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20 most recent Community Reviews


Camino Real

Sinuhe Reyrub Mexico - 22-05-2017

I was born in a small community of Zacatecas, in central Mexico, right in in the first third to "Road to Santa Fe", now called “Camino Real de Tierra Adentro” (incorrectly since in Mexico existed five or six important Real Roads). Therefore, I cannot write any description objectively. I am sure of its regional value, but I don't want to mention a possible universal value, I'm not an expert on those issues. I think everyone has to have some empathy trying to understand the love that other people have to their local places. In this case, probably in the United States the value to the road is sometimes more a political strategy or simple love to the History, maybe more like an anecdote; but let me tell you, in Mexico, this road still awakens full passions of love and genuine interest of anyone, in an inestimable way. To Mexicans, it is still an alive road (even if many sections of the original roads no longer exist): everyone living in these 10 states can narrate old legends about mines or treasure owners. Old legends about terrifying ghosts living in haciendas or anecdotes of our parents and grandparents as young travelers, old stories about passions, deadly sins or love (for example, my parents met for the first time on a pilgrimage). Old stories about apaches attacking wagons. The route also arouses in some people some national sentiments: it completely coincides with the "Route of Independence": the route that followed Miguel Hidalgo to end the Conquest.

Undoubtedly, there are many oversights in the nomination Mexico made to UNESCO, and I can understand it, I suppose "omission" it's a common element in all the cultural itineraries. Only 60 sites of the hundreds on the route were named (apparently those with their management plans in order) although visually I don't find big differences between those who are WHS and those who don't. It's very evident the omission of emblematic sites like Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí, or Dolores Hidalgo in Guanajuato, although the omission is more evident in the North, forgetting all the points of Chihuahua and of course, New Mexico.

Here nothing has reduced the mystical popularity of the route. For example, there is a Facebook group (extremely active, with 6000 members and up to 20 publications in a regular day) called "EL CAMINO REAL DE TIERRA ADENTRO (Antropologia, arqueologia e historia)", where people upload photos related to the route, data places, historical books and old anecdotes.

Of course, the main axis of the route always was mining. As you know, mining in Nueva España was an important activity, reaching more than 1000 mining towns in northern Mexico, undoubtedly an asset that formed part of the development of the European economy; in Mexico, creating temples and rich haciendas (that cost thousands of lives of Indians and slaves). Part of the great passion that awakens the route in Mexico, has to do with the last century, and its relation with treasure hunters and wealth seekers in old mines and abandoned haciendas (curious fact, still there are a lot, a lot, of American blogs seeking to plunder abandoned Mexican haciendas). This mysticism also has to do with the great Catholicism of previous generations: the route produced the birth of the four main religious destinations of the country: Mexico City, San Juan de los Lagos, Silao and Plateros. Catholicism in Mexico has always been a symbol of pilgrimage and traveling, a symbol of migration, about "going to the North"; the route crosses the Rio Bravo (yes, before Bush, Trump and this Era of immigration laws, Mexicans crossed this route every day for 3 centuries). Crossing the Rio Bravo was the symbol that travelers were finishing the tired route, before arriving until Santa Fe (although this last portion also was the most difficult, since travelers crossed a desert called "Journey of the Dead Man" ).

Well, it’s true, here we have a big potential, where tourist strategy has failed to give the visitor a clear idea of what this route meant. Fortunately, we live in the Information Age and many interesting places are find "with a click" (even if I know it sounds like a cliche). From Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), we learned: "there are traces of our past on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look ". Many villages, farms, mines and museums can give us a clear idea of what is the route. Visit the cathedrals of the cities; see the golden altarpieces in temples of small towns or eating peregrine gastronomy are simple examples. I can understand an average tourist complaining about the services of the Camino Real, and it’s true, we have failed making an attractive route for the tourist, but come on, if you're reading this, in this amazing forum: you're not an average tourist.

I took some time to make a map with the exact coordinates of the main sites of the route (in the official UNESCO site some coordinates are wrong). I included the 60 WHS, all the sites that connect them, and the forgotten route to the north. Initially it had about 2000 points, but I ended up reducing it to 500, those on the main routes or that have historical importance or serve as an example of the ways of life of the Camino Real (I hope you don’t think that after 4 centuries there was only one route and in a straight line ).

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1aTOWlWrMEhyUlxdFakPbvTGOKgM

Finally, I take the confidence to make some clarifications of the visits made by other users of the community, not without mentioning that I thank them greatly for their interest in my country and the Camino Real.

--- I think the tourist infrastructure is sufficient and extensive. What, from my point of view, has failed the most, does the terrible signage existing. My recommendation is, if you want to visit any of the important historical centers (Mexico City, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, Zacatecas or Durango) seek to stay in some hacienda or inn, which regularly become hotels (some expensive in the Mexican perspective, but of a regular price for the European one) or go to close sites.

--- I love your comments Ian, but I think that to count the Camino Real as a visit, you have to take a little effort. To stop on three historical centers, is not a visit of the Camino Real. Alternatively, probably yes, but at least you have to try to get interested in the route: probably visit some Viceroyalty museum, some convent, some old hacienda or a section of the original road counts more as a visit. For example, if you're in Mexico City don't forget to visit the Cathedral, go up to the bell tower, go to the old Casa de la Moneda (old Mexican Mint, now National Museum of Cultures) or go to the Plaza of Santo Domingo (the place where the wagons started the journey to the North). If you visit Guanajuato, you must visit the mining complex of La Valenciana (5 minutes from the city). If you visit Zacatecas visit the Eden mine, go up to the viewpoint of the hill of La Bufa, visit some museums, which are on the old convents of the city, stay one night at Meson de Jobito, and go to the College of Propaganda Fide (10 minutes from the city), where is the official library of the Camino Real.

--- I would love an extension in the future. Sites of New Mexico and Chihuahua are necessary to feel that this appointment covers the whole concept.

--- As mentioned by Solivagant, the state of Durango was the main driver of the appointment; I think this has nothing to do with tourism issues. This simply has to do with the fact that Durango and Chihuahua are large states, and obviously with more sites of the route. I have always believed that if I had to choose a state that represents the Camino Real, it would be Durango. In the state of Durango, every town and city was born on a "Real", or on a Franciscan or Jesuit mission.


Chaîne des Puys et faille de Limagne (T)

Caspar Dechmann Switzerland - 22-05-2017

I visited the Chaîne des Puys during a trip along the enchanting Dordogne. We drove up the highest peak of the chain, the Puy de Dôme. From there you have a fabulous view over the whole chain that is quite impressive. There are dozens of vulcanos of different shapes: domes, maars and cones like the wonderful Puy Pariou. They are not very tall volcanic formations but I have never seen so many in such a small area.


The timeless, humanistic architecture of Jože Plecnik in Ljubljana and Prague (T)

Caspar Dechmann Switzerland - 22-05-2017

I often wonder how there can be so many tentative sites in the middle of Europe without a review on this website despite the fact that they are easy to reach or even near another WHS. Therefore I grasped the occasion when I was in Prague for a few days and made the excursion to see the Curch of the most sacred heart of our Lord by Slovenian architect Jože Plecnik. I had even read that the Czechs had considered to nominate this church for the tentative list by itself. I didn't expect too much from the photographs I had seen before but my visit left me with a similar impression. The church has a certain individuality but it didn't strike me neither by its beauty nor by its originality. The plain cubelike interior has a rather prosaic feel to it as many churches from the 20 century with a similar special concept. I cannot imagine that ICOMOS could be convinced of its OUV. Plecnik added also several elements to the gardens of the prague castle of which I liked the rounded stairs to your left when you enter the castle by the West entrance. But they are neither WHS material. When I googled his work I liked several of his earlier buildings in Vienna and I am looking forward to check out some of his many buildings he built in Lubljana where he is much revered. I am sure he was a productive and versatile architect of considerable value but so far I doubt he was ingenious or influential enough to justify an inscription.


