Blog WH Travellers

Wojciech and Thomas ... In Iraq

Iraq’s WHS have seriously been underreviewed at this website: Ashur and Babylon so far had none, Samarra showed one visit from 1975, and Hatra had only reports by 2 US military personnel. While Iraqi Kurdistan has been easily accessible for the past 10 years or so, Iraq “proper” is now opening up more as well, aided by the introduction of a visa-on-arrival for nationals of 38 countries. The area around Baghdad is deemed safe enough, but what about the ancient cities around Mosul? Wojciech Fedoruk and Thomas Buechler put WH travel in Iraq to the test a few weeks ago. They've written reviews of the sites they managed to visit (spoiler alert: they reached all 6!) and share more stories below.

What’s the most efficient itinerary along Iraq’s 6 WHS?

Wojciech: “I planned to cover all Iraqi WHS within 7 days and it worked very well. It is recommended to start from Iraq ‘proper’: a visa issued in Baghdad is respected in Kurdistan, but the one issued in Kurdistan is valid only there, so you’d have to pay twice:

  • Day one – early arrival at Baghdad airport, taxi to Babylon WHS, then to Ur - part of Ahwar of Southern Iraq WHS, after that to Baghdad. I started at 6 AM and reached my hotel in Baghdad at around 5.30 PM. It includes over 700km of driving but most of this is on wide Basra - Baghdad road where literally everybody with a decent car drives at a speed exceeding 150 kmph – no speed checks at all.
  • Day two – Baghdad. If you hunt for WHS only, you should skip day two and stay near Ur, visit proper Iraqi marshlands and go back to Baghdad on that day.
  • Day three – Samarra WHS and Ashur WHS, overnight in Mosul
  • Day four – early visit in Mosul old town (could possibly be replaced by Nineveh TWHS, but after its intentional destruction by ISIS there is literally nothing left), Hatra WHS, back to Mosul
  • Day five – Mar Behnam Monastery, Nimrud TWHS, taxi to Erbil, on the way we visited TWHS Lalish temple
  • Day six and seven – Erbil Citadel WHS, Erbil and surroundings. This could be limited even to one day, but you need a PCR test to leave Erbil, so you have to plan it in advance.”

How did you organize it?

Thomas, who had visited the South of Iraq already on an organized trip in 2018 but found the North off-limits at the time, shares: “For the Northern circuit and its 3 UNESCO sites of Samarra, Hatra and Ashur the crucial thing here is to travel with the right guide. We were just 3 men and could travel uncomplicated in one car with a driver and guide. There were lots of police check-ups, a few times we had to leave the car and register. It happened also that we had to leave our passports behind, and could only collect them again upon leaving the sites.” This doesn’t need to be an official tourist guide, but a person with the right local relations and who can arrange things at numerous checkpoints.  

Your biggest travel achievement of this trip must be getting into Ashur and Hatra?

Wojciech: “These two are officially closed and nobody can officially guarantee letting you in. We had a very young fixer who didn’t care about the obstacles and with his help we managed to visit those two. Ashur was no issue as the chief guard of this place was his close friend (or relative). In Hatra we spent almost three hours waiting at the checkpoint until our permit came from Baghdad. Our fixer arranged it on the spot, sending our passport scans to Baghdad by Whatsapp. Overall, we were super lucky, as very few foreign travellers had the possibility to visit these two WHS after their recapture from ISIS.”

How is the current state of these 2 sites?

“Ironically, Ashur did not suffer that much, only because there was not so much to destroy – the remains were not that significant even before ISIS came there. All the important artifacts from Ashur were taken out a long time ago, mostly to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad and Pergamon Museum in Berlin. ISIS completely destroyed the local museum and the guard’s house. Bullet shells from that time are still easy to find in Ashur, there is also a place where – as we were said – they executed hostages. Ashur is beautifully located on the bend of the Tigris river and this location is its curse. The Iraqi government plans to build a dam that may possibly threaten the archeological site and this is also a reason to put it on ‘In Danger’ list. The site looks rather abandoned, some works are performed on the entrance gate, which, apart from the Ziggurat, is the most significant visible remaining.”

“For Hatra, initial reports were frightening – the site was supposed to be systematically destroyed similarly to Syrian Palmyra. Fortunately, it didn’t happen – ISIS ‘only’ destroyed anything with images of humans and animals – such as reliefs and sculptures, some used as shooting targets for beginning recruits. Impressive city walls, columns, and most of the buildings survived. There are intensive reconstruction works by Italian archeologists and, as we were told, the site will be closed until they finish. I am a bit afraid that after reconstruction the site will be even less authentic, as the reconstruction of Iraqi monuments usually goes too far for Western standards – check Babylon for example.”

What were the highlights of the TWHS?

According to Thomas:

