Blog: WHS #695: Kulangsu

Kulangsu: a historic international settlement comprises an island off the coast of Xiamen which was inhabited by foreign traders, missionaries and diplomats in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Later in the 20th century it also became home to Chinese who returned from abroad. Together they gave a modern impulse to China through the input of Western culture and technology. The circa 1000 preserved historic buildings show a mix of European, Chinese and South Asian architectural styles.

Approach to the island

The island lies really just right off the coast, you can almost swim towards it. The ferry for the local residents also takes only 5 minutes. Tourists have to leave from a location further away though, with a boat that takes longer (20 minutes). There were at least 200 people on 'my' boat, all Chinese. Kulangsu (Gulangyu in modern Chinese) is a very popular destination for Chinese tour groups: there are no less than 13 million(!!) visitors per year. And that while there even is a daily limit on the number of visitors. In the weekends and around Chinese holidays you have to book the boat in advance, otherwise you run the chance that the tickets for the day in question (with a maximum of 50,000!) have ran out.

After arriving at the dock at 8.30 am on a weekday, I could leave with the 9.10 am ferry. The first boat of the day is at 7.10 am, so there were not many others on the island yet. It is also pretty big and there are no cars allowed, so you can leisurely walk around. I was blessed with a sunny day with temperatures above 20 degrees, so just walking around was a pleasure.

This must be Amoy Deco

You do not have to look hard for historic buildings: there are a lot of them. What I found striking is that they are hidden behind high fences and walls. Many entrance doors I found also closed - people still live in most buildings. If you already manage to enter one, you will soon find yourself on the grounds of a café. There are a lot of signposts on the island but still I did not manage to find all buildings described as especially interesting in the nomination, such as the Hongning Hospital, the Yanping Complex, the former water supply facility, the building of the former Kulangsu Telephone Company, and the former building of China & South Sea Bank Limited.

The unique architectural style that has developed here on the island is called 'Amoy Deco': Amoy for the local name for Xiamen, and Deco to the art movement Art Deco. It produces houses in brick with Chinese-style ornaments. The island also has 3 Christian churches. These served today as a background for the wedding photos of newly married (or to be married) Chinese couples.

Union Church

The island is a nice and relaxing place to walk around in good weather. The buildings however are not that interesting to a European person and I found it disappointing that you can not enter anywhere. To me a visit of three hours was enough. A special mention has to be made about the street food: like in Xiamen on the mainland, the food stalls are a real asset of Gulangyu. You can serve me an oyster omelette any day!

Published 19 January 2019

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Blog: WHS #694: Hani Rice Terraces

The Hani Rice Terraces are a cultural landscape in the mountains of southern Yunnan. I had been to this region before, almost 25(!) years to date on a 4 week tour of this province. From the photo album that I have left of that trip I know that we were near Daluo. This lies close to the core zone but none of my remaining photos show the spectacular rice terraces that this WHS is known for. So in early 2019 I went back for a proper visit. It takes a full day of travel to get there by public transport from the provincial capital of Kunming. But it was well worth the effort.

Blue Terrace

The weather had been a constant worry on this trip so far. Fortunately on the evening that I arrived in the Yuanyang area – where the terraces are located – it was sunny. The minibus driver who picked me and some other tourists up from the bus station was kind enough to improvise a sunset photo stop at one of the terraces. Glistering water-filled terraces, that’s why we came here - wow!

I was staying overnight in the core zone in the village of Duoyishu. Actually the whole area is dotted with traditional villages: 82 of them. It was much more built-up than I expected. There’s a lot of construction going on as well. It seemed to me that this was mostly geared to getting the residents better housing though. There are a few hotels but not that many. In Duoyishu I stayed at the Flower Residence Inn, a cosy hostel. They do have a second place to stay a bit lower down the village & a restaurant at that same spot. So you’ll invariably end up going up and down the narrow streets of the village. This was made more complicated as all streets were opened up in the middle to install drainage.

In Azheke village

The next morning, together with 2 French tourists I hired a car + driver for half a day to take us to the main spots in the area. The weather forecast was such that rain was expected again later in the day. So I was happy to at least get a good overview of the area which at 35km is fairly stretched out. We first drove to the far end of the valley, where somewhat downhill the serious photographers with their tripods were already posted (probably since dawn). This is probably the most picturesque group of terraces of them all, the one with lots of ‘pools’ and only thin walls separating them.

Next we went to Azheke, also known as the ‘mushroom village’. They don’t grow or collect mushrooms here, it is named after the shape of the houses. It is like an open-air museum, because at almost every house or other interesting element there is an information panel with explanations in Chinese and English. You enter the village under a reed gate, with which the Hani want to indicate the border between where people live and where the spirits live. Above the village there is also a sacred forest where the villagers once a year worship the god Angma for happiness and a good harvest.