Shahr-i Sokhta

Jarek Pokrzywnicki Poland - 22-05-2017

Site visited in May 2017. Sharhr-i Sokhta or Shahr-e Sūkhté (farsi name means exactly Burnt City in English) is located between Zabol and Zahedan (Iranian towns that are located close to Pakistan border, around 177 km from Zahedan and ca 55 from Zabol). In theory there is a convenient public transport from Zahedan (oficial taxi from Zahedan Bus Station to Zabol, a place in a car should cost around 5 Euro per person, one way). It is also possible to hire a taxi on your own for the whole trip (dar baste) - including waiting time - prices are negotiable.

The site consists of two parts: main excavations area covering around 150 ha - vast land where only 3 % of the ancient city is uncovered and prepared for visiting. Second part is a small museum located on the opposite side of the road, some 900 meters from the exavations entrance.

It is good to start visiting the site from small Visitors Centre (all the information, photos and maps are displayed in Farsi and English). Excavation site is serviced by circular hiking path covering all attractions (building sites, so called temples, craftsmen area, graveyards). Have in mind that currently it is almost a desert, no trees, no shadow so take plenty of water if you want to wander around.

The museum is relatively small but at least is under roof. The site itself is not very popular along Zahedan people but taxi drivers know the place.

And one important remark - the photo presented on this site - above in an official statement - is certainly not from Shahr-i Sokhta. It may be from Kuh-e Khuaja


Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives (T)

Frederik Dawson Netherlands - 22-05-2017

Mesmerizing is the only word I could say when I looked at the amazing details of coral rock cravings of the Hukuru Miskiiy complex or the Old Friday Mosque in Male, the small capital city of Maldives. It was a great surprised that Maldives processes such a beautiful architecture gem which seem to be unknown among its many tourists who came to this coral atolls country for luxury resorts and beautiful coral sand beach. On my last day in Maldives before I went to the airport I decided to do a half day city tour.

Male in general does not have anything interesting except the small precinct of Mulee-Aage Presidential Palace and Old Friday Mosque which seem to be the sole area that could be considered as historic area. While the Presidential Palace and Medhu Ziyaarath Shrine which dedicated Abu al Barakaath Yusuf al Barbari, a man who convert Buddhist Maldives to Islam, are beautiful colorful colonial architectures, the opposite is the solemn white minaret of Munnaaru, Old Friday Mosque and cemetery. At first glance, it was a bit disappointing, the mosque was quite small and its tin roof was totally underwhelmed; however, my eyes was immediately at the tombs complex, there are four beautiful tomb chapels around the mosque, their craving walls are really amazing with unique design that I believed inspired by sea creatures and sea grass with Arabic writings, the closest comparison in my mind is Celtic pattern art. Surrounding these chapels are many tombstones for royal and noble Maldivians, these tombstones are quite impressive, and some even has gilded decoration. The sharp pointed tombstones were for men and rounded one for women. The wall of the mosque reminded me the Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka which later influenced similar temple design in Southeast Asia with impressive cravings on multi-tiers walls next to the ground, the design was much simpler with design of small windows and gates; however, the real gems are at mosque entrances and the stairway walls with very beautiful designs that possibly the highlight of this buildings. During my visit it was afternoon prayer time, inside the mosque was full with prayers, so I thought it was not a right time to ask for permission to see interior, but from the front entrance I still abled to see another beautiful design for inner craving wall, beautiful wooden and stone columns and wooden ceilings. Another unique thing is the old well for cleansing before enter the buildings, the walkway from the well to the mosque is just lovely to see.

Coral stone mosque of Maldives really opened my eyes to another side of this country, its beautiful cravings are in the same level of India and Sri Lankan arts. The layout of mosque also show some interesting cultural link with Buddhism and Hinduism which is quite outstanding. Too bad that this kind of art which supported by Maldivian Monarchy seem to be forgotten by locals after the country becomes a republic. Maybe because the craving designs have some link to religious, so no one seem to use them for any business opportunity especially for tourism which is unfortunate. If such art is founded in other country, I am confident that such craving design will be popular in gifts and souvenirs or even become a tattoo design.


Tamgaly

Solivagant UK - 22-05-2017

Of the 41 sites currently represented in our “Petroglyphs” Connection only 8, by my count, have been inscribed solely/mainly because of their rock art (Gobustan, Coa/S Verde, Mong Altai, Hail, Alta, Tanum, Valcamonica and Tamgaly). Tamgaly was the 6th of these which we have visited (missing Mong Altai and Hail). Looking back, and trying to discount both the “shock of the new” for the first ones and “travel excess/ennui” for some of the later ones, our view is that Tamgaly emerges pretty well in “interest terms” and significance compared with the others and contains some historically significant representations! It also introduces an archaeological period and culture which is not well known in W Europe/N America possibly because access to it by their archaeologists was cut off for political reasons

As previous reviews have stated, Tamgaly needs to be reached by car, probably from Almaty in a day return trip. We played a slight finesse on this and “saved” a day as we arranged for the vehicle taking us from the Kyrgyz border north of Bishkek to Almaty to take in Tamgaly “on the way”. The turn off north is almost exactly half way between the border and Almaty on National Highway A2 after around 1.5 hours in either direction – Tamgaly then lies another 1 hour along a deteriorating road reaching into ever emptier rolling steppe lands. At the (very) small village of Karabastay there is a visitor centre which neither our guide, archaeologist or driver thought ever opens nowadays – we were told that it only contains photos anyway. I was reminded of the somewhat decrepit Korgalzhyn visitors centre a few days earlier! A couple of kms further on there is a fenced area, a rough car park, a couple of picnic huts, a guard house and 2 rather fine “portaloos” - you have reached “Tamgaly” (except that there seems some debate/confusion as to its name as a number of the signs call in “Tanbaly” in both Cyrillic and Latin script!).

A standard “visit” (we spent a “generous” 2 hours on it with a double circuit) consists of seeing 4 of the 6 groups of petroglyphs as designated by archaeologists and as referred to in literature, by following a reasonably self evident route. The main ones (Titled “Groups II - V”!) lie within a few hundred meters of each other around 500m up the valley from the car park. Group I is passed on the way, but isn’t signed, and group VI is a bit further on. At each group, recently installed, black “marble” notice boards display accurate etched drawings of the rock faces in front of you, together with copies of the main figures – indeed viewing the faces from them with good binoculars was often better than nearer viewing. Good photos of the petroglyphs depend very much on the direction of the sun – they were often better if it wasn’t shining or if a different angle was chosen. Close access to some of the carvings is somewhat ineffectually restricted by ropes – whether you can get close will depend on your guide (we were not restricted) - it appears that all visitors are supposed to have an authorised guide and, presumably, if you arrive without one, then a guard will have to be paid instead? In addition there is a cemetery area with excavated graves. These are a reminder that the full title of the site is “Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly”. In fact the entire inscribed area contains numerous burial grounds, “Kurgan” burial mounds and remains of areas of settlement, animal enclosures etc. Even though many of these will not be seen it is worth knowing about them in order to understand the overall nature of the site. The graves are of particular importance in helping archaeologists to understand the function of Tamgaly and its cultural environment during the Bronze and Iron ages which is when the majority of the Petroglyphs were made (with the Middle/Late Bronze ages from c1400 BC being of particular significance).

