Book: Atlas Obscura
Atlas Obscura is a well-known and commendable website that focuses on “the World's Most Curious Places”. Those spots that deliver a sense of wonder, a ‘wunderkammer’ of often tiny and eccentric places. In 2016 they’ve brought them all together in a book, a 470 page hardcover which I only just recently obtained. While sites in the USA and Canada are far overrepresented, the editors at least have tried to find something in each and every country. I was wondering: can we get some candidates for our Missing List from their inventory?
Among the hundreds/thousands of entries I counted 49 places that are already WHS. They include full WHS such as the Madara Rider and the Nasca Lines. But also oddities in Rome (Pope Leo’s pornographic bathroom) and Jerusalem (the immovable ladder at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).
Lots of places are quite peculiar – for example the Giant Lenin Head of Ulan Ude – but will never make it unto a World Heritage List. There are also relatively well-known tourist attractions such as the Rat Temple in India and the Wagah border ceremony (Pakistan/India). Fun to visit, but no WH material.
I had a look at some of the underrepresented categories and regions to see whether there are any interesting ‘Missing WHS’ among them:
- We could have some more of the World’s deepest places: the Mariana Trench (USA) for example, the deepest natural trench in the world, or the Cotahuasi canyon in Peru – the world’s deepest canyon.
- The Hoba meteorite in Namibia: the remains of the largest known meteorite (as a single piece) that has ever landed on earth.
- Svartifoss waterfall (Iceland), a waterfall surrounded by columnar jointing. It is located in Vatnajökull National Park so it probably will become a WHS already this year
- The Darvaza gas crater a.k.a. Door to Hell (Turkmenistan) – one of the largest gas craters in the world, with various flames and boiling mud
- Waitomo glowworm caves (New Zealand) – don’t know how unique this one is, but a different kind of cave than we have already
‘Modern’ cultural sites
- El Ateneo bookstore Buenos Aires, an ornate former theatre
- The ‘Brutalist monuments of former Yugoslavia’: a series of concrete monuments to Socialism and WWII remembrance, ordered by former leader Tito. They include The Three Fists (Nis, Serbia) and The Monument to the Revolution of the People (Podgaric, Croatia).
- The Kola superdeep borehole in Murmansk (Russia), the result of a scientific project that attempted to drill as deep as possible into the Earth's crust.
- Ganvie, Benin: a stilt village and already a TWHS. Although it has got a not too favourable review on this website.
- Kitum Cave in Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya: The walls are rich in salt, and animals such as elephants have gone deep into the cave for centuries in search of salt.
- Orlando Towers in Soweto (South Africa): former cooling towers of a power station with brightly coloured murals, one of which depicts scenes and images from township culture; it is as well an extreme sports site.
- Christmas Island Crab migration: the annual breeding migration of the Christmas Island red crabs.
- And on a new continent: Shackleton’s Hut, Antarctica
Els - 10 February 2019
Blog WHS Visits
WHS #696: Fujian Tulou
The Fujian Tulou were the last WHS of my 2019 China trip and it undoubtedly was the best sight of them all. They aren’t highly visited by our community members (ranked 620th out of 1092), but nowadays these distinct communal housing structures are easy to reach. From Xiamen, the nearest large city, it takes about 3 hours. On my way down I took a fast train to Longyan and a shared taxi from there. For the return trip I caught one of the 3 direct buses per day from Hongkeng to Xiamen.
I can really recommend staying overnight in one of the Tulou. I did so at the Changdi Inn in Fuyu Tulou, which lies in the ‘folk’ village of Hongkeng. The Fuyu Tulou is not round like most, but has a stepped construction (it apparently is “the most famous five-phoenix-style earthen building”). They have a number of rooms here that they rent out to guests; there were 7 other foreign tourists staying overnight during the same weekend as I was. The extended family of the owner lives there also. Together they inhabit a vertical cross section of the Fuyu Tulou, with other families living behind the same front door in other vertical sections.
When you are staying in a tulou you get a good impression of what life in this kind of communal house entails. The doors are always open: that means that everyone walks in all day. It could be the neighbours, a greengrocer or (in this special case) drivers who come to pick up guests. At night all is quiet, you will only be woken up by a crowing rooster at 6 am.
Hongkeng itself is a nice village where many tulou are still standing and are inhabited. It is stretched along a river - 3 km from one end to the other. A common sight in the streets are the vegetables that are being dried. Geese and turkeys are also kept. I visited the town on a Saturday afternoon and expected it to be very busy, but it was wonderfully quiet.
The next day I visited a couple of tulou in other valleys and villages. On the back seat of a motorbike I was first driven 25 km to a very well-known vantage point: that with a view on the Tianluokeng cluster. Here it can be very busy during the day, but when we arrived at 10.30 most day trippers had not arrived. This cluster consists of 1 square, 1 oval and 3 round tulou. These 5 tulou so close together form one cosy village. There was a market going on in one of the streets and the square building was being prepared for a wedding later that day.
With the motorbike we visited some more tulou in this valley. One of the most beautiful ones has a stone temple at the center of the courtyard. It is the Yuchang Lou, also one of the oldest and biggest.