In the village itself, the daily activities just went on. Women in traditional clothing were carrying cement and stones on their backs to make construction possible. Pigs, chickens, turkeys and a single buffalo walked freely through the streets.

It had been already a cloudy morning and unfortunately it started raining towards 11 o'clock. But we still continued our tour, although there was nothing to see at some viewpoints. One of the most beautiful and largest terraces we still could see was the one at the village of Bada. This one has more green and red than the others.

Amidst the clouds

These rice terraces have been the subject of many coffee table books as they are so picturesque. ICOMOS however did not want to reward the site with inscription on criterion i, “masterpiece of human creative genius”, stating that its aesthetic beauty was not meant as an outcome by the people who made the terraces. During holidays I am sure they attract a lot of tourists, but I found it relatively low-key during my stay on 2 weekdays in January. Transport between the villages still is delivered by local minibus and taxi drivers only.

Published 16 January 2019

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Blog: WHS #693: Chengjiang Fossil Site

The Chengjiang Fossil Site comprises preserved fossils of sea creatures that lived in a shallow sea some 530 million years ago. Although it was a shoo-in at the 2012 WHC and IUCN regarded it “an emblematic site for the record of life in the Cambrian period”, it has the questionable honour to be among the 10 lowest rated WHS on this website. Unfortunately I could not raise that score. I visited it right after Zuojiang Huashan, which meant two disappointing WHS in a row with a lot of hard travelling in between. It makes one sometimes wonder what the point is of ticking off these kind of sites.

Sea creature replica

I visited Chengjiang from Kunming. Although the distance is only about 60km, from door to door it took me 3 hours by metro, bus and taxi. And the same amount of time back of course, which turns even the quickest visit into almost a full day trip. The local taxi driver at Chengjiang bus station knew exactly where to go when I uttered ‘Maotianshan’. He offered to wait as well, obviously knowing that people do not spend lots of time there. The return trip cost me 180 yuan.

It’s a pleasant drive out into the countryside and into the hills. After some 20 minutes you arrive at the gate of the Geopark. Here the driver had to enter his car details to a list (and probably his personal info as well, as ID’s are checked in China all day anywhere). Somewhat further uphill lies the impressive gateway to the fossil site. There even is a parking lot and there are public toilets and a souvenir shop. The people here are obviously ready to receive the high numbers of visitors that come with a WH designation!

Fossil of an arthopod

From the parking it’s an uphill walk to the area where the first fossils where discovered; it was only as recently as 1984. There is a ticket office as well so they may ask for an entry fee, but it was unmanned when I passed by. Along the way there are information panels in Chinese and English about the creatures that lived in this sea. The first building you come across is the one that holds the 'first dig site'. It’s an odd semi-circular construction built around a bare cliff. The cliff is just what it is, nothing shows the impact of what was discovered here.

In this area you walk on a glass floor and below your feet there seem to be many fossils just laying around. After having a closer look at them I believe they are fakes (too white, like gypsum). They do have a few exhibition panels though with real fossils found at the site. They were all tiny animals, much in contrast with the plastic displays also present in the building of how the ancient sea creatures looked like. Apparently some animals could grow to 2m in length, I wonder if they’ve found complete fossils of these too.

After this building the path continues uphill to another one, the pretty construction that features in many photos of the site. It is/was the research institute. I found it locked and believe it may not be in use anymore.

The originally shaped building of the research institute

Before leaving, my taxi driver suggested to take a look inside the souvenir shop as well. It is remarkably well-stocked with books about the Chengjiang fossils. And to my surprise I found that they also sell small fossils found in the area. I was tempted to buy one (a real piece of a WHS in my house!), but somehow it did not feel right.

Back in Chengjiang town I directly took the bus back to Kunming. There apparently is a fossil museum in Chengjiang but I did not see it right away and did not have the stamina anymore to go and look for it.

Published 12 January 2019

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Blog: WHS #692: Zuojiang Huashan

Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art is a rather difficult WHS to fit into a China travel itinerary as it lies in the far south, in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. But it works well coming from Vietnam: the daily night train from Hanoi to Nanning stops every morning at 7.10 in Ningming. From that station you are only a few kilometres away from the ‘entrance’ to the rock art landscape. I’ve written some more logistical details at a separate Forum post for those who consider taking the same approach.

Tricycle at the entrance of Zhoulian dock

Having read the earlier reports by Zos and Zoë beforehand, I hoped to just find a taxi driver to take me to one of the viewing platforms instead of having to join one of the boat tours. But when I arrived it was raining and still dark. After some wanderings I found a tricycle driver, who dropped me off ca. 8km away at Zhoulian dock. I saw people doing construction work there, but not much else was going on. With the help of a translation app on her phone, one of the girls at the reception informed me that the first boat would leave at 11.30. That meant another 2.5 hour wait for me. But what else could I do – I was stuck.