But this was not just a place where pastoral nomads merely passed by at random at various times and filled their spare hours etching pictures on the available rock faces simply for the pleasure of it!! The theory is that the Petroglyphs are situated in a cultic complex – an “Open air temple”. Group IV, in particular, is regarded as the “composition centre” of the whole ensemble. It contains a single panel of 6 (some, including “our” (Russian trained and speaking) archaeologist who (unbeknown to me) was included in our “tour”, say 7) “sun head” images which are believed to represent the “pantheon” of the peoples who carved them. The entire composition portrays a hierarchy of deities, male dancers and women giving birth and, finally at the bottom, “worshippers”. The elevated location of this panel, and the natural amphitheatre surrounding it, is thought to have facilitated its use in rituals, possibly with some personages on the same level as the glyphs and others as “audience” below. “Archaeocoustics” is said to demonstrate the suitability of the site for transmitting sound and the state of the rocks at the base of the composition would seem to show that fires were lit there – so, one could imagine a night time ceremony with flickering flames highlighting the deities and accompanied by sound of rituals! Fanciful? Possibly!

Our archaeologist went further and claimed a link between these depicted deities and those of the Avesta and Rig Veda (Mithra, Indra etc). At which point we move into the realm of the Indo-Aryan migrations and beyond my knowledge and competence! There is no doubt however, that the Tamgaly site is relevant to the debate around migrations, linguistic and belief transfer etc of that time - the burials for instance are assigned to the Andronovo Culture which you could research further if interested. The theory is expounded in detail (782 pages!) in https://archive.org/details/TheOriginOfTheIndo-iranians . This tome was published in 2007 by the highly reputable Dutch academic publisher Brill so should have some “credibility” – we are not in Erich von Däniken territory here! The Andronovo story relates to “wider” Kazakhstan and Tamgaly features only en passant, particularly on pages 182/3, 246/7 and figure 56. I briefly quote – “Images of a sun faced character on the … Tamgaly petroglyphs are probably images of the most ancient Indo-Iranian Mithra = Sun God. (followed by quotes from the Avesta and Rig Veda )…. All this leads us to interpret the petroglyphs as ancient sanctuaries. Interpreting the semantics of some images and compositions of Andronovo art on the basis of Indo-Iranian mythology is a serious argument in favour of setting the Ayrian homeland in the Steppe”. Figure 56 shows 2 of the “solar faced” characters from Tamgaly including one piece described as a “rock art masterpiece” in the Nomination File - “the solar anthropomorphic image standing on the back of a bull” (Group III). It should be mentioned however that the Nomination file says nothing of this interpretation and assignment of an identified deity to the image!

The other Groups contain further fine examples of petroglyph art – we particularly liked the image in Group III of a calf inside a cow which is also described as a “masterpiece” in the Nomination File (Photo). There are further “Sun men” together with a wide range of animals - camels, horses, deer etc and drawings of human sexual intercourse. LP says that there are also depictions of sexual relations between men and goats – but we didn’t see them and they weren’t pointed out! I thought back to the exhibition called “Sexo in Piedra” which we had seen in the Atapuerca museum a couple of years ago! (See my review). Look out also for the Bronze Age chariot in Group V – the earliest examples of chariots in the World have been found in Andronovo period graves.

The condition of the petroglyphs is a matter for concern. The base rock is sandstone whose flat surface has, in the right orientation and conditions, developed a black surface patina from the sun over the centuries (Called “Desert Sunburn”!). In some examples the artist has deliberately used this for effect by differentially clearing it. The problem is that the rock foliates very easily – primarily from water and frost but also from damage by humans. We were told that vibration has been minimised by keeping the car park well away and also that the area was used by Soviet tanks which shook the rocks. I haven’t been able to verify this so it might be a Kazakh invention! Group IV is particularly a problem with large cracks and separation taking place. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in future years, it will be found necessary to erect a cover and maybe even glass in front. It will also be noted that our favourite cow and calf has lost part of the head and forelegs .

Regarding Tamgaly’s inscribed criteria - Kazakhstan nominated it for i, ii, iii, iv and v. The AB evaluation would seem to indicate that ICOMOS rejected ii, iv and v but accepted i and iii. It did NOT however like the lack of a Management Plan and proposed “Referral”. We have no record of discussions at the 2004 WHC but the recommendation was overturned and the site was inscribed SOLELY on Criterion iii!! What nonsense – its inscription should clearly include Criterion i along with those at Coa and Tanum!!!

Here are 2 other links which anyone interested in discovering more about Tamgaly might find useful

a. This, solely about Tamgaly, has some nice line drawings of the figures, which, given the difficulty of identifying some of them in field conditions, might be of use to anyone going/having been –

http://www.rockartscandinavia.com/images/articles/luc_tamgaly_a11.pdf

b. This also covers Tamgaly in some detail but unfortunately the only version I can find only has the text – without the “figures”

http://www.lgakz.org/Texts/LiveTexts/9-RockArtDocumConservationEng.pdf


Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

Solivagant UK - 20-05-2017

Beyond the value of the building itself there were 2 aspects of our visit to the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in May 2017 which we found of interest – first, the extra insight and impetus it gave us for understanding the developing place of religion in contemporary Kazakhstan (a theme we followed throughout our tour of the country) and second, the way in which the UNESCO site had been defined and presented.

First the building itself and the logistics. The Mausoleum dominates the town of Turkistan - we drove up from Shymkent in the morning, stopping off at the T List site of Otrar and the Arystan Bab Mausoleum (another nearby pilgrimage site) for an hour or so on the way, had lunch in Turkistan, gave the mausoleum and the surrounding area a bit over 2 hours and then drove on to Aksu-Zhabagly, by-passing Shymkent on the way back by following the main highway.

The mausoleum is set in the centre of what was once the old city of Turkistan and is the only extant original structure from the city’s pre-Russian era. Various buildings nearby and a part of the walls have however been recently reconstructed but, around the Mausoleum and within the boundaries of the old city, lies a vast archaeological zone of decaying mud walls of ruined buildings and abandoned “digs”. The nearby museum was once a barracks and was constructed by the Russians from bricks ransacked from another of the tombs inside the perimeter.

The city has a history dating back to the 4th C and became a trade and religious centre. In the 12th C the poet and mystic “Kawaja” (Or “Koja” - an honorific meaning “master”) Ahmed Yasawi (1093-1166) lived there and founded a Sufi order which bears his name. In 1389 Timur ordered the construction of a new Mausoleum for him to replace an earlier one but, on his own death in 1405, it was still incomplete. As Wiki states, “Despite its incomplete state, the mausoleum has survived as one of the best-preserved of all Timurid constructions”. . ICOMOS also describes it as having been better preserved than many other Timurid monuments such as the far more famous Timurid structure of Bibi Khanum shrine in Samarkand. In my main reference book on the subject (Islam Art and Architecture ISBN 3-8290-2558-0) a large picture of the Mausoleum introduces the chapter on Timurid architecture. The building is undoubtedly of “World” architectural significance despite its somewhat isolated location away from more famous Islamic buildings!