  • Nimrud: once one of the most magnificent archaeological sites in the Middle East. A 3,000-year-old Assyrian city with lots of sculptures and frescos of the highest quality. But all of it has been destroyed by ISIS  2014/15 in an act of barbarity, even on a larger scale than what they did in Palmyra. It affected most of its structures like the winged bulls and lions, the ziggurat, the palaces of king Ashurnasirpal II, and the old gates, all turned into rubbles. With the support of UNESCO and Foreign governments, there are plans to rehabilitate Nimrud in its grandeur, but during our visit, the entire property was fenced off and guarded, and no archaeologists were there except one Iraqi specialist. There were closed tents where some of the antiquities are being kept. Officially the site is closed to visitors but we were given a brief tour, no photos allowed except in front of a stone relief (with hundreds of bullet holes) similar to the one that was sold for $ 31 million at a Christie’s in 2018. 
  • Old City of Mosul: it has been heavily destroyed by ISIS. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri with its famous leaning minaret was first used by ISIL in 2014 to declare the formation of a new caliphate but then blown in 2017 up shortly before the Iraqi army arrived. There is an ongoing reconstruction project, with the support of $50M by the UAE. The extent of destruction elsewhere in the Old City is massive, but people have returned to normal life. The local market is very busy, selling fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables. And there is horrendous traffic, especially in the evenings, crossing the Tigris river. Bridges have been destroyed in the conflict, and are currently being renovated, restoring the east-west access. As we experienced, a crossing can take up to 3 hours. 
  • Personally, the most impressive was the Wadi Al-Salam Cemetery in Najaf that I had the chance to visit in 2018. It is the biggest cemetery I have ever seen worldwide and contains more than 5 million bodies. Some war heroes with huge portraits in their military gear, and religious flags, there is a unique ambiance over the place or at least parts of it.

The photos from top to bottom show Samarra WHS, Ashur WHS, and the intrepid duo in front of Hatra WHS (including a crane in the background from the Saddam Hussein era). All photos are courtesy of Wojciech & Thomas. Their reviews of Hatra and Ashur have been published already, and Babylon will follow in the next week.

Els - 28 November 2021

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Blog TWHS Visits

Talayotic Minorca

Talayotic Minorca is Spain's submission for 2022. The revised documents are now available from the excellent nomination website. They’ve even added an Epic Subtitle: “Talayotic Menorca - A cyclopean island odyssey”. The 25 locations have been decreased to 9, but that’s just a cosmetic adjustment as the former locations are now bundled into clusters. Only the Torre del Ram near Ciutadella has not survived the cut. As far as I can see all suggestions made by ICOMOS during the Deferral of 2017 have been incorporated. All but one that is: the Necropolis at Son Real on the neighboring island of Mallorca has not been included. The Minorcans seem to want a WHS all for themselves! The process has cost 1 million EUR already.

None of the sites lie particularly convenient to be explored by public transport. The best ones for that would be Trepuco (cluster 8), about 3km from the nearest bus stop in Mahon, and Torralba d’en Salort (cluster 6) which lies about 4km from Alaior. One could also take a taxi to one of the sites and then walk back. Menorcaarqueologica does offer guided hiking along some of the sites with an archeologist. In the end, I choose to rent an e-bike for the day from bikemenorca. The distances between the sites in the southeast of Minorca are perfectly suitable for cycling.    

My visit didn’t get off to a good start: I sped past the turnoff to Talati D’Alt (not signposted from the ME12). And Torralba d’en Salort I found closed and fenced off. I then just continued to Alaior, where I had my lunch break planned as it is the only larger town in the area.

Fortunately, the next Talayotic site on my list, Torre d’en Galmes, was open. There were even 2 cars of other visitors at the parking lot. In the winter season, the entrance isn’t manned, so I didn’t have to pay for a ticket. The site is easy to visit under your own steam, with information panels to explain what you’re looking at. The remains of the settlement spread out downwards from a hilltop, where numerous circular dwellings can be seen (to me they looked similar to the ones at Su Nuraxi di Barumini). The enclosed dwellings had an efficient water catchment system, where rainwater was saved in cisterns.

There were different “rooms” within the enclosures, including a kitchen and spaces for the sheep and goats. Some were hypostyle rooms: carefully balanced slabs of stone, supported by columns that are narrower at the base than at the top. The structures here at Torre d’en Galmes, as at most Talayotic sites, span a long period. Some were inhabited up and until the Moorish era.

I cycled some 45 kilometers in total. It was quite windy and less flat than I had hoped. On the way back to Mahon, where I was staying overnight, I visited two more sites. So Na Caçana stands out as it is thought to have been a ceremonial center. The difference between it and a settlement isn’t visible however to the untrained eye. Its most impressive feature is the tall, quadrangular Talayot (watchtower) dating back to the 8th century BC. Trepuco lies on the outskirts of the Minorcan capital Mahon. It has a good example of a T-shaped Taula (a stone structure used in ceremonies). It’s a miracle that the horizontal slab stays in place.

Els - 21 November 2021

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Blog Connections

Silk Road(s)

In memory of my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, I decided to pimp up our Silk Road connection. We gathered no less than 51 connected sites over the years, most of them lacking proper explanations. However, when I tried to apply a structured approach to it I failed miserably. I got lost in the muddy waters of scientific definitions, ancient legends, and modern tourism marketing surrounding the ‘Silk Roads’ brand. So my goal became to make sense of it all, explain more, and judge less. The updated connection contains 69 WHS.

The issues

Finding the ultimate resource for this ‘WHS and Silk Road’ subject was already a quest. I started with the ICOMOS thematic study dating from 2014. However, it also struggled with setting boundaries and took a narrow approach to end up near its own goal (find a subdivision of Silk Road Sites for serial nominations). On the other side of the spectrum is the UNESCO Silk Roads Programme: a broad initiative where it seems that if you think you belong here, you can join. Of great help was this older Silk Road topic at our Forum. I also checked the AB evaluations of the long list of sites that I ended up with.