Around 11 o’clock more (Chinese) tourists starting showing up, some 20 in total. It was still raining but fortunately the boat that is used for the tours is fairly large and covered, like a small cruise ship. A guide also went along and started explaining enthusiastically about the landscape we were passing through. Along the route I noticed several unnatural elements such as fake trees and spotlights, as if the river landscape recently had been used as a stage for a theatre production.

It took almost an hour before we arrived at the first rock paintings. They were all added to the light sandstone walls that now and then appear along this river. Ningming Huashan is the largest panel containing 1951 of the total of 4050 paintings. This is actually the only really interesting part of the tour: there are so many drawings on that one cliff that from a distance it almost looks red.

Fragment of the main drawing at Ningming Huashan

It is striking how little variation there is in the images, they seem to be stamped. The explanation given is that they were subject to a strict set of rules - they evolved but the principles remained the same. The vast majority of them portray people (dancing puppets), there are circles with a star (representing bronze drums) and dogs. All this is linked to the ritual activities of the surrounding villages. There are no drawings of daily activities, as is common elsewhere in rock art.

I find it always interesting to think about what has caused people to create rock art. This relationship with the community is very visible here at Huashan by way of the villages that are located opposite the cliffs with the drawings. On the way back we moored at one of them: Laijiang. At first sight it did not look much different from an average Chinese village. However, its orientation is to the river and boats lie ready to transport goods and people. So it’s not surprising that the ancestors had such an intimate relationship with the river that they drew paintings on cliffs where you could best view them from a boat.

View from Laijiang village

I must say that it was quite a miserable visiting experience overall. So how did this end up as a WHS anyway? I think much has to do with the very well prepared nomination file full of scientific explanations. The site is much better on paper than in reality. The area surely is not flooded with rock art and villagers that still worship it. I'd recommend to read about the qualities of the rock art and the interaction with local culture - for example at the website of the Bradshaw foundation - from the comforts of home.

Published 9 January 2019

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Blog: Yen Tu: Vinh Nghiem Pagoda

Vietnam’s next scheduled nominations will probably be Cat Ba first (extension of Ha Long Bay) and Yen Tu thereafter. 'The Complex of Yen Tu Monuments and Landscape' is a mixed site that comprises a huge area, spread out over 3 separate regions. It is the heartland of Truc Lam Zen Buddhism. One of its components is the so-called Perfume Pagoda, a popular day tour from Hanoi. I wanted to opt for a less touristy destination though. Skimming the long description of this TWHS, the Vinh Nghiem pagoda stood out to me as probably the most worthwhile individual component.

Main altar

The Vinh Nghiem pagoda dates back to the beginning of the 11th century and was enlarged during the Tran dynasty (from the 12th century on), when it became the center of Truc Lam Zen Buddhism. Truc Lam ("bamboo forest") is the only indigenous form of Buddhism in Vietnam. The Vinh Nghiem pagoda was also the first training institute in Vietnam to teach Buddhist monks and nuns.

This pagoda lies near the provincial capital of Bac Giang and within a reasonable bus distance from Hanoi. So on a gloomy New Year's Day I first went with city bus 34 to Hanoi’s long distance bus station My Dinh and there caught one of the half-hourly buses to Bac Giang. The Vinh Nghiem pagoda lies in the village of Tri Yen, some 18km outside of Bac Giang. I had an idea how to get there (take a taxi), but not what to expect of it. Would it be big or small? Would it be open to tourists at all? And an important lesson from previous visits to remote (future) WHS: would I be able to find transport back?

The pagoda turned out to be on the edge of the village of Tri Yen. It looked deserted, but all gates were open. I walked through the large wooden doors into the first big hall of the pagoda. Wow! I knew immediately that it had been a good decision to come here. What an impressive collection of statues of Buddha and arhats. It has a central altar that goes deep into the back of the temple - it seems infinite. Also behind this are rows and rows of statues.

One of the many statues

The religious complex of the pagoda consists of four original wooden buildings in a row, including a bell tower. Around it are outbuildings that are still inhabited. There is also a garden.

To the left of the temples there is a storehouse which holds more than 3000 ancient woodblocks for printing. These contain early Buddhist writings in Chinese and Nom (Vietnamese written with Chinese characters). A bit similar to the Tripitaka Koreana at Haeinsa, but they are so special that they are already on another UNESCO list: the 'Memory of the World' register.

