeasible. Winds at Nogay Bay are crazy as they are already. $\endgroup$ – user58697 Mar 25 '15 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, winds are another concern -- it looks like runway orientation at Magadan is somewhat constrained by surrounding terrain, and the existing runway orientation may not be ideal with winds coming in off the sea anyway... $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Mar 25 '15 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Shalvenay - All true, but for the OPs question, the town is no longer what you'd call thriving. Other than a pork barrel project like the Gravina Island Bridge en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravina_Island_Bridge (but without the excuse of a functioning, somewhat busy airport), it's hard to see how to justify the infrastructure for bad-weather capability. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 27 '15 at 14:30
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I would like to imagine an isolated town. In my mind the town has large buildings, but has a small geographical footprint. I'd like the town to be isolated in the sense that to reach it from other 'nearby' towns, it takes a relatively long time by ground, and perhaps even by air. Do such places exist? Can such places exist, or has our mastery of transportation made reaching even the farthest human settlements on earth a trivial thing? If such a place already exists, where is it, and why is it so isolated?

Oh yes. They certainly exist.
There are some towns like that "somewhat south" of where I live.
You've probably heard of them :-).
The furthest away is called "South Pole". A some what closer one is called "Mcmurdo". Not too far from Mcmurdo as the Snowcat runs is a town named "Scott Base".

THe following gives enough of a feel for the match to the aspects that you mention. If at 1st glance your building description does not seem to fit, have a look at the start of the National Geographic "Megastructures" video.

Commuting between South Pole to Mcmurdo by air is either

  • 'safe enough but never without risk' or

  • 'Impossible'.

'Impossible' means either that you could not sanely get an aircraft off the "ground" or that, if you'd done so, it would probably be the last bad decision you ever made.

For freight, going by "road" is much more reliable and economical than by air, even though the average road speed is under 50 miles per day. 'Rather specialised ' convoys make the trip regularly. For some reason they call it the South Pole Traverse. It's about 1000 miles each way - although another 1000 may end up happening. A round trip takes typically 40 or 50 days.

Pictures from here - 'South Pole Traverse'.

enter image description here

Not at Mcmurdo per se but at a remote field base which they flew to from Mcmurdo, on one occasion they crashed three C-130 Hercules aircraft (small-airliner size freight carriers) aircraft in a row before giving up and leaving them until a later date to attempt recovery. XD-07 aka Betty Boop was recovered 5 years later.
Interesting account of the events here

From either town to "civilisation" (which is Christchurch in New Zealand) is about 2000 miles - the normal means of access is by air as the alternative sea + "land" route is an adventure in its own right.


Flying Christchurch to South Pole - 34 minute video

Megastructures - New South Pole station 1 hour video - National Geographic. Hyped narrative but interesting

A C130 that survived the triple grounding

South o]Pole station- older history here


Photos:

Coach class - Christchurch to Mcmurdo to South Pole by air.
All change at McMurdo.

Top row - Christchurch to Mcmurdo.
Bottom - Mcmurdo to South Pole.

From here - excellent 'photos essay'. .

enter image description here

Antarctica - Excellent resource

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, but not, I think, really a town in the sense that the OP meant. It's a research base: AFAIK there are no permanent residents, just people who come for various research projects, or as support staff. Kind of like an ocean drilling platform. For contrast, consider Jarbidge, Nevada en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jarbidge,_Nevada which seems to fit the OP's request except for the large buildings. Goldfield en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldfield,_Nevada has some large buildings, and is several hours drive from almost anywhere. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 27 '15 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Not really a town -> I wonder what 'horse hair' thinks. || No permanent residents -> Yes. That does not seem to be a necessary requirement. But, I wonder what horse hair thinks? | Isolation: "For contrast, consider Jarbidge, Nevada" -> Yes indeed - Jarbridge is a pale shadow by comparison, I think. I wonder what horse hair thinks? $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Jun 28 '15 at 1:58

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