A visit will consist of a circuit (or circuits) of the exterior to see the tiled decoration on 3 of its walls and the 2 domes, followed by entry into the mausoleum from the unfinished side (no tiles). We had a local guide with excellent English from a team of smartly uniformed ladies dressed rather like Emirates cabin crew with tailored dark blue trousers, light blue “modern” head scarf and yellow jacket! Inside is a mixture of “museum” and “holy place” of which more later. After taking several interior photographs we were told that we shouldn’t do so – but no one really seemed to mind. The building is far more than “Mausoleum” and contains a series of rooms on 2 floors around a large hall under an enormous main dome with the great man’s tomb offset below the second, smaller and ribbed one. The main interior is plain white with only stalactite “Muqanas” for decoration. The side rooms functioned as library, kitchen, meeting rooms, mosque, lodgings. The Central Hall (or “Khanqa” ) itself was for Sufi ritual gatherings. Various books call these Sufis “Dervishes” but, as far as I was able to discover from our guide and from later research, this is a generic term and the “Whirling” which is often associated with the word was and is not a practice of the Yasawiyya school or even present in C Asian Sufism.

The various rooms are set up as museums with, e.g the kitchens, containing huge ovens and troughs to show how food was produced and carried to large numbers of pilgrims. A coin collection was somewhat less interesting and the library was empty. The most impressive “article” in the building is the enormous (2 tonne) and highly decorated bronze “Taykazan Cauldron” donated by Timur to the mausoleum and now sitting dead centre in the Khanqa. This resided in the Hall of Turkic Culture in the Hermitage from 1935-1989 when it was returned. Apparently the Bolsheviks had to build a railway “spur” to take it away! There also used to be 6 bronze lamps presented by Timur. Much to Kazakhstan’s chagrin, 2 still remain in the Hermitage and one somehow found its way to the Louvre!

Entrance to the tomb room is now closed – to preserve it and the very fine carved doors we were told. In a little side room a grilled window allows the tomb to be seen and, when we were there, a few pilgrims sat, prayed and donated etc. In early Communist times the building was entirely closed and was later opened strictly as a museum and, as far as we could discover, it is still the case that no form of larger/grander religious rituals take place inside main hall. On the other hand we were told that Turkistan was traditionally regarded as the “Second Mecca” (we were told the same about Osh also!!) and that 3 pilgrimages there equalled a Hajj. So, where were all the pilgrims?

Maybe it was a quiet day - but Kazakhstan is very much in the process of developing an acceptable way of incorporating “religion” into its culture after years of hostile and atheistic Soviet policies and the Yassawi Mausoleum is inevitably a part of this. Islam in this area was always somewhat mixed with shamanistic aspects and the peoples of the Steppes adopted it in different ways from those of the settled agricultural regions of Uzbekistan etc. Independence and the relaxation of Soviet anti religious policies mean that Kazakhstan is having to develop a national consciousness and a religious “settlement” within which some form of Islam must be a significant part. But what form? Nazarbaev is trying hard to direct people into non-extreme forms of both Christianity and Islam and to emphasise the Kazakh aspects of the latter in order to stifle the introduction of hardline views from the south and Arabia. As an indication of how “naïve” the people are in these matters, the massive new Hasrat Sultan Mosque in Astana (opened 1992) even has notice boards outside and inside telling people how to pray, wash, enter/exit and dress! The Norman Foster designed “Palace of Peace and Reconciliation” in Astana is another manifestation of Nazarabaev’s approach – “constructed to host the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. It contains accommodations for different religions: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism and other faiths….(it) expresses the spirit of Kazakhstan, where cultures, traditions and representatives of various nationalities coexist in peace, harmony and accord” (Wiki) . I found this article to be quite a good introduction to the complexity of Islam in Kazakhstan and the nature and role of pilgrimage http://ijbssnet.com/journals/Vol_3_No_11_June_2012/15.pdf

Yassawi is acceptable as a Kazakh national and Muslim hero and this is more important in Kazakhstan than the exact form of Sufism he developed. And his international importance is somewhat limited too – he is described in his Wiki section as a “poet and Sufi, an early mystic who exerted a powerful influence on the development of Sufi orders throughout the Turkic speaking World. Yasavi is currently the earliest known Turkic poet who composed poetry in Middle Turkic…. (He) was a pioneer of popular mysticism, founded the first Turkic Sufi order, the Yasawiyya or Yeseviye, which very quickly spread over Turkic-speaking areas”. If however you have a look at the full “Sufi” section on Wiki he does get a mention, but seems relatively unimportant amongst all the other Sufi illuminati! His major work of Sufic poetry is called the “Diwani Hikmet” ( = “Divine Wisdom”). An English introduction and translation is available here - http://diwanihikmet.com/diwani-flip-book.html ). It would seem however, that, just as most pilgrims to Assisi are unlikely to be experts in the Franciscan Rules, the pilgrims to Turkistan (and even many Kazakhs who will never make it there but have adopted him as a figure to revere) will never read the Diwani or consider themselves “Sufis”! Since our own, well educated, guide had not either, he doesn’t even appear to be taught as part of Kazakh literature. So, as of today, you will not see any form of “Sufi” ritual taking place at the shrine – though you will pick up on various mystical and shamanistic practices or at least ones which would not be considered “acceptable” by “purist” Muslims in the West!

At the small reconstructed Arystan Bab mausoleum (Yassawi was Arystan Bab’s pupil and, in legend, connects Yassawi to Muhammed via the Prophet’s prayer beads which he passed on) around 6o kms south of Turkistan we had witnessed a rather more “fervent” type of pilgrimage with sheep being sacrificed,. This despite the tomb’s “rules”, exhibited in several languages at the entrance - these prohibited “Crying hard, stroking/wiping/walking around kissing and praying, setting fire, tightening fabric around trees, wishing something from spirit, slaughtering at the tomb” (They do allow “thinking about death and the hereafter” however)!!! There is a lot of “religious unorthodoxy” encompassed within those regulations. I suspect that Nazarbayev’s attempts to control religious observance via his semi governmental “Spritual Association of Muslims of Kazakhstan” (SAMK) is going to have problems exercising control over such matters and that we could yet see a “sheep killing area” reaching the Yassawi mausoleum!

Around the Mausoleum itself, but still within the buffer zone, there are a number of buildings which have been reconstructed over original foundations which are worth visiting. The most interesting is the “Underground Mosque” within which is the “cave” (a deep hole) used by Yassawi himself during his later mystic/ascetic period – shades of St Francis again!! The hole of course predated the original mosque but it appears that such semi-underground mosques were common in the area in early Islamic times. Other reconstructed buildings include a Friday mosque, a bath house and several tombs. Interestingly the signs outside of each of them show the UNESCO logo as if they are a part of the inscribed site! I have double checked the Nomination File and they are not. I suppose their authentic foundations could have justified inclusion despite the modern superstructure but, of the 3 criteria on which the Mausoleum was inscribed, I guess only No 3 relating to a “cultural tradition” could have been relevant since they don’t of course possess the architectural OUV for which the mausoleum was primarily inscribed. Nevertheless they form an important part of the “pilgrim route” for locals.


Ancient Nara

Joseph Colletti USA - 19-05-2017

One of the many delights of this stunning site, an easy day trip from Kyoto, besides the the two huge carved wooden guardians of the temple, is the admonition near the entrance gate to be careful a deer does not eat your ticket.

Even for those who might feel "templed out" the site is unique and worthy of its world heritage status.