Building with the woodblocks

I did not encounter anyone during my entire visit. However, music played softly in the background all the time and I found two not too vigilant dogs at the back of the pagoda complex. Afterwards I was prepared to walk the 6km to the main road to catch transport back to Bac Giang and then Hanoi, but already just outside Tri Yen village I stumbled upon a growing group of people waiting for a bus. That bus (arriving at 2pm) turned out to be a big coach. Soon it became clear why: in every hamlet, on every street corner, students were waiting to go back to school or university after the free long weekend. The bus sign said ‘Bac Giang’ but when it turned onto the Bac Giang – Hanoi Expressway I knew that it was going to Hanoi straight away. It was again a lucky escape for me from a remote (T)WHS.

Published 5 January 2019

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Responses to Yen Tu: Vinh Nghiem Pagoda
Kyle Magnuson (6 January 2019)

One wonders if Vinh Nghiem Pagoda could not be inscribed alone, much like Haeinsa Temple? Or perhaps with a smaller collection of components. Yen Tu seems to be following the route of Trang An. The Advisory Bodies did not seem fully on-board the first time, I expect a similar conclusion, perhaps still ending with an inscription.

Zoë Sheng (6 January 2019)

Sounds better than a trip to the Perfume Pagoda!!

Els Slots (4 January 2019)

Unfortunately I think this is the best location among the many of this TWHS. It is a very unfocused nomination. There are natural components as well (waterfalls, sacred mountains) but the landscape near this pagoda was typical rural Vietnam - flat with rice paddies.

Kyle Magnuson (4 January 2019)

Wow! This sounds like a place deserving of world heritage status. I hope all components are as noteworthy and the dossier is completed to the Advisory bodies satisfaction.

Blog: WHS #691: Ho Citadel

The Citadel of the Ho Dynasty comprises the remains of a late 14th-century capital of Vietnam, built in full harmony with its surroundings following the neo-Confucian tradition. Most information that you will find about the site will be accompanied by a picture of that one iconic stone gate: the South Gate of the Citadel. But there is more to this than just “walls and gates”.

The WHS consists of 3 locations around the small city of Vinh Loc: the Citadel, the Nam Giao Altar and a part of the Outer Wall. At least 6 of the 7 reviewers before me seem to only have visited the Citadel and then often even just its South Gate. I knew I had to put more effort into it to prevent a short and unsatisfying visit.

Inside the citadel, approaching the North Gate

From Tam Coc where I was staying overnight, I hired a car + driver to take me to Vinh Loc. It’s only a 58km drive but it took us 1.5 hours because of the heavy traffic and the slow passages through towns of all sizes. Already some 18km before Vinh Loc the WHS is advertised on road signs. In the town itself there are no obvious signs anymore pointing to the citadel, but fortunately my driver had been there before and drove straight to it. There’s an entrance fee of 40,000 dong (ca. 1.5 EUR) and there were some 20-30 other visitors, mostly locals with children.

I started my tour at the visitor center, which has a small exhibition of findings from the WH area. Lots of red tiles, nails, coins, some pottery and a quite magnificent Phoenix that once adorned the roof of a Ho Palace. I also bought a booklet there about the Nam Giao Altar. The text came in both English and Vietnamese, which would later prove to be handy for practical reasons as well.

The iconic South Gate is the main entrance to the citadel. It can be climbed via a stairway - and that was what most visitors were doing (taking pictures of their loved ones standing on top of the gate). Behind the gate the large inner area of the citadel opens up. It is a square of 1x1km. All 4 cardinal directions still have their original gates and the citadel is fully encircled by a wall. As others have noticed the interior is now in use as agricultural land, which does give you some ´couleur locale´ to look at while walking the long stretch to the other end of the citadel. Only a pair of stone dragons about half-way remains of the original setting.

View from the South Gate along the Imperial Way to Don Son mountain

The citadel used to be connected by an Imperial Way to the most sacred place of the capital, Mount Don Son with the Nam Giao altar. Visually, the connection from the South Gate is still there but the stone road has long been replaced by tarmac.

To reach the Nam Giao Altar we used my just acquired booklet to ask passers-by for directions. It took us three tries, but we found it: first drive or walk from the citadel in the direction of the landmark Don Son, some 2km away on the other side of Vinh Loc town. The main road splits right before the mountain: take the right loop. After about 500m you will see signs pointing to the left, where you can find the entrance road to the Nam Giao altar. The site lies some 700m further at the end of this road, on a dead end street to the right.

The Nam Giao altar is the place where - according to the Confucian tradition - Heaven and Earth met and the king annually prayed for the prosperity of his people, his dynasty and the state. This altar was only unearthed in 2004, after being unused for almost 6 centuries. I don’t think the site was officially open, but the guard directed us straight through the shrubs uphill to the altar. The official entrance has a stone footpath and even an exhibition room, but the fence over there (with neat Unesco logos!) was locked.