Next to the tulou the local temples are also of interest. We visited for example the Deyuan ancestor temple in Taxia. In front of this basic temple stands a semi-circular row of 10m high stone flag posts. These decorated flag posts were made to remember distinguished members of the family clan.
The busiest tulou on the trail is the 'King of the Tulou'. This is a large, round specimen with as distinguishing feature that it consists of 4 concentric rings. When you step inside, you will encounter another ring, and another and finally a little one with a temple in the middle. The inner rings also all contain small rooms, which are for example used as kitchens. This was the only tulou that I visited which felt too commercialized.
In general, tourists pay an entrance fee per village / valley / cluster to see its tulou. This can add up: Hongkeng and Tianluokeng both ask for 90 Yuan (11.60 EUR). In addition, you have to pay 50 Yuan (6.45 EUR) separately for the 'King of the Tulou'. One usually can have a look around freely on the ground floor of any of the tulou in these villages, but you are not allowed to go upstairs to the higher floors where the inhabitants live.
Els - 2 February 2019
Blog TWHS Visits
What struck me during my recent China trip is that one is constantly time-travelling here: one city can be ultra-modern and the ‘next’ one still functioning in a time-warp 15 years back. This also is the case with Xiamen and Quanzhou, superficially similar cities located half an hour by fast train from each other on the South-East Coast. Where Xiamen feels like a subtropical version of Shanghai including the European architecture, Quanzhou is a run-of-the-mill Chinese city diligently working for progress. If we are interpreting the signs well, Quanzhou's historic monuments will be China’s WH candidate for 2020 after 'earning' a referral last year.
Quanzhou had its heydays in the 10th – 14th centuries when it was an important stop on the Maritime Silk Road. The Chinese traded from here with countries in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Quanzhou’s nomination undoubtedly will focus on its multi-religious character. Its Unique Selling Point for that is the Qingjing Mosque. Built in 1009, it today is the oldest Arab-style mosque in China. I visited on a Friday, it was prayer day and from all sides Chinese (and foreign-looking) Muslims were arriving. The old mosque has mostly fallen into ruins, but next to it is a new building that is still in full use.
Tourists have to buy a ticket for 3 Yuan at the visitor center at the back before being allowed to enter through the impressive gate. The old part of the mosque complex consists of 2 former prayer rooms. One was built in Arabic style, out of stone and with a colonnade. When it collapsed as a result of an earthquake, a new place of worship was built. This time it was in Chinese style: it looks like a temple but where you expect an image of Buddha or some deity it has the mihrab. On the grounds you can also find some old writings, such as an Imperial Decree of the 15th century to protect Islam and its followers.
Quanzhou does not have (historic) churches or synagogues, but does show the products of a very wide range of Asian beliefs. In the main street Tumen, next to the mosque, lies the Guan Yu Taoist temple. Confucianism is also represented in the same street. When I visited, the Guan Yu temple was very busy with people burning incense sticks and sacrifice stacks of 'money'. In the vicinity are all shops that sell that fake money and gold paper to burn.
The WHS will consist of 16 different locations. I decided to visit another 2 in the afternoon. With a taxi I went to the Kaiyuan temple. This is the largest Buddhist temple in the city. So that was already the third religion of this day. This one is especially known for the 2 beautiful large pagodas. Here too, it was busy. In the large hall a service was going on under the supervision of monks, accompanied by drums and singing.
Finally, another taxi took me to yet another part of the city - the different locations are not really within walking distance. Tian Hou Gong is a temple dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of the sea. She has kind of an own religion (Mazuism), is popular among fishermen and sailors in this province and across the sea in Taiwan. The temple has the colourful ceramic decorations that temples in Taiwan are covered with, although here in Quanzhou it is less exuberant.
Quanzhou had to grow on me. In retrospect, I could have stayed a night there. There is a lot to see, but it is all rather scattered. There are also very few directions for tourists from the train station, so I first took bus 3 into the city center. You supposedly can take bus 601 along the various sights, but despite waiting at a designated stop none did pass within 20 minutes. I resorted to taking taxi’s from location to location.
Among the 16 locations of the TWHS (now all mapped on this website!), you can also find one of the oldest stone bridges in China and the largest statue of the philosopher Laotse. Both are slightly outside the city. Quanzhou is also proud to have 4 intangible WHS already listed: Nanyin Opera, Fujian Puppetry, the Mazu Belief and a 4th one that I couldn't identify.
Els - 26 January 2019
Blog WHS Visits
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.
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.
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.
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!
Els - 19 January 2019
Blog WHS Visits
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.
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.
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.
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.
Els - 16 January 2019
Blog WHS Visits
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.
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!
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.
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.
Els - 12 January 2019
Blog WHS Visits
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.
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.
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.
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.
Els - 9 January 2019
Blog TWHS Visits
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.
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.
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.
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.
Els - 5 January 2019
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 Visits
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.
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.
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.
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.
Els - 2 January 2019
Blog WHS Visits
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.
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.
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.
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.
Els - 29 December 2018
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