Attaching the Silk Roads label to a WHS one must consider:

  • The geographical scope: most sources will have Chang’an (called Xi’an nowadays) as the starting point in the East. But where did it end/start in the West? Antioch is often named, together with other sites at the Mediterranean coast of the Levant (eg. Tyre, Aleppo). But what about Bursa or Istanbul? In the end, I found this map that shows how the whole system interacted. Essentially it was a core corridor plus feeder systems.
  • The timeframe: it began around the 1st century BC when the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han empires started to develop long-term connections. Some sources (such as ICOMOS) let it end with the break-up of the Timurid Empire in the early 16th century CE. Others choose the collapse of the Safavid Empire in the 1720s,  or the earlier 1453 when the Ottoman Empire closed off trade with the West.
  • The number and exact track of routes: even in the narrowest sense geographically and historically, there wasn’t one route. So it’s better to refer to the plural Silk Roads as does the only Silk Roads WHS so far. And to think of it as Corridors instead of roads from A to B.
  • The function of a WHS: it’s a ‘route’, so one should look out for roads, bridges, caravanserais. Goods were exchanged, so we need bazaars. And ideas as well, introducing Buddhism and Islam for example.

The variety of Silk Roads

This all leaves us with at least 8 different Silk Roads. There is the Classic Land Route, which covers sites within the narrowest geographical and historical definitions of the Silk Roads, such as the Mogao Caves, Samarkand, and the bazaars of Tabriz and Aleppo.

In addition, there are at least the following, "feeder" routes that were connected to the Classic Route:

  1. Mongolian: the routes connecting modern-day Mongolia and the steppe. Includes Xanadu and Orkhon Valley
  2. Caucasus/Black Sea: including sites such as Derbent;
  3. Turkey/Aegean: the routes through Turkey to the Aegean (Bursa and Istanbul);
  4. North African: the routes from the eastern Mediterranean down to modern-day Egypt and North Africa (I didn't find a WHS for this route, Cairo could be a possibility);
  5. Southern: this includes what is known as the Tea Horse Road (southwards from Yunnan (Lijiang) and Sichuan, into Myanmar, India, etc), but also a more western Himalayan loop across Nepal/India/Bhutan;
  6. Eastern: this route covers Eastern China plus Japan (Nara) and Korea (Gyeongju), and includes both land and maritime aspects.

Finally, there is the Maritime Silk Road which seems to be a whole story of its own. It includes for example Quanzhou and Hoi An but reached as far as Qalhat and the Land of Frankincense.

Notably missing among the defined routes in the sources is a clear route into Western Europe, it all becomes fuzzy after the goods leave Asian Turkey.

Debatable sites

In the restructured Silk Roads connection I have incorporated all WHS that fit into the views explained above. Although I tried to be as inclusive as possible, I dropped a few WHS as well. The Lonja de la Seda (Valencia) is at the very western end of the spectrum. With a construction date of around 1500, it is late, and its OUV lies essentially in its gothic architecture. Sheki – it fits the region but its foundation was late by any means (1743) and more focused on the manufacture of silk. A funny one also is Regensburg, which claims without any modesty: “Regensburg was an important transition point on continental trade routes to Italy, Bohemia, Russia, and Byzantium. It also had multiple connections with the transcontinental Silk Roads”.

Els - 14 November 2021

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Comments

Jarek Pokrzywnicki 17 November 2021

While visiting Armenia I found a road sign with description of Armenia's Silk Road. As far as I remember it was located near Yegegnadzor (southern part, main road from Erevan). So probably all Armenian sights can be somehow linked to Silk Road (at least Armenians as renown merchants had to take part in it).


Els Slots 14 November 2021

The Khoja mausoleum is there (with a "Near" qualification), I will add Kilwa.


Solivagant 14 November 2021

Interesting rationalisation of a complex subject which needed it (I liked the identification of those "near" to the route). Not that I am much clearer on what UNESCO is ultimately going to finish up with!
I see that the UNESCO Programme only has 33 sites - and you have removed many of those whilst finishing up with a much larger list! I guess the others just haven't bothered to "join". Only 2 "removals" which I was a bit surprised at
a. Kilwa - its Chinese porcelain finds are famous and Web sites generally recognise it as part of the Maritime Silk Route
b. Mausoleum of Khoja - I guess that, if a wider site in Turkestan City were to be inscribed there would be no argument (just in the near buffer zone Archaeological site are many such silk route related monuments)....but I can imagine the Mausoleum being well frequented by Camel train traders and the significance of the city it is constructed in derived from its Silk route location.


Clyde 14 November 2021

Very interesting and shows that a single serial WHS would be much better unlike the Frontiers/Limes approach


Blog Books

Book: Great World Wonders

The restrictions that came with the Covid pandemic have forced the travel blog community almost to a standstill. Most bloggers fell silent altogether, some started writing about places in their immediate surroundings (“20 Fun Things to do in Utrecht”), others have used the focus time for writing a book. One of the latter is Australian Michael Turtle, who is active in this WH community as well (currently ranked #96). He has just published a book called: Great World Wonders: 100 Remarkable World Heritage Sites.

How it looks

I bought the hardcover version, which at 282 pages and a 26x20cm size felt like receiving a brick of stone when delivered.

The 100 featured WHS are grouped by themes, which are somewhere in between our categories and connections. They include for example “Homes of the rich and famous”, "Science and Technology" and “At the movies”.

Each selected WHS has its own 2 pages of dedicated content: a textual description of about 400 words, accompanied by 3 to 5 photos. These introductions are mostly of a generic kind and rarely refer to the author’s experiences at the site. A cross-reference between the 100 WHS and his visited list on this website reveals that he hasn't visited all of them (he also doesn't claim he has: the focus is on the WHS, not on the author). 

Furthermore, sections are included that highlight additional sites and put them into perspective related to a certain topic. I did recognize some of our connections in there (Role of women, Used in film as another WHS).

Pros and cons of the book

The book’s main strength from a WH traveler’s perspective is its solid portrayal of the rules and politics behind the WHS. These are explained in layman’s terms, without resorting to the UNESCO/WHC lingo. For example the use of “ordinary houses” instead of “vernacular architecture”. In fact, all texts are very crisp.