The altar consists of a succession of 5 rectangular plateaus that gradually become narrower upwards. Completely on top is a round altar that represents Heaven. On the right side of the path to the altar is a large stepwell in which the king cleansed himself before starting the rituals.

Altar representing Heaven

Although I enjoyed my half-day tour to this still nicely off-the-beaten-track area, I still am doubtful whether the Ho Citadel should ever have become a WHS: its short-lived state as capital of Vietnam is no match for the already inscribed Thang Long and Hué & its Vietnamese adaptation of Chinese Confucian city planning is very much a regional niche aspect. There are similar sites on the List as well: Vat Phou with its processional walkway, Hué with its own (though later) Nam Giao Altar and even the Jongmyo Shrine.

Published 2 January 2019

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Blog: WHS #690: Trang An

The Trang An Landscape in Northern Vietnam essentially is a scenic karst area with some prehistoric cave shelters thrown in. I stayed for 3 nights in the town of Tam Coc, at a homestay in the core zone next to the rice paddies and with views on the karst hills. It was pouring rain on the day that I arrived and on the third day I had planned to see another nearby WHS (the Ho Citadel), so I only had one full day in the Trang An area. In hindsight I felt that was enough, although maybe in better weather one might add more activities.

Exiting a cave

I started my day of exploration on a rented bike. I rode it for about half an hour to the docking area of the Trang An boat trips. Both Tam Coc and Trang An do have regulated boat rides which are very popular and possibly the best way of getting to know this area. At Trang An, you can choose between 3 routes. They all cost 200,000 dong (ca. 7.5 EUR) and take 2.5-3 hours. Two of them pass along the popular Kong: Skull Island film set, but I went for the other one – Tour #1 with 3 temples and 9 caves. You pay at a central ticket office (which also has some exhibits, a video and even an ATM for the frequently needed replenishment of Vietnamese dong!).

I was put in a boat with a German couple and a male rower. Lifejackets are compulsory: they came in yellow and orange which made for more colourful scenes along the way than the drab weather otherwise delivered. Although I had arrived relatively early at 9.15 am, there were dozens of boats already plying their route. Never did it feel too crowded though, we mostly saw others only on the long stretches.

Our first cave entering by boat was the most spectacular one: the Toi Cave is over 300 meter long, dark and with a very low and spikey ceiling. We sat on our benches bent forward and heads down for most of the time.

Typical enclosed setting of the karst area

The area’s most distinguishing feature from for example the Guilin karst area is the presence of ‘karst cockpits’. These are self-contained depressions filled with rain water, fully surrounded by high karst towers and with no obvious entrance or exit. It’s magical when you come floating out of a dark cave and just find yourself in a kind of pond with hills on all sides.

From the in the boat tour included temples, I enjoyed the Tran Temple the most. It takes a lot of steps to get there but it has a very nice setting.

After lunch I cycled to the Thai Vi Temple, on the other side of Tam Coc. This is a very fine bike ride on narrow paths between the rice paddies. On the way you encounter several shrines, one of them (Thieng Huong Dong) spectacularly constructed in yet another cave.

Tran Temple

Trang An did have a hard time in being admitted to the WH List. Both ICOMOS and IUCN advised a Deferral, which were fully overturned by the WHC. And indeed, its cultural claims – prehistoric people lived seasonally in caves in the area - are poor and the focus on the many temples & pagodas in the nomination file (but not part of the OUV) did not humour ICOMOS. Its natural features though should have been enough. For a seasoned traveller, it is easy to get complacent about WHS like this – do you need to go and see Trang An if you already have been to the South China Karst and Ha Long Bay? Well, for its original karst features I think Trang An can easily hold its own. The ratings so far on this website (a score of just over 3.5 out of 5) seem to underline this.

Published 29 December 2018

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Blog: Leftovers

As I am quickly approaching my 700th visited WHS, I become more and more convinced that reaching 800 or 900 WHS is entirely possible. As long as I stay in good health and have sufficient financial means, I can continue adding WHS to my tally at (almost) the same speed as I do now. But will that pattern be enough to finally conquer all of them? To answer that question, I analyzed the ‘missing’ lists of our 3 grand old men: Atila, Iain and Solivagant.

Wadi al-Hitan: too recent?

78 WHS have not been visited by any of these 3

It turns out there is a hard core of WHS that have not been reached (yet) by these 3 WH Travelers. This combined ‘missing’ list from early December 2018 includes 78 WHS. My hypothesis is that those who aim for the full coverage of the whole List, should look at these ‘leftovers’ first. These should become a priority when you statistically still have more time and money left than at later age.