Groupe de Sambor Prei Kuk (T)

Boj Capati Philippines - 19-05-2017

From Phnom Penh, it is possible to do a day trip to Sambor Prei Kuk, a beautiful pre-Angkorian temple complex in the middle of the forest. The Kampong Thom local tourism office actively encourages tourists to arrange visits with local communities - from tuk-tuk rides, tour guide service and site interpretation.

According to my guide, Sambor (many) Prei (forest) Kuk (temples), means, many temples inside the forest. Indeed, SPK is situated in a distinct landscape, different from the vast plain of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, or the sacred cliff of Prasat Preah Vihear. The forest appears to be an integral element of the temple complex, no wonder the site is nominated as a cultural landscape


Traditional Buddhist Mountain Temples of Korea (T)

Clyde Malta - 16-05-2017

I visited this WHS in April 2017. I visited the Seonamsa Mountain Temple which is located in the Joyesan Provincial Park a few kilometres away from Suncheon.

This mountain temple has undergone several restorations from 1597 through to 1823 but is overall in quite a good state. It has a number of peculiar features such as a lavatory cottage a spiritual pond with an artificial island and a bridge with several Korean script inscriptions and a dragonhead carved in the middle (photo).

It is also possible to do a temple stay here and I'd recommend it even though I didn't stay myself. When I visited, the monks were practicing their drum and cymbal skills on a blackboard with wooden spoons and an empty gas cylinder! The sounds they created in the middle of the national park though were exactly similar to normal drums and cymbals!

The highlight of my visit were the lovely paintings or palsangdo enshrined in the Seonamsa Palsangjeon in which the entire life of Sakyamuni from former life to Nirvana is described in 8 scenes. The temple houses 24 of the most important national and state cultural properties and the Seonamsa Museum displays over 200 cultural properties.

Just before the temple entrance there's a lovely tea house with a very peaceful setting (just before the red wooden 'totems').


Southwestern Coast Tidal Flats (T)

Clyde Malta - 16-05-2017

I visited this tentative WHS in April 2017 after a 2.5hr drive from Busan. I visited the Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve which is also recognised as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.

The elevated wooden walkways without railings over the muddy tidal flats reminded me of Plitvice in Croatia. The sheer amount and variety of different species of crabs was impressive since their food supply is abundant. I also managed to spot a number of waders (also a pair of Spoon-billed Sandpipers) and warblers. The highlight species though were the mudskippers, amphibuous fish with limbs!

The reed walks and hides are pleasant but good digiscopes, binoculars and patience are required to be able to get a glimpse of the more interesting birdlife. The famous viewpoint at sunset from the Mt Yongsan Observation Platform is well worth the 1.3km uphill hike.

The mudflat area of Korea's western coast is one of the world's top five mudflats, ranked alongside the eastern coast of Canada, the eastern coast of the United States, Germany's North Sea coast, and the mudflats of the Amazon River basin. The mudflat results from the prolonged accumulation of sand or clay carried by tidal currents from the ocean seabed. It is hidden underwater during high tides and revealed during low tides.

An interesting feature of these mudflats is the purification of contaminants that flow into the ocean. After contaminants produced by factories and homes seep into the ocean, the mudflat's sedimentary layer filters them out like filter paper. The filtered substances are then broken down and cleaned by the plant and animal life of the mudflat. It is said that the purification ability of Korean mudflats is 1.5 times stronger than that of all sewage treatment plants in the country combined.

Over 70% of the oxygen on Earth is produced not by forests but in the ocean by phytoplankton through photosynthesis. Because each gram of mudflat mud contains hundreds of thousands of phytoplankton, the mudflat is able to produce more oxygen than a forest of the same area. For this reason, Korea regards these mudflats as a true natural wonder.


Amsterdam Canal Ring

History Fangirl United States - 15-05-2017

Amsterdam is special. I've been twice, and it's still impossible for my brain to understand the engineering required to dig a city out of the sea. The architecture of the houses is a product of both the canals and the local tax laws, leading to one of the most beautiful and unique townhouse styles in Europe.

Like some others on here, I find the name of the WHS a bit ugly.

Here's the full write-up of the site: Unesco World Heritage Site Seventeenth-Century Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam

Read more about my Unesco World Heritage travels on my website.


Haeinsa Temple

Clyde Malta - 15-05-2017

I visited this WHS in April 2017 while following a 2 day 1 night regular program templestay. I enjoyed getting a general overview of meditation and different insights from a Buddhist monk even though my primary aim was to enrich my visit to this WHS and be able to appreciate its OUV without the presence of busloads of tourists.

For this reason I was very pleased with the templestay in general although I'd recommend staying at a less famous mountain temple if possible to get a less touristy approach. I had already experienced Buddhist monastery life in Laos, Myanmar and Nepal and I found them to be much less touristy and more authentic experiences than the templestay in South Korea. Still it is a very interesting experience and a good alternative to the budget accomodation options available near most mountain temples. I enjoyed learning about the temple etiquette that lay Buddhists are supposed to follow.

Haeinsa Temple is located at 400 metres above sea level beneath the Gaya mountain at the heart of the Gayasan National Park. To reach the temple, I caught a bus to Daegu and another bus to Haeinsa proper. If you show your templestay reservation you won't have to pay the entrance fee to the Gayasan National Park which is collected at the toll station on the bus itself nor the entrance ticket to Haeinsa Temple itself. When I visited, the temple was colourfully adorned with prayer lanterns to celebrate Buddha's birthday (picture). The UNESCO stone marker is just opposite the entrance to the temple (some 1.5km uphill from the bus stop).

Even though the Haeinsa Temple buildings are quite interesting and kept in very good condition, the main reason for its separate inscription as a WHS are the depositories of the Tripitaka Koreana, believed to be the world's oldest and most comprehensive intact version of Buddhist canon in Chinese script, with no known errors. It is carved onto 81,340 wooden printing blocks with over 52 million characters which are organised in 1514 titles and 6791 volumes. A team of around thirty scribes completed the work in 1251, under the shadow of the imminent Mongol invasions.

The Tripitaka Koreana is housed in 4 buildings collectively called Janggyeong Panjeon, that are laid out in a rectangular arrangement. The Hall of the Dharma Treasure and the Hall of Sutras are the 2 main halls as depositories of the Tripitaka. The 2 small halls to the east and west sides house wooden printing blocks of later Buddhist scriptures.

At first glance the Janggyeong Panjeon seems to be built in quite a plain and ordinary style. However, the complex was in fact built to exact specifications to preserve the woodblocks by very sophisticated means. The location of the complex as well as the layout and structure of the buildings and windows maintain optimum ventilation, temperature, humidity and light intensity. Since the 18th century, 7 serious fires broke out at Haeinsa Temple, but the flames never reached Janggyeong Panjeon.

Each block of the Tripitaka Koreana is composed of a board on which characters are carved. 2 wooden end pieces are designed as the handle attached on both ends. Each block measures 70cm by 24cm by 2.8cm and weighs about 3.25kg. 23 lines of text with 14 characters per line are carved in relief onto each block on both sides. The wooden printing blocks are also inscribed on the Memory of the World Register but I agree that the halls themselves together with the Tripitaka Koreana itself possess OUV as one of the most remarkable library structures in Asia.

Writing and carving the text was an enormous undertaking that involved a number of craftsmen, officials and scholars for the different stages of the production and printing process of the Tripitaka Koreana. The wood for the woodblocks was soaked for long in sea muds or steamed in brine to soften the wood for carving and to protect the finished blocks from insect damage. The engravings are believed to have been done at Daesa-ri Namhaegun in the south coast of the Korean peninsula. The tidal range is very high there, so transporting and soaking the wood was quite easy.