The thematic approach also does the subject a favor, as it shows the breadth of tangible sites that can become a WHS. Next to a lot of the obvious ones, Bikini Atoll, Fray Bentos, and Sulaiman-Too are among the wonders put into the spotlight.

Not so much a con, but more a missed opportunity is the photography. By looking at his website, Michael is an excellent photographer. However, a couple of photos in the book look dim or over photoshopped (resulting in unnatural coloring). Also, he has used a fair amount of stock photos.

The biggest con for me, however, as a more advanced WH adept, is the superficiality of the introductions of the individual WHS. Sometimes that crisp expert voice pops up again, but not often enough to make me finish reading the book.

Who would like it

I’d recommend the book for budding WH enthusiasts: have you just started counting your visited WHS and now wonder what it is all about? Or do you have a nephew or friend who has heard you talking about your WHS travels and would like to know more? This book will give them a solid quick start on the subject. My own interest in WHS started from a book like this, as it opens up a world of wonders to go and explore. Readers who are already well-versed in the topic will find little that they did not know already from reading worldheritagesite.org.

Els - 7 November 2021

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Comments

Kyle Magnuson 7 November 2021

Based on the Amazon page index there was concerted effort to limit each country to a handful of featured sites. I like the wide representation of world heritage sites and the categories are interesting.

Example:

United States
- Monticello (Homes of the Rich and Famous)
- Statue of Liberty (State of the Arts)
- Independence Hall (Who, When, Where?)
- The Grand Canyon (The Natural World)

China
- Forbidden City (Homes of the Rich and Famous)
- Hongcun (At the Movies)
- Temple, Cemetery, and Mansion of Confucius (Who, When, Where?)
- The Great Wall (Science and Technology)


Jay T 7 November 2021

Good for Michael; that's a great way to have spent the pandemic! I appreciate lists, so I'm curious to see what made the list for his 100 remarkable sites.


Els Slots 7 November 2021

No logos indeed. In the text he does refer to the sites as UNESCO world heritage sites.


Solivagant 7 November 2021

I note that the title doesn't say "UNESCO World Heritage Sites!!


Solivagant 7 November 2021

Is there a UNESCO logo displayed anywhere in the book and/or some kind of disclaimer???
As you once discovered, UNESCO are infamous for
a. Guarding their copyright
b. Only doing deals with the largest companies!!


Blog Connections

Diluted by an Extension

In his recent review of the Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines, Nan openly wondered how the (below average) Bochnia ended up with (in his opinion, the most unique site of Poland) Wieliczka. He concludes “Frankly,  the extension was an error as it dilutes the OUV.” Jonathan had sent me a whole bunch of similar questionable extensions already a while ago, but I left them in my mailbox to further ponder the subject. At what point does an extension actually make a WHS worse? I guess there are at least two ways an extension can "dilute" the original WHS: by devaluating its overall OUV, or by pushing the original, iconic site into the background.

Those that brought the average quality down

Several extensions brought the overall quality of the WHS down or did not show clear OUV on their own. This issue mostly seems to have occurred when a single, outstanding monument was extended with one or more others (in a move away from the “monument” thinking of the early years). Whether the extension did not add anything is up for debate of course. I checked the reviews of the extended WHS to see where our reviewers stand on this. The most prominent ones are:

Those that pushed the original into the background

Some extensions were so drastic that the name of the property inscribed first has disappeared from the current full site name. All can be found in the footnotes of the WHS list at the official UNESCO website, but a few notable examples are:

Looking forward: extensions on the Tentative Lists

No less than 60 possible extensions are still waiting on the respective Tentative Lists. We have brought them together in this connection. As I wrote in my review of Kazanlak, its extension with the royal necropolis of Seuthopolis would make it stronger. The same may count for Christiansfeld, as on its own it is a minor site and could improve from a wider context of Moravian sites.

Looking at the others, the extensions will add more of the same to the originals. There aren’t many major WHS among the ones to be extended, however, why would Carcassonne need to be paired up with some minor mountain castles? And would Cat Ba only be added to Ha Long Bay to spread the tourists around? 

Do you know of any other debatable extensions, in the past or future?

Els - 31 October 2021

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Comments

Squiffy 31 October 2021

I haven't visited all the component parts, but the range of Belfries in Belgium I have seen represent the liberties and rights of prosperous mercantile cities at their apogee in the middle ages. The site was then extended to France and the two belfries I'm familiar with there (Lille and Loos) date from within the last 150 years. Not the same vibe, I'm afraid.

Maltese Temples absolutely works for me. Hadrian's Wall into Frontiers of the Roman Empire does not (nor can I understand how the German section is, apparently, more akin to the British one than to two other German sections in separate sites).

Sonian Forest in Belgium contains five separate sections of Beech Forests where 'primeval' apparently only means 'not actively managed for a couple of hundred years'. Two sections are only 'untouched' because the major road that separates them has been excised from the inscribed area.


carlosarion 31 October 2021

As for New Zealand, I do not think that the incorporation of Fiordland National Park with other national parks to form Te Wahipounamu "diluted" it, unless what you really meant by "dilution" is taking the focus away from the original inscribed property (though it's pretty clear that you were referring to "devaluating its overall OUV". If anything else, the incorporation further strengthened its OUV--so strong that individual parks would be able to exhibit OUV if each park were to be nominated.

Te Wahipounamu is good as it is, even if I wished the individual parks were separated.