Looking at that list, I think there are 5 categories of reasons why these 78 have not been covered yet:

1. Too recent – WHS that have been inscribed in the past few years, in areas where these WH travelers have not yet returned to. This will eventually solve itself, although you might be chasing each year’s new additions at the end. Examples are Los Alerces, Rjukan/Notodden and Wadi al-Hitan.

2. Too expensive – both as a lump sum (Wrangel Island) or for perceived Return-on-Investment (Kuk). This seems to be not a fully rational choice however: WH Travelers all readily pay significant sums to reach Rapa Nui or Galapagos relatively early in their travel ‘careers’ – but apparently we are not prepared to do so with sites that are lesser known or where we expect a meagre reward.

3. Too isolated – besides cost, the time it takes getting to a particular WHS is also an obstacle. From our connection Isolated WHS, the trio combined have not visited 11 out of the 20.

4. Too dangerous - the leftover WHS in Iraq, Afghanistan and DR of Congo plus 2 isolated ones in Mali and Nigeria can currently be considered to be in this category. They are not totally out of bounds, but do you want to rough and risk it at a later age?

5. Too little appeal - related to category 1 and 2, is a site worth the effort and money to travel back to a region that you have already been before?

Rock Islands: too isolated?

It’s not the dangerous sites

When you have let’s say 50 years to cover them all, circumstances of WHS that are at any given moment too dangerous to access will eventually change. We would not go to Syria now, but it was quite common 15 years ago and may be so again in 5 years or so (Palmyra apparently is opening again next year). Atila, Iain and Solivagant all have Syria well-covered from before the Civil War. Countries or regions rarely stay dangerous for a very long time, though the DR of Congo tries very hard!

The isolated ones are the trickiest

In the end, the most isolated WHS are the trickiest. They have multiple disadvantages: they are expensive to get to (both in time and money) and they will ‘only’ reward you with 1 new tick. We all are tempted to go for areas with clusters of WHS.

Virunga: too dangerous?

My Plan

Looking at each of the 78 individually, most of them are certainly doable. Unlike the trio, I already have visited 8 of these WHS. Some of the remaining ones should be considered as add-ons to regular trips. Like I did with the Rock Islands from Seoul. To get to Levuka from Europe, better combine it with a trip to Australia. Further on I will be aiming for 1 out of the 20 isolated WHS each year. There are some really great WHS on that shortlist such as Kamchatka and the Lakes of Ounianga to which I am looking forward to.

Published 22 December 2018

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Responses to Leftovers
Zoë Sheng (29 December 2018)

Levuka is not so much a problem of coming from Europe or Australia, you'd be best off just doing an island trip for not just WHS, but Levuka itself means a domestic flight within Fiji, a bus all around the island just to get there... Then of course going back. Think 3 days for 1 WHS that is mediocre at best.

Nice analysis though. Most people don't know where Palau is actually... Really

Nan (24 December 2018)

@Els: For Iain I am not quite sure if the list is correct, as he has his own way of counting.

@Solivagant: Thanks for your thoughts. Very illuminating.

Solivagant (24 December 2018)

A few comments on the “List of 78” and the subject of “Leftovers” from one “Grand Old Man” whose “unvisited stats” have been used by Els for her blog! I look at the “List of 78” and very few fit within my choice criteria – which is why of course they remain “unvisited” for me – and most will remain so.

I try always to be “Pure Economic Traveller”! My criterion for visiting WHS is ALWAYS “Value” or “anticipated return” – ie “cost” v “benefit”.
a. “Cost” is financial, “time”, “effort”, discomfort and “opportunity” (where else could I have gone?). “Danger” can be incorporated here as a potentially overwhelming “cost”!
b. “Benefit” is the personal assessment of experience and knowledge expected, excitement to be obtained and of course that “tick” - but I have no wish to visit every WHS so an individual tick by itself has relatively low value and can be overwhelmed by other matters. Many potential “benefits” have nothing whatsoever to do with WHS matters of course. Simply reaching a rarely visited place with relatively low other benefits doesn’t add much value for me – though it might for others.

This assessment needs to be done for the entire trip – so the value of a particular WHS takes its place among everything else. This tends to count against “isolated” WHS since they cannot ride on the back of a lot of other benefits. Similarly with relatively new inscriptions if I have already visited the area – Wadi al-Hitan for instance would certainly have been taken in on one of my 4 earlier trips to Egypt before it was inscribed, but, for various reasons, it never figured in them – partly of course, because the value of its “tick” wasn’t present for those trips! It doesn’t possess enough “value” to me to justify a return there given all the other trips I have made and my current views on wanting to see any further Egyptian archaeological sites. On the other hand, a WHS with a relatively low individual “Value” can get a visit if it happens to be in an area with lots of other “returns” – e.g Scandinavia. So – would I rather see Rjukan or Wadi al-Hitan? By themselves I would choose al-Hitan but, whereas I will almost certainly pay a return visit to Scandinavia soon and pick up Rjukan on the way al-Hitan will “always” remain unvisited!!!