According to historical research, paper manuscripts were attached to the boards each with 23 lines of text and 14 characters per line. Scholars and officials had to practice before writing to ensure consistency in the calligraphic style. In order for the characters to be printed in the proper direction, the same side of the paper manuscript on which the text was written was pasted onto the block. Immediately before carving, vegetable oil was thinly applied to the paper making the letters show distinctly. Characters were then carved in relief on both sides of the woodblocks.

Each carved woodblock was printed and compared with the original text to find any mistakes. Wrongly engraved characters were carved out on a separate piece of wood and then glued onto the spot that was carved out. This proofreading and correction work was done so meticulously that no traces of correction could be found in any of the woodblocks. The production of good quality paper during the Goryeo period made it possible to print the Tripitaka Koreana. To print it, a woodblock was evenly covered with ink, a piece of paper was placed on it, and then the paper was scrubbed lightly with an implement made of hair lumped with bee-wax.

The original woodblocks can be seen through the wooden ventilation windows even though stanchions have been placed to avoid any possible damage to the fragile windows from the ubiquitous selfie sticks. Being there at 8:30am with our assigned monk meant that we had the place to ourselves. In 2000, after 9 years of work involving 100 experts and a cost of 8 million dollars, the Tripitaka Koreana was finally digitalized. Work is also underway to create a copper plate Tripitaka Koreana.

All in all I enjoyed my visit and I would definitely rank it as one of the must see WHS in South Korea.


Wet Tropics of Queensland

John Booth New Zealand - 15-05-2017

This year I traveled to revisit Kuranda by the slow train, a journey that allows plenty of opportunity of seeing the rainforest close up, and vistas of the Coral Sea in the distance.

Kuranda village however remained unchanged from the way it was when I last visited 25 years ago.

But this year I added different destinations:

a. The Daintree River with its ovrhanging foliage, abundant birdlife and the occasional crocodile.

b. Cape Tribulation Beach, where the rainforest meets the reef.

c. a cruise on Lake Barrine opened up a world of tall trees, fish, eels, snakes and turtles all living in and around its waters.

d. The Curtain Fig Tree near Yungaburra with its aerial root system high up in the foliage.


Purnululu National Park

John Booth New Zealand - 14-05-2017

I took the more comfortable route to this site by flying in a small aircraft from Kununurra to Bellburn Airfield, within the Purnululu National Park. This had the added advantage of seeing the extent of the Bungle-Bungles from the air.

From the airfield it was a short drive to the Cathedral Gorge, in the centre of the park and in the midst of dozens of the colourful beehive domes.

Took a hike into Cathedral Gorge, noted for its shade, and ever-changing colours. Visited one of the camps for overnight stays, but opted to return to Kununurra.


Saryarka

Solivagant UK - 14-05-2017

The agency in Kazakhstan which prearranged our trip to Korgalzhyn was concerned about whether we would be able/allowed to get inside. It appears that both the road from Astana to Korgalzhyn and the dirt road from Korgalzhyn into the park can get flooded/impassable in spring and our planned date of May 4 was still in the “problem” period. Phone calls to the reserve had received a “well we will see on the day” response. In the end, the period immediately before hand had been dry and we had no problems.

As you make the 2hr drive from Astana to Korgalzhyn there are some interesting aspects of Kazakhstan’s “Russian” past and present to look out for. Around 40kms out you drive past the site of the ALZHIR women’s gulag where the wives, sisters, mothers etc of class enemies had been deported for “Betrayal of the Motherland” – guilt by association. The road then enters an area of flood plains of the River Nura on its way to the endorheic basin of Korgalzhyn – on our day of travel the river was a huge lake lapping the road and showing that it could easily block it. This was followed by an area of rolling, but no longer “virgin”, steppe which had been ploughed up during Khrushchev’s “Virgin Lands” campaign – indeed Astana (then called “Akmolinsk”) had been renamed “Tselinograd” = “Virgin Lands City” in 1962. However, the closer you get to Korgalzhyn the more you can see that this once ploughed land, which proved unsuitable for producing the vast and regular harvests of grain which had been hoped for, is now reverting to a more natural state with only the occasional crumbling “Kolkhoz” building and abandoned pieces of agricultural machinery to show what was once there. It appears that the reserve itself escaped all such activity apart from being designated as a “hunting reserve” between 1957-68. Our vehicle was a little microcosm of present day Kazakhstan – our young and westernised Kazakh guide with superb English but whose parents still looked back wistfully on the USSR, having lost their free apartments and future pensions, our middle aged driver who only spoke Russian and a young ornithologist of Russian ethnicity who struggled to understand Kazakh and English and whose grandparents had come willingly both for bonuses and with hope from as far away as Vladivostok and Murmansk to help create the “Virgin Lands” future. By 1959 Kazakhstan was the only SSR whose ethnic “owners” were in a minority. It is now 65/21 Kazakh/Russian and in April 2017 Nazarbayev announced the intention to move Kazakhstan entirely to the Latin alphabet by 2025.

You then reach the very “Russian” village of Korglzhyn, past fading Soviet propagandist town signs of giant ears of golden wheat! There we visited the museum which also seemed to be from a Soviet time warp even though we were told that it only dated back to 2005. The nomination file shows, however, that it was closed that year for refurbishment and visitor numbers from previous years were also shown, so surely it must have existed before hand – it certainly felt so. The 2008 nomination file promises that “the museum will be rebuilt and transformed to a modern visitor centre with a café and souvenir shop”. Another unfulfilled dream I fear. The current museum is just about worth visiting for its period atmosphere if not for its wildlife information. Exterior tiles are dropping off whilst one interior wall is decorated with a socialist realist mural. The exhibits consist of a number of dioramas – the nomination file indicates that relatively few visitors actually go on into the Reserve so this is possibly all the “wildlife” they will see! On another wall there is an old B+W photo of a couple of visitors standing in front of shelves containing large numbers of stuffed birds. We were told that IUCN had asked that such exhibits be removed!

The main hall contains a large relief map of the reserve showing the river/lake system – an interesting aspect of this is that it showed, with clear red and blue lines, a very large extension of both the core and buffer zones of the reserve to the west and south of main Lake Tengiz. This had been promised in the 2007 Nomination File and IUCN had commented positively that the State Party should “expedite planned extensions of the property including the additional area of Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve”. We saw the same boundaries on signs in the park itself but there is no evidence that Kazakhstan has made any attempt to extend the boundaries of the UNESCO site itself. Instead the priority appears to have been on gaining “Man and Bisophere” status for the entire Reserve including this larger area. The WHS Nomination file states “Planning is also under way to enlarge the buffer around Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve by 211,700 ha, as a basis for establishing a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In addition, there is interest in gaining protected area status for a further one million hectares of what the Kazakhs term “hunger steppe” - semi-desert steppe to the southwest of Lake Tengiz (around Lakes Kipshak and Kirey) in Karagandinski oblast, an area which historically has been a significant saiga habitat.” We were told that to reach this large added steppe area to the West of Lake Tengiz required a day each way with 4x4 and a day spent there to make it “worthwhile”. Regarding the relative importance of “Man & Biosphere” and “World Heritage” it was of interest to note that the museum had on show a copy of a UNESCO certificate dated July 2012 signed by Bukova for the former but not one for its earlier World Heritage Inscription!