Matejicek 31 October 2021

Nan:
There should still be a bit of science in the extension and the OUV should be the key parameter, and not what somebody likes/dislikes. It was already a topic in the Forum: how many Parises we have? But OK, Plečnik has been assigned as timeless, human-centered, thus can be added to any cultural WHS :))
On the other hand, too much science, as seen on the Germany approach with Bauhaus, can lead to dilution.


Nan 31 October 2021

My review triggering a blog post :) Yippee!

Loire Valley was extended twice. And the 2nd extension (Chenonceaux) certainly makes sense and has OUV on its own. And seeing you can (and I did) walk to Amboise (which the French kings and queens certainly did via horses), I think it's fine to have a cultural landscape.

Limes, enough said. Hexham/Hadrian's Wall would have been enough. Not every watchtower needed to be inscribed.

For Malta, I think it's fine. The temples at the sea side were nice and had OUV.

With New Zealand, you just broke my heart. In a country with so few WHS they went ahead and merged them?! But I can see the point. Essentially, it's the whole South Western coast of the Southern Island.

Barcelona & Gaudi: The Gaudi facade of the Sagrada Famiilia is inscribed, is it not? It's one city, one architect, as long as we don't start inscribing Gaudi in ... San Fransisco, I don't mind adding sites.

@Pawel: Agreed re Bauhaus. Praha, though, I find it better to have a large inscription with components than going the Seoul way of having soon 10 WHS in one city.

For the outlook: There are several (Corfu, Elvas, Epidarus) where a strong representative is already inscribed. And where adding more will be nice, but not strengthen OUV. Others seem like cleanup activites (e.g. adding a church to a serial site like Asturias).


Matejicek 31 October 2021

Iconic Bauhaus was diluted by Houses with balconies and expansion from Weimar&Dessau to Bernau.
Beech forests are more complicated, because first entry by Slovakia&Ukraine was diluted by addition of lower quality forest by agile wester-countries-WHS machine, and unique forest of Balkan and eastern Europe were set apart. Now, it is good and logical that these forest were added this year.
Roman limes is very clear example as already mentioned....
Prague-extension TWHS: originally proposed extension by Břevnov monastery and Hvězda chateau was right and logical. Now, the state party goes with the trend that no more historical monuments should be inscribed, thus valuable but "incoherent" single monuments such as Muller villa and Plečnik´s church are being pushed. IMHO they should be proposed separately.
Luther memorials extensions - I hope it will never come into reality
On the other hand, extension of Spišský hrad by Levoča was OK.
From ensemble inscribed together, I have a problem with Kuttná Hora + Sedlec church, where most tourist are attracted by Sedlec Ossuary, which is even not the part of WHS, but Sedlec should be separated or not even included to the mining town of Kutná Hora.
St. Petersburg - enormous number of single components around the city have been inscribed. Peterhof is OK, but still it is only about marketing.


Solivagant 31 October 2021

I note that, while we have a number if Connections for different sub groups of extensions Adding marine, twice or more etc) we don't have one for all extended WHS (I don't think I have missed it) . The info is within the site history only. Should be limited to "formal" extensions. Not minor boundary changes which have their own Connection. Could still leave the extension subgroup Connection as, I suspect, the list of all extended WHS I'd going to be quite long.


Kyle Magnuson 31 October 2021

The Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties was inscribed in 1987 and only included the dynastic palace in Beijing. In 2004, the "The Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Shenyang" was approved as an extension, and the WHS name was changed to "‘Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties". Minimal information has been ever shared about the Shenyang Imperial Palace amongst our users.


Jay T 31 October 2021

Debatable extensions beyond every beech forest in Europe? I have doubts that the Frontiers of the Roman Empire need more examples added to the list. In fact, that original extension is the most egregious in my mind: Hadrian’s Wall was an excellent representation of the boundary of the Roman Empire on its own.

Some of the extensions listed above I think are a benefit, rather than a detriment. The Canadian Rocky Mountains offer so much more with geology and OUV scenery than just the originally inscribed Burgess Shale formation. The Loire Valley itself is a cultural landscape that augments the originally inscribed Chambord.

As for sites on the TWHS list, I agree that the Moravian settlements could benefit from the context of additional sites worldwide. On the US list, I’d be more in favor of Ellis Island as an extension to the Statue of Liberty than as a new site. On Palestine’s list, I would like to see Al Maghtas as an extension to Jordan’s Bethany Beyond the Jordan (protecting the pilgrimage routes/access on both sides of the Jordan). On New Zealand’s list, I’d like to see the Waters and Seabed of Fiordland be added as an extension to Te Wahipounamu. But I’m afraid that doesn’t help you answer your question on debatable extensions, since I’m in favor of those…


Blog WH Travellers

Zos M. ... Completing China

Zos M., originally from the Philippines, started counting WHS since he relocated to Beijing in 2016 for work. Before the pandemic, he mostly used his vacation leaves for visits to Europe and Asia, but from 2020 on China was his focus. In October 2021, setting foot in Qinghai Hoh Xil, he “completed” China. That means that he has visited all its 56 WHS – a significant accomplishment as a foreigner with limited knowledge of the language. He has also been to about half of the country's 59 TWHS. Meet Zos below, while he shares his experiences as a WH Traveller in China.

How difficult is it to visit all of China’s WHS?

"At first, it was difficult. Not because of the inaccessibility of the sites but of my non-existent Mandarin. From 2016 to 2018, I only visited sites which are near big cities (Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, and Hangzhou). It was easier to find transportation. Then Didi and ridesharing and translator apps came along. It was easier. I could go to remote places. I could follow the bus routes and get off at the correct stop.