Whether I have already seen the main aspect offered by a WHS (whether “exactly” or very similar) will of course impact the “benefit”. I note that 39 of the 78 WHS are “Natural”. I find that most natural sites require a lot of time (and cost) to visit properly and often don’t repay that in terms of yielding up the particular value for which they have been inscribed. Also there are a fair number of “near” duplicates in terms of their ecological niche, both compared with other natural WHS or with other National Parks which have not been inscribed but which offer very similar opportunities for seeing particular plants/animals/geology etc. Without grinding too small in terms of habitats I am happy that we have seen most major ecological niches and most “iconic” species elsewhere already. If you have been lucky enough to have great views of Gorilla, then the incentive to go to some other probably less accessible one with less chance is somewhat reduced! I would certainly like to have been to Wrangel Island but have already benefited from fantastic views of Polar Bear in Spitzbergen. I have just been sent a prospectus for a trip to Wrangel costing $11,000 (plus getting yourself to/from Alaska) – no way! If I really wanted to see Polar Bear again I would probably go back to Spitzbergen rather than chase the Wrangel “tick”.

I also note that 19 of the 78 are “Island sites”. These require expensive flights/ships to visit and, as we don’t dive/snorkel, many offer very little “Value” if we got there. I have seen enough tropical islands and cultures. Aldabra was an example of an Island which offered rather special terrestrial life and could also be fitted in whilst seeing some other WHS and cultural sites/new countries on the same trip – so we took it in.

On the question of “Cost” - everyone has their own view on what constitutes “expensive” – I would certainly class far more of the 78 as such than Els has! We are far from poor, but, just as one places a mental limit” on what one is prepared to pay for a restaurant meal (even though one might have the money for something far more expensive), I have a similar “limit” on what I am prepared to pay for travel per day – adjustable to take in special/unique “perceived value” but still strictly limited!

I find now that the benefits of a second etc visit to many sights (whether WHS or not) can overwhelm the anticipated benefit of a tick for an unvisited WHS. Of course, assessing “anticipated benefit” can be a problem and has to be a judgement based on experience, personal interests and investigation. Maybe I am really missing out by never making that journey to the Putorana Plateau. But I doubt it!!!

Michael Novins (22 December 2018)

Els, thanks, so well presented. Many of the 78 are not very difficult — I don’t try too hard and have been to a dozen — but raise the challenges you listed. For me, I am focusing more on new countries and regions, not WHS, so I’m picking up few. I’m heading tomorrow to Las Geel in Somaliland, which isn’t even a tentative site. And next week to Omo Valley and who knows if I’ll actually visit the core zone.

Els Slots (22 December 2018)

The list is linked in the text at " ‘missing’ list from early December 2018 " (we should make those links a bit bolder)

Nan (22 December 2018)

Can you put the list somewhere for review? .... We can also provide the map.

Blog: Hôtel Solvay

Hôtel Solvay is a late 19th century city villa in Brussels by design of the Belgian architect Victor Horta. It is 1 of his 4 Major Town Houses. I visited it two weeks ago on a special tour in Dutch. They want to keep it exclusive: the tours are only once a month and a ticket costs 40 EUR. You must also book well in advance online. In 2002 I already had been to one of the other locations (the Horta House & Atelier Museum), which has no such visitor limitations. It lies only 500m away from the Solvay and a third location (Hôtel Tassel) is also just around the corner.

Hôtel Solvay wedged in between modern office buildings

At noon, around 25 visitors gathered in front of the imposing façade of the Hotel Solvay at the Avenue Louise number 224. We were given solid plastic covers for our shoes so that we would not tarnish the interior. This is now a busy neighbourhood, with a lot of traffic, embassies, shops and restaurants. The 19th century house is wedged between two ugly office buildings. When the house was built it was free standing and occupied a large piece of land: 15 meters wide and 20 meters deep on a main avenue between the city center and the surrounding forests of Brussels.

The tour started with an explanation about the Solvay family, who had this house built in 1894. They had become rich on the chemical production of soda and gave Victor Horta a free hand to design a winter residence (they also had an estate outside the city borders). Later the house came into the hands of another rich family (Wittamer) who used it as a bridal fashion studio. Nowadays it is still in private possession of that family and that is also given as the reason that you are not allowed to take photos of the interior. But this is not an inhabited house: except for guided tours like the one I joined, it is also rented out for meetings and other gatherings.