We spent around 45 minutes at the museum and picked up our required local “Reserve” guide there – a pleasant lady who did absolutely nothing except get out of the car on our return drive to lift the barrier! To get into the reserve you have to go back north again out of Korgalzhyn, cross the Nura river and turn left onto a dirt road. Along the way you will cross the actual park boundary just before Isei Lake at 50.526060, 69.696152 and pay the entry fee (The Museum also charges entry but only collects for itself). Before entering we drove south alongside Isei for a while to get good views of Pelicans. After around 50kms and a couple of hours (including numerous stops to view wildlife) from Korgalzyn you will arrive at a motley collection of huts at 50.476525, 69.542927 . The Nomination File describes these as “a small guesthouse for 12 persons on the ranger station Karazhar in the reserve. A cafe and shop are opened when tourists are there.” Maybe, but on this day, apart from a friendly dog and a fisherman, we were alone – there wasn’t even anyone to give us the key to the nearby bird hide! We had our own picnic with us but I noticed that the “standard” tour has lunch in Korgalzhyn after the museum visit - which seems a waste of time given the effort of reaching the Reserve! Karazhar is situated on Lake Sultankeldi and you will have passed Lakes Sholak and Isei to reach it. In fact we saw as good flora and fauna outside the boundary as beyond it. I had never expected to see Saiga – and didn’t!! The Pelicans and Flamingos were present but there are far better places in the World to see them. The Demoiselle Cranes and Hen Harriers put on a good show as did the Marmots (which we had to go searching for using our drivers prior knowledge – the Reserve's guide was useless). But it was really the virgin “Steppe” landscape which was the highlight - carpeted with Tulips but different and much smaller species than those we were to see later in Aksu-Zhabagly. Oh - and beware the insect life of the Steppe and bring some repellent!


Brú na Bóinne

Jay T USA - 14-05-2017

Within an hour of leaving Dublin's international airport, my friends and I found ourselves within the beautifully bucolic Boyne River valley, home to the neolithic history encapsulated in the Brú na Bóinne - Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne World Heritage Site. We arrived at the visitor center as soon as it opened in the morning, and were thus able to secure a visit on the earliest tour to Newgrange tomb. The visitor center is an excellent way to prepare for a visit to Newgrange, with exhibits on the life of local inhabitants from around 3200 B.C., and a replica of the tomb passage and chamber that is wheelchair accessible. After we toured the visitor center, we boarded a bus which took us to Newgrange tomb, which sits atop a hill overlooking the verdant Boyne River valley. I enjoyed the walk back in time through the passage to the inner chamber, where the guide helpfully turned off the lights and provided a simulation of what the light would look like when the sun is lined up with the tomb entrance at the winter solstice. I also appreciated the stone art, including the spirals carved into rocks inside and outside the tomb. A visit to Brú na Bóinne is an excellent introduction to the rich history of the Emerald Isle.

Logistics: Brú na Bóinne is situated in the Irish countryside, and is most easily reached by automobile or other private transportation. Day tours with tour companies departing from Dublin are an alternative option for visits.


Ningaloo Coast

John Booth New Zealand - 14-05-2017

This site is located in the remote north-west corner of Western Australia where it rarely rains, and the scrub hardly grows more than knee high, so provides no natural shade from the rays of the sun. In April,when it was a balmy 39degC and the flies were in abundance, I drove from Exmouth along the bitumen to its end at Yardie Creek. From here southwards 4WD vehicles are mandatory. The drive was 170 kms each way, and there are numerous beaches where stops can be made to inspect the reef and its occupants.

For variety along the way there is the Milyering Information Centre providing a wealth of information about the denizens of the deep. Also there is the Vlamingh Head lighthouse, sited on the highest promontory, and overlooking the graves of the many ships that fell afoul of the reef before the lighthouse was constructed.


Western Tien-Shan

Solivagant UK - 13-05-2017

When planning to visit the W Tien Shan WHS during our May 2017 visit to Kazakhstan we were faced with the problem of which of the 7 locations situated inside that country (mostly in the general area of Shymkent/Taraz) we should aim for! In the end we chose the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. It would appear that this is the most popular for non specialist visitors – it is set up to provide tourist entry to the reserve and is easy to access by road or rail from both the above mentioned cities – and thus for taking in on a route across Southern Kazakhstan without too much of a detour.

The nomination of W Tien Shan received a negative evaluation from IUCN who, among other matters, were not happy with the diffuse nature of the serial locations. In the end the WHC inscribed it solely on Criterion 10 for its biological diversity – but 2 locations in Kazakhstan described as “Palaeontological sites” were still inscribed despite the removal of Criterion 8 (“examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms…” etc). And that of course raises the issue of why you might want to visit this WHS. It is undoubtedly most significant for its flora and fauna and Aksu Zhabagly majors particularly on the former. The UK Natural History travel company Greentours raves about its “ rare Primula minkwitziae and a wide range of bulbs including lots of Tulips and Juno Irises” . There are also mammals to see and some people staying at our guest house had obtained distant views of bear the day before we arrived!

Our objectives were indeed, both that “WHS tick” and the chance to see wild tulips, as we do quite like tracking down the origins of our “garden species” around the World (and even have a “list” for them!) - “it is estimated that over 75% of Dutch Tulip varieties come from just 2 Central Asia species – Tulipa Gregorii and Tulipa Kaufmanniana” – both of which are readily viewable in season. Greentours spend days 5-11 (!!) of a 14 day trip in Aksu Zhabagly primarily to see them – “A truly remarkable display of colourful tulips carpet the mountains and valleys of Southern Kazakhstan in spring. Chief among them are the magnificent goblets of Greig’s Tulip which come in an unforgettable pageant of reds, oranges and yellows. Beautiful water-lily flowers of Tulipa kaufmanniana adorn the lower slopes of the Mountains of Heaven like so many jewels..”

I suspect, however, that most WHS travellers will be visiting more for a mixture of that site “tick” and the chance to have a pleasant hike in mountainous scenery, rather than to invest a lot of time tracking down rare plants etc! I could imagine that it could provide 1 or 2 quite pleasant R+R days as a break from the logistical hassles of long train journeys, taxi rides etc across this vast country even if you had no great “need” to see particular plant species. If you do want to see the tulips it appears that 2nd half of April is the best time to go in normal years (even though the common wisdom is to go in May). In 2017 spring had come late and we were in “peak season” around May 8. The Kaufamannia, for instance, flower very soon after the snow has melted and it is necessary to track down hollows etc where the snow has lingered – or else climb higher and higher.

If the mountain hike is more your thing then later could be ok – however you do not (at least “officially” and, as far as we could see this was strictly enforced) get into Aksu-Zhabagly without being accompanied by an official guide – who could apparently be just a “ranger” (indeed if you want someone with flora/fauna knowledge and some English you would need to ensure that you ordered, paid for and got this). One US guy staying at our guest house was very disappointed that he couldn’t just set off on a long mountain hike on his own as he was used to doing in so many other National Parks etc around the World. And then you will need transport into the Reserve. The village of Zhabagly (called “Novonikolaevka” on the map version provided in the Nomination file) has a couple of guesthouses specializing in providing services to tourists entering the reserve. It is situated around 12 kms from the train station at Tyulkubas which is a normal stop for trains on the Shymkent/Teraz line. The guest houses are set up to meet and take guests to/from the station. They are also set up to transport people into the reserve, provide horses and guides etc. Depending on the numbers of other visitors wanting a similar trip on the same day it should be possible to share transport - on our first day we shared the vehicle up to Aksu Canyon with 5 others.