Like Europe, China is well connected. Most of the sites are within 2 hours commute from cities with high-speed trains or airports. I visited most sites using public transport and traveling alone. In some sites, especially those that can be done as weekend trips from Beijing, I asked (or forced) my friends to go with me. 

There are four that I think difficult to reach:

  • Qinghai Hoh Xil: You only have 2 options: (1) check it while taking the train to Tibet or (2) organize a driver in Golmud.  I tried both and I will give more details in my review.
  • Honghe-Hani Rice Terraces: It can be visited via a 10 hours bus ride from Kunming. I was relieved upon seeing other foreigners on the bus. It meant that I was on the correct bus! The base was still an hour away from the bus station via a local mini-van.
  • Zuojiang-Huashan Rock Art: Finding English information on how to visit this site was difficult. I tried my luck taking the train from Hanoi to Nanning, and got off at dawn in Ningming after the border. The border guards questioned me for 20 minutes. They might have thought I was smuggling something, especially as I am Southeast Asian. Then at Ningming station, a man kept on following me and said something in Chinese. I was afraid that he would mug me. It turned out he had a car. He asked me if I wanted to hire him.
  • Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan: There is no way to visit this site by public transport or without taking an organized tour. I only visited Laojunshan component by hiring a driver from Lijiang."

How do you view the quality of the Chinese WHS?

"The variety of Chinese WHS is splendid. They have a good balance of showing the evolution of the China story, both from a cultural or natural perspective. They have sacred mountains, traditional towns, pre-historic sites, imperial and dynastic periods, and impressive natural wonders. They even have a fossil site and an archeological hominid site!

Huanglong for natural WHS and Silk Roads for cultural WHS impressed me the most. I really liked the travertine pools in Huanglong and how the waters run through the vegetation. Silk Roads is amazing for its variety of inscribed components. The best ones for me were Jiaohe and Yumen. The preserved ruins in the desert evoked the childhood wonder from watching Indiana Jones and reading history books.

Among the off-the-beaten-track sites, visiting Laojunshan component of Three Parallel Rivers is definitely an experience. I did not know what to expect but I was not disappointed with the view and the rock patterns. And I would still like to hike the other components of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan. Another would be hunting the different components of the Grand Canal. You just don’t know what to expect on most components. Sometimes they are just a stretch of water. But most of the time are pleasant surprises like the beautiful colors of Wuxi old town at sundown or the nostalgic gentrified neighborhood of Bazi Bridge in Shaoxing or trying to find Hanjia Granary in the rural areas of Luoyang."

Is China reaching the bottom of its potential yet?

"I don’t think China has reached its potential yet. There are still a lot in its TWHS that I think are a shoo-in for inscription – not because they are niche but they have strong arguments for OUV or filling the gap. Besides that, there are others not on the Tentative List that need to be considered. For example (1) colonial concessions (Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, etc), (2) Great Tibetan Monasteries, (3) Modern China – the story of China’s industrialization needs to be represented, it is just a matter of identifying what they are.

Regarding favorite TWHS, Badain Jaran will not come as a surprise when inscribed next year. I have not seen a lot of desert landscapes but my 3-day stay inside the area was phenomenal. Driving around from dune to dune provides a good adrenaline high. Every time you reach a peak, you will be surprised by the steep downhill ride. The contrast of the orange sand, the blue sky, and the colored lakes are canvass-worthy. It is also intriguing how these many lakes exist for so long surrounded by the desert sand. I do think it should be inscribed as a mixed site with the very visible rock arts at Mandela component, the oldest Tibetan temple found in the middle of the desert, and hopefully, the ruins of Khara Khoto will be included.

Dong Villages also need to be inscribed. They are not focused on vernacular family dwellings but more on communal architecture. The different styles of drum towers built and decorated by each clan are very different from traditional Chinese drum towers. The community layout and planning are also unique. There are ponds and canals for water management, fish farming, and fire prevention. There are grain storage areas dotting across the village. Most of all, they built the village around the altars for their deity and ancestor worship."

Thanks for sharing these great insights, Zos. And keep those reviews of Chinese (T)WHS coming!
The attached pictures show the Laojunshan component of Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan, the Wuxi component of the Grand Canal, and Dali Village Dong Drum Tower (all by Zos).

Els - 24 October 2021

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Comments

Esteban Cervantes Jiménez (vantcj1) 27 October 2021

Congratulations for that feat, I envy you: many of my favorite WHS are indeed in China. The way in which cultural sites developed in natural sites, complimenting rather than overwhelming or inpoverishing them is for me a great lesson on sustainability.


Riccardo Quaranta 27 October 2021

Congratulations for your amazing achievement and thank you for having shared it with us together with your reviews and tips!


Astraftis 24 October 2021

Great feat and great source of inspiration!
And what's the next big WHS-country? :-D


Jay T 24 October 2021

Quite an impressive (and challenging) achievement!


Kyle Magnuson 24 October 2021

What an impressive accomplishment! I've enjoyed reading each review. Some of the great WHS of China have been only partially appreciated. Certainly the Silk Road and Grand Canal routes are amongst the most outstanding cultural serial sites around the world.


Blog Countries

Tips for travelling to Kyrgyzstan

In September 2021 I spent 2 weeks in Kyrgyzstan. I used public transport to travel around for 10 days and hired a car+driver for the remaining 5 to bring me to the more remote places. I found a country with relaxed and hospitable inhabitants. Especially the north still feels very Russian-Communist, maybe even more so than many cities in Russia nowadays. Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Kyrgyzstan as a World Heritage Traveller.