Horta even designed the house number

The most spectacular part of the house is located right behind the front door: a double, openwork staircase ending at a huge impressionist painting on the first floor. Horta was known for using visible metal structures in his designs for houses, materials that until then had been used mainly for stations and factories. Various expensive types of wood (including from Congo) and marble have also been processed into this house. Through skylights and many windows there is a lot of light in the house. On this gloomy afternoon in December however, lights were needed to illuminate it a bit extra.

The interior of this house is still completely intact, including furniture designed by Horta himself and works of art coming from artist friends of his. In every room the chairs are of different designs and there are many frivolous details such as sliding doors and hidden toilets.

The bottom 2 floors were used to receive guests, the family lived at the top floors. The latter spaces were also more soberly decorated. Here you can see at the ceilings that even in this house not everything is in perfect condition: the layer of paint is coming off. The owners also had a large number of staff living and working in the house: they could move completely out of sight of the guests 'behind the scenes' via their own corridors and stairs.

Fragment of the facade, with wood, metal and glass

Hôtel Solvay is considered the best kept of the houses designed by Horta in Brussels – both by the ICOMOS advisors and the guide that showed us around. It surely is an advantage that it receives relatively few visitors, so the carpets etc (all original!) do not suffer too much. When you’re interested in Art Nouveau it is certainly worth this splurge. Next to Dutch, tours are also available in French but not in English as far as I have gathered from the website of Explore Brussels.

Published 15 December 2018

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Responses to Hôtel Solvay
Nan (15 December 2018)

Good to know that there is now an option to get in.

Blog: WHS #689: Cave of Pont d'Arc

After the extensive review of the Cave of Pont D’Arc by Solivagant 2 months ago, I was afraid that there would be nothing left for me to write about! But I was happy to finally tick it off, as I had a painful 'near miss' last year. This time I first drove to the Cirque d’Estre where the real cave is located. At least I made it into the buffer zone (looking at the map, I suspect that the core zone starts behind the vineyards at the ridge?). Signs were all over the place to warn about wild boar hunters so I did not proceed beyond having a quick look at the Cirque and the Pont d’Arc opposite. I’ll continue this review with my experience of visiting the replica cave in late November.

Various options at the Caverne de Pont d'Arc

I bought the ticket online about a month before, but there were still tickets left on the day. I was on the first tour of Sunday morning, at 11 am. They warn you to be there at least half an hour before – that’s because the tours do not start at the visitor entrance but at the ‘Caverne’ across the park. Not until 10.15 other cars started to appear at the parking lot and the entrance remained closed until 10.30. There were 15 other people on my tour, all French. The tour was conducted in French only and the guide skipped handing out the audio guides because of the small group size (a nice gentleman who had overheard at the ticket counter that I am Dutch enquired whether that would be OK for me, but it was).

It was a foggy morning and pretty chilly outside. Fortunately they do heat the ‘cave’ a bit – it is kept at 16 degrees Celsius (the original is colder at 13 degrees if I understood well). When you have seen the Werner Herzog movie about the original cave, you’ll notice right away that the replica has been made much more accessible. You do not have to crawl through narrow passages: a wide, flat path circles the cave rock formations with rock art.

Reproduction of drawing of moving cave lions

In the beginning I only noticed its 'fake' aspects - the walls are made of concrete & the rocks of plastic - but gradually the appreciation for the rock drawings started to dominate. Those drawings have been precisely recreated, using the same materials. That is apparently also the reason that you cannot even take photos in this replica cave.

We stopped at about 10 clusters of drawings, with the guide explaining them extensively. She often asked us what animal we thought we recognized. At a large scene she even let us sit on the floor for 20 minutes to tell in detail about the way in which the artists depicted movement. The designers of the replica cave have also done a lot with light effects, such as mimicking the light of flares (the only lighting that prehistoric people had). The total tour lasted 75 minutes, a quarter of an hour longer than in the high season when the groups quickly succeed each other.

After the tour I had some coffee at the cafeteria (there’s a restaurant also). Then I made my way to the ‘Aurignacian Gallery’, which effectively is the site museum. It should not be missed: it is actually advisable to view this museum before you visit the cave itself. It starts with a short video in a cinema room where you are temporarily 'locked up'. After the video, the doors open and you can go and see the exhibition.

The museum shows lifelike interpretations of the animals depicted on the drawings. The cave bear and the cave lion for example, but also mammoths and giant deer. It also shows the many different techniques with which the drawings were made. Apparently there are so many Dutch tourists in this region that all information in the museum besides French, English and German is also written in Dutch!

A representation of a cave lion in the museum

In all, I spent some 3.5 hours at the replica cave and at the view point near Pont d’Arc. They are located in a very nice area of the Ardeche and the drive up there I found already worthwhile. I found the replica well done (much better than I remember from Altamira for example), but it still remains unsatisfactory that you cannot see the real thing.

Published 8 December 2018

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