We reached Zhabagly by private car from Turkestan – having driven up there from Shymkent by car that morning. We departed Turkestan at 17.20 and reached Zhabagly at 20.00. The highway is mainly fast dual carriageway and by-passes Shymkent. We departed by train from Tyukulbas at 20.17 arriving in Teraz at 22.45. So you could arrive at Zhabagly one evening, overnight there, make a park visit the next day and get away the second evening.

Probably the best “all round” outing which mixes scenery and flowers is to Aksu Canyon. It does not take you into the higher snow capped mountain areas and, as canyons go in Worldwide terms, I would only put it in the “middling” class – around 300-500m deep and c 12kms long, but still worth seeing if you are “in the area”. The boundary of the inscribed WHS at this point follows the canyon edge very closely – you will need to get to the ranger station at 42.331600, 70.373303. Until that point on the southern side there is mainly pastureland and summer arable fields, though still with some nice areas of Tulip. The surfaced road stops some kms away and, following rain, our non 4x4 had problems crossing the grasslands. Once there you can both descend to the canyon floor and/or go along the edge looking at flowers, and distant mountains (photo). With a knowledgeable guide you should see a fair number of plants including the special tulips and natural hybrids. The birds were ok, but were limited in number and this is not a prime area for them. We had another walk on a second day which was mostly within the reserve, following the Zhabagly river with lunch at 42.406611, 70.580849. This went more into the mountains and there were some additional plant, bird species etc – but, unless you were particularly wanting another walk and more flower hunting, didn’t really add a great deal!

At no point on either of the walks was there any sign indicating that we had entered a UNESCO WHS. The site had only been inscribed for under a year at the time of our visit but we got the impression that UNESCO wasn’t particularly “popular”. Aksu Zhabagly is the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia having been created as early as 1926 – and there were signs around extolling that! As one of the people we spoke to said (in Russian) – “We will put up UNESCO signs when UNESCO pay for them…. We have been looking after this place for 90 years without their help….We don’t need well paid bureaucrats in Paris to tell us what to do…..”!). Whilst we were there, some hapless “peasants” were being fined a large amount of money (in Kazakh terms) for collecting mushrooms from within the reserve. IUCN commented that “(Aksu-Zhabagly) is one of the best preserved areas in the region” but was still concerned about poaching and illegal grazing and concluded that protection wasn’t good enough.

Inevitably the question arises as to which guesthouse to use. “Zhenya and Lyuda’s boarding house” (now called “Aksu Inn”) is the long term favourite, was mentioned in our 1996 edition of LP ‘s “Central Asia” and is used by Greentours. Zhenya is very knowledgeable about flowers and birds (and has adequate English to explain them), has the necessary vehicles and contacts etc but I can’t say we were that satisfied with a number of aspects and we felt that he/his guest house were relying a bit too much on past reputation. In our opinion the food and accommodation was poor for the rather high price and his guiding often seemed more about him going ahead to get good photos to sell than in staying with his customers. I understand that the main alternative also has "problems"! You will just have to investigate and make your own choice!


Dengfeng

Juha Sjoeblom Finland - 13-05-2017

Site visited April 2017. The historic monuments of the city of Dengfeng was a pleasant experience. There were absolutely the smallest amount of visitors among the sites that I have visited in China. The places were calm and quiet and some of them are surrounded by beautiful nature. I visited five of the eight inscribed properties.

First of all I must tell that in this review I'm not going to mention anything about visiting the Shaolin Temple. Actually I had heard nothing but bad things about it being a major tourist trap. So I deliberately left that off from my itinerary. I was curious to see what other things there are in this WHS.

Despite of being named after the city of Dengfeng, this inscription is all about Mount Songshan and the monuments connected to and located around it. Mount Songshan is one of the most sacred Taoist mountains of China. The city of Dengfeng at the foot of Mount Songshan is a spiritual center where the most important temples and religious institutions are located.

I would say sarcastically that it is quite difficult to get to the city of Dengfeng. Not because of bad transport options, actually those are very good, but because everyone assume that you want to go not to Dengfeng but to Shaolin Temple. All the people in Luoyang is trying to push you to Shaolin, even the ticket salesman at the bus station counter. So after some worthless efforts to buy a bus ticket to Dengfeng I just walked directly to bus platforms and asked some people a bus to Dengfeng. Also there someone tried to direct me to a Shaolin bus. After all the hassle I found my way to a Dengfeng bus. The bus trip from Luoyang took almost two hours, half of which goes to traffic jams in Luoyang.

Dengfeng, one of the early capitals of China, is nowadays a sleepy provincial town. From the bus station it is three kilometres to the gate and ticket office of Songyang Scenic Park. You can take a taxi to the gate and after that either walk uphill or pay a small price to the cars that offer rides to visitors. The quite modest ticket price of 80 RMB includes a nice and informative booklet with a map of area and descriptions of each site. Songyang Academy and Zhongyue Temple require additional 30 RMB entrance fee.

It is worth mentioning that the slopes of Mount Songshan are full of interesting temples and other religious places, not just these eight selected World Heritage Sites. It would have been nice to hike also to the higher parts of the mountain but I didn’t have time for that. Mount Songshan is also UNESCO Global Geopark.

The Songye Temple Pagoda was the nicest site among those I visited. It is absolutely beautiful building surrounded by lushly vegetated mountain nature. This pagoda is 37 metres high and it was built AD 523. It is one of the oldest pagodas in China and oldest known Chinese brick pagoda. It is known as "the first Chinese tower". For those who love photography it is really worth climbing to the hill outside of temple because there are beautiful and photogenic views to green slopes of Mount Songshan and the top of pagoda.

Songyang Academy of Classical Learning is nearest site to the park gate and the city centre of Dengfeng. This institution of higher learning was one of the four great academies in ancient China. The prominent feature of Songyang Academy is its steles. The most important stele is so called Tang Tablet which is important in Chinese handwriting history. There are also lot of other steles around the temple courtyard. Inside the temple area are also two 4500 years old cypress trees that are said to be oldest trees in China.

While the other places I visited are easy to visit going downhill starting from Songye Temple, the Huishan Temple is to the other direction towards the Shaolin Temple. It was a long detour and although it is considered one of the four main temples of Mount Songshan I didn't find it very interesting. There were least visitors among the Dengfeng sites. I was maybe one of three visitors at the temple.

The building of Qimu Que Gates was closed at the time of my visit. Basically it includes Han Que gates built in AD 123. There are only 34 ancient stone Han Que gates in China, three of which are at Mount Songshan.

The huge Zhongyue Temple is maybe the centerpiece of this WHS along with the Shaolin Temple. Taishi Que Gates built in AD 118 in front of Zhongyue Temple are one of three ancient Han Que gates of Mount Songshan. Zhongyue Temple has been originally built on the site of Taishi Shrine. Since then the temple was rebuilt many times. During the Qing Dynasty it was restored according to the Forbidden City in Beijing and it is also called the ”Small Forbidden City”. There are 39 buildings on the multiple courtyards and hundreds of ancient cypress trees. The main building of the temple, the Junji Hall, is the largest building of the five sacred mountains of China.

With my review I don't mean to say that don't go to Shaolin Temple at all but to encourage people to check out what other things there are to see on this WHS. I found the historic monuments of Dengfeng worth visiting, especially Songye Temple Pagoda and Zhongyue Temple, and also the Gaocheng Observatory should be of interest. Moreover, those sites are quite peaceful places with few tourists which is very unusual in China. Together with the beautiful slopes of Mount Songshan they form very nice ensemble.


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