1. Treat it on its own merits

When you look online for trip reports about Kyrgyzstan, you’ll quickly notice that most people give it only a day or 5 during a more comprehensive Central Asia trip. They rarely venture beyond the capital Bishkek and the Issyk-Kul lake. Even at this website, we are guilty of that – at the Forum, Kyrgyzstan has to share its country topic with Kazakhstan, as if the two were one entity. But a lot of Kyrgyzstan’s beauty starts when you take the road southwards from Bishkek, via the Camel Pass, encounter the herds of horses/cows/sheep, see the yurts at the green meadows of the Suusamyr valley, and end up near the mountains of Western Tienshan and the walnut forests of Arslanbob. The icing on the cake then is Osh, which I found the country’s most interesting and pleasant city. An additional week in the country would allow for an eastern loop back north, including Tash Rabat, Naryn, and maybe even Saimaly-Tash.

2. Appreciate its humble approach to WHS and TWHS

Kyrgyzstan currently has 3 WHS which summarize its contribution to the world excellently (Silk Road, mountains, wild fruits and nuts, Islamic pilgrimage). The 2 TWHS are also just about right: the Silk Road can be extended to include at least Tash Rabat and Uzgen. And the petroglyphs can cover the ancient beliefs and ideas of the (semi-nomadic) people that have lived here: there are some worth a look at Cholpon-Ata, but the best are in Saimaly-Tash (“the Stonehenge of Central Asia”). Noone within our community has visited or reviewed this site yet – according to the Bradt guide, it is only possible to reach in early August-early September (you have to cross a glacier!) and with an all-day trek on foot or on horseback.

3. Enjoy the Homestays

Tourism is Kyrgyzstan’s main bet for a more prosperous future. They have nurtured a system called Community Based Tourism (CBT) already since 2000. Families who have a room on offer can join a local or regional CBT organization, and tourists can go there to rent one. This small-scale approach fits the country well – it will never be attractive enough for the masses, but it is interesting for a more adventurous (and mainly European) audience. Around Issyk-Kul, boutique-style homestays are flourishing, which are bookable via international booking websites and offer luxuries such as wifi and ensuite bathrooms.

4. You got to love its quirkiness

In each of the larger towns and cities, a military souvenir from Soviet times is left at a strategic location such as a roundabout or a town square. It can be a tank or a jet fighter. Tokmok even has two of the latter welcoming visitors.

5. Oh, and it's inexpensive too

Kyrgyzstan is among the world’s poorest countries. It lacks natural resources (except for water, which can become a blessing in the future), is isolated due to its mountainous setting and it has its fair share of Central Asian corruption as well. People earn very little from official jobs and stay alive on subsistence farming. This low cost of living translates into low prices for day-to-day necessities such as food, public transport, and entrance fees for travelers as well. Except for accommodation, on average I spent less than 15 EUR a day.

Els - 17 October 2021

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Blog TWHS Visits

Kyrgyz Silk Roads: Uzgen

Kyrgyzstan is not as richly endowed with Silk Road remains as its neighboring countries. The nomadic nature of its inhabitants has resulted in few permanent historic structures. But there are still some that are worth visiting. Tash Rabat's caravanserai is said to be the “best”, but it was too far from my itinerary. I already visited Burana (part of the Silk Road WHS) at the beginning of my journey. I ended it in Uzgen, which is part of the separate Silk Roads Sites in Kyrgyzstan TWHS.

The city of Uzgen is one of the oldest in Kyrgyzstan, dating back to the 2nd or 1st century BC when it was founded as a trading post along the Silk Road. It is described in Chinese sources from that time. It also was the capital of the medieval Kharakhanid Empire, at the center of the fertile Fergana Valley.

Its monuments can be found in a historical-archaeological park in present-day Uzgen’s town center. They comprise a 12th-century minaret and three mausolea from the same period. There’s an entrance fee of 20 Som (0.20 EUR) to this neatly arranged park. A strange detail that I noticed walking around the site is that music comes “from the ground”. There are speakers hidden in the grass, producing cheerful notes. These Disneyesque background effects reminded me of China.

The three mausolea are built so close to each other that they look like one structure. Together they nowadays shelter under a protective roof of corrugated iron. This was only recently installed (I’d guess in 2018, comparing older photos available on the internet). Beautiful carvings have been made in the red-baked clay of the buildings. Floral designs and geometric symbols have been used. Also, there are inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy. The facades of the three buildings are almost completely covered by these carvings. The complex has also been very nicely restored, supported by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

The mausolea can be entered through the door of the middle one, however, there is little left of any interior decoration.

As more and more local visitors were arriving, the caretaker also unlocked the door of the minaret so we could climb to the top. Fortunately, the stairs here are a lot wider than those in Burana, and there is also a handrail. From the top, you have a view over the city and the excavated archaeological site: in addition to the minaret and the mausolea, the ruins of a building that was probably a Koranic school have also been found.

The minaret of Uzgen is very similar to that of Burana, but – despite the fact that it was also felled by an earthquake – a lantern-shaped top has been added so it looks more "finished".

Uzgen is a very pleasant half-day trip from Osh. In addition to the historical sites, it also has a busy, authentic bazaar. They sell a lot of fruits and peanuts. Among the vegetables are large yellow carrots, which they add to the plov.  And there is the famous Uzgen red rice.

On a practical note: although I am a fan of taking marshrutka’s (minibusses) for public transport all around Kyrgyzstan, in this case, it’s easier to take a shared taxi. They shuttle between the Jayma Bazaar in Osh and the one in Uzgen. The regular minibus is only available from Osh's remote bus station.

Els - 10 October 2021

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Blog WHS Visits

WHS #763: Sulaiman-Too

Sulaiman-Too is the landmark of the lovely city of Osh. It is a mostly relict cultural landscape of a sacred mountain – so much was destroyed during the Soviet-communist period of Kyrgyzstan, that really only the caves and the legends remain. A few recently revived or added Islamic buildings can be found at the foot of the mountain, outside the gates, including the pretty, Arab-sponsored Sulaiman-Too Mosque dating from 2012.

Accurate information on how to visit the mountain is surprisingly rare to find. One can actually enter from two sides: where the English language sources seem to steer you to the steep stairs from Kurmanjan Datka Street, the locals generally use the winding way up from Gapar Aytiev. A handy overview map and a larger car parking can be found at that entrance. 

There’s a fence fully encircling the mountain, I guess to avoid rough sleepers. A 20 Som entrance fee is only levied from 9 a.m. onwards: there’s a ticket kiosk at either entrance. I entered at 8.45 and found the gate open. I also encountered people coming from the other side, they must have been on their way from around 8. So I guess opening hours are between 8 a.m. and sunset.

Local people seem to do this walk along the ridge of the mountain as a daily exercise. The easy path has an iron railing and is largely made of cement. Here and there you can still see the original pilgrim's path: worn, marble-like stone which is a bit slippery to walk on.

I sat for a while on a strategically placed bench in front of two sacred sites: Beshikene and the Tamchy Tamar cave. Two local women eventually arrived, dressed in the popular floral dresses. They kicked off their shoes at the cave and crawled inside. It turned out that the cave is so deep that two adult women can disappear completely out of sight. They went in there to pray: the drops of rainwater falling from the ceiling would make blindness and other eye problems disappear.

Further down the path, you pass two larger caves, which are located in two of the other peaks. These can only be reached via an uphill sandy path. You aren’t allowed to go in there. Around the corner lies the infamous museum, built into the largest cave during Soviet times, destroying its sacred function. Originally it even served as a restaurant, it has only been a museum since 2000. There are some pots, pans, traditional costumes, and stuffed animals to see. Not really worth the 150 Som entrance fee. Walking down further along the path, you’ll reach the other entrance/exit. Here you can find some excavations from the Bronze Age.

Even more sad than the museum is the fate of the petroglyphs. Most of them are located near the Kurmanjan Datka entrance: don’t go up the stairs, but follow the flat path to the left. There is so much graffiti that the old drawings can hardly be distinguished anymore. The photos in the nomination file show them as white drawings (probably colored white later to make them more visible), often displaying circles and rakes. I found a few, which may have been historic ones or later emulations. There are a lot of warning signs at the mountain (Don’t write on the rocks! Don’t enter the caves!), but there is still little oversight. I only encountered one security guy, next to the House of Babur at the first peak.

Els - 3 October 2021

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Blog WHS Visits

WHS #762: Western Tien-Shan

The Western Tien-Shan (situated in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan) is the westernmost part of the Tianshan mountain range, the eastern part (in China) is a separate WHS under the name of Xinjiang Tianshan.

I visited one of the three components in Kyrgyzstan: Sary Chelek National Park. I did so with a private driver annex guide, whom I had hired to take me from Bishkek to Osh in 5 days. We stopped for one night each in Toktogul and Arslanbob (known for its walnut forests), and for two nights in Arkit, the gateway to Sary Chelek National Park. It’s a fairly remote site, some 100km from the next sizeable town. The winding road leading up there however is almost fully paved. During summer the park sees a lot of tourists, and numerous homestays and yurt camps have opened up.

The things to look out for when you want to experience this site’s OUV, are the wild fruit and nut forests. These were also the main goal of our hike during the first late afternoon. Although the farming village of Arkit already lies in the core zone, the proper entrance to the park lies on its outskirts. We were allowed to enter by the friendly park ranger although they already had closed for the day – we would be back the next day and pay our fees. 

This indeed is a very forested area, especially compared to the almost barren Kyrgyzstan that I had seen so far. Some cows were grazing on the grassy patches between the trees. Almost every tree held a fruit of some kind: small apples, orange- and red berries, and delicious blue plums. We met two ladies who were gathering walnuts from the ground; their bags became so heavy that my guide gentlemanly carried these home for them.

The next day we set out by car to overcome the 15km distance between the gate and Sary Chelek Lake, the focal point of the park – this is how far you can drive. For the remainder, you need horses or your own feet. The lake looks like a fjord, with mountain ridges carving into it. From the shore you can only see some 20%, the rest is hidden around the corner(s). A guy came up to us and offered a boat tour to explore this lake, which sounded appealing. But we already had plans to hike the “Six Lake Trail”.

This 12-15km long trail is a well-known hiking route, although it is not signposted. You follow narrow paths that are used by cows as well. Maps.me does a good job showing it: we went past two small lakes to a great viewpoint aptly named “View of the main lake with mountains”, via “Little cave Big Rock” at Iri-Kol lake, Kely-Kol lake, and finally to Kiz-Kol (it’s a loop). The first stretch was the toughest, a steep climb and descend. This is necessary to reach the shores of the first small lake, which lies in a kind of cirque. The other lakes are easier to reach as they are connected by walking across meadows and through the forest. To boost our energy levels, we tasted some wild apples.

I loved the place so much that I am rewarding it with 4 stars; because of the many fruit species growing in the wild and the varied scenery of the lakes. The park is well-used by the locals: to gather hay, to let the cows graze, to collect walnuts, and to swim in the lake. According to my guide, they can take anything that has fallen on the ground. It does give it a soft, human touch (especially in a country as poor as Kyrgyzstan where people need to be self-reliant), and I did not miss a proper visitor center or even the display of a UNESCO logo.

Els - 26 September 2021

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