Blog Connections

Connected

Since introducing the Connections feature, 1531 connections with 27,141 connected sites have been added to this website. I was inspired by Jurre, who has so diligently inventoried connections for Italian WHS recently at the Forum, to discover what the amount of connections tells us about a WHS. To support this research, I made a new Ranking page called Connected that shows the number of connections each WHS has.

Best connected

It comes as no surprise that the large city centers with a long history dominate the Top 10 of WHS with the most connections:

Ferrara may be the odd one out, but its high ranking can be explained by the inclusion of the Po Delta with the city center of Ferrara.

Fewest connections

When we look at the 120 WHS with less than 10 connections, the following categories stand out:

Recent WHS

No less than 26 WHS from 2023 haven’t reached the 10 connections yet. The Viking Age Ring Fortresses only has 2!

This may teach us that the number of connections for a site grows over time. Or we should try harder directly after a WHC – maybe last year we were a bit overwhelmed by the high numbers getting in at the double session.  For example, the similar double session of 2021 has only 3 WHS left with less than 10 connections.

Old WHS with little documentation

During the early years, WHS were added without much documentation. One would expect that finding connections for these WHS would be difficult, but overall this is not strongly reflected in the numbers. There are a few early sites such as the Boyana Church, the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo (photo) and the Urnes Stave Church which could benefit from a better description. Vernacular and/or rural churches like these 3 do quite poorly overall by the way, with also Vall de Boi, Pskov Churches and the Wooden Churches of the Maramures in very low numbers.

Oddities – or just very unique

When I started to look at the WHS with very few connections, I was hoping to find the WHS that are so unique that they are hard to connect to 2 other WHS. The Grimeton Radio Station surely is such a site, or the Four Lifts.

Also, ‘mysterious’ sites where the use/meaning is unknown and which cannot be linked to a major culture prove hard to connect: think of the Plain of Jars, Tiya, the Madara Rider.

Poorly rated sites

A final hypothesis was that sites with poor ratings have a low number of connections. Especially the more simple ones (where there isn't much to see), such as the Chengjiang Fossil Site or the Sangiran Early Man Site, indeed do have less than 10 connections. But we also find Khajuraho and Ajanta Caves in that category, two majestic sites. Looking at the full list though, I'd say that overall the "better" sites get more connections (although the poorly rated variations of Limes are always good for above-average numbers of connections).

Are there any (groups of) WHS that do stand out to you when you look at the list of most and least connected sites?

Els - 14 July 2024

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Kyle Magnuson 15 July 2024

My count is about 120 WHS with less than 10 Connections. Some of these (about 40) are recent inscriptions in the last 5 years. Around 15 WHS have relatively high ratings (3.5 or higher). Perhaps a community effort to explore connections with these 120 sites?


Blog Connections

Top Neolithic WHS

Our Connection ‘Neolithic Age’ groups all WHS correlating with the Neolithic period. Some derive their OUV from it, while others only have a slight link because archaeological strata from that era have been found below later more important findings.

The Neolithic is the Later Stone Age, a period that timewise differs across the continents but is characterized by the introduction of farming, domestication of animals, and change from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of settlement. It was predated by the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic and followed by the relatively short transformation period of the Chalcolithic (a.k.a. Copper Age) before the Bronze Age started.

I updated the Connection and set out to find which sites can be considered the Top Neolithic WHS. And I learned a few things along the way…

Inventory

We already had 55 connected sites. I checked them all for their rationale, updated the texts, and removed two (Vredefort Dome and Rapa Nui). I then did a query on the UNESCO website with the term ‘Neolithic’. This resulted in 42 hits, including 12 previously unconnected ones such as the Antequera Dolmens and Ephesus. The Wikipedia page on the Neolithic also has a list of sites, from which I picked Horton Plains (Central Highlands of Sri Lanka). 

5 of the final 66 are also in the connections for Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, 2 in Chalcolithic and 10 in Bronze Age, which shows that sites usually aren’t typically Neolithic only. The Americas aren’t considered to have had a Neolithic age, the corresponding era here is the Formative Stage but it has different characteristics.

Finding ‘the best’

So where do you need to go to see what makes the Neolithic Neolithic? Three WHS are so quintessentially Neolithic that they have the term in their full site name: the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, the Neolithic Flint Mines of Spiennes, and the Neolithic Site of Çatalhöyük.

I ranked the list that I compiled above against the following criteria, handing out one point max per criterium:

Neolithic as an explicit part of the OUV

Here interpretation and additional research came into play. Sometimes the term ‘Neolithic’ is used in an OUV statement, but the OUV criteria on which it was inscribed point elsewhere. Byblos for example is said to be “Continuously inhabited since Neolithic times”, where the rationale behind the criteria focuses on the Bronze Age and the Phoenician era. In cases like this, I did not reward a point.

Another issue that arose is determining whether a site is truly Neolithic. Sarazm for example, does its OUV date back to the very end of the Neolithic or is it Chalcolithic? With its focus on metallurgy in crit ii and iii (see also this) I’d veer to Chalcolithic, but it existed in the Neolithic already as a settlement (it did inspire a new connection BTW: Proto-Cities). And for Malta’s Megalithic Temples, Wiki says Neolithic and UNESCO says Bronze Age. With an OUV relying on technical stoneworking skills, Neolithic seems more appropriate (also because the Ggantija temples are older than the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, which is labelled as Neolithic everywhere). When in doubt, I rewarded half a point.

Neolithic aspects are visible

Nan wrote in his Jericho review "As a Neolithic site, this is probably as good as it gets". Solivagant's Choirokoita review makes a difference between Neolithic megaliths and Neolithic settlements, and he deemed the latter as "there is very little for the untrained eye to see". To appreciate the remains of so long ago may require using a Stoclet Pass (the oldest of the notorious Pile Dwellings are also from the Neolithic), but the best of them still offer something good to look at. Those are way more elaborate than simple dolmen or foundations of buildings.

I’ve awarded the points mostly following the site rating (0.5 for sites with an average score below 3, 1 for those at 3 or more), after making sure that what you’re looking at is indeed the Neolithic part and whether there is anything to see at all.

The Top Sites

I ended up with the maximum score of 2 for:

  • Neolithic Orkney : for Skara Brae, "unparalleled amongst Neolithic settlement sites in northern Europe." (Photo 1 shows the Stones of Stenness Circle, also part of this WHS)
  • Petroglyphs of the Lake Onega and the White Sea : for its "coherent image of the Neolithic culture period in the northeastern part of Fennoscandia" (other rock art sites date back to the Neolithic as well, but tend to span long periods with most visible remains of a later date)
  • Brú na Bóinne : for its grand passage tombs and rock carvings (Photo 2 shows carvings at Newgrange)
  • Stonehenge: for its architecturally sophisticated stone circles
  • Hal Saflieni Hypogeum : the only known subterranean ‘labyrinth’ from the period, excellently preserved
  • Göbekli Tepe : for its innovative building techniques
  • Çatalhöyük : for its house clusters, characterized by their streetless neighbourhoods (Photo 3)

Runners-up, with a score of 1.5, are Neolithic Flint Mines at Spiennes, Antequera Dolmens, Choirokoitia, Krzemionki prehistoric flint mines, Ancient Jericho, Liangzhu Archaeological Site, Megalithic Temples of Malta, and the Jomon Prehistoric Sites (the Jomon period is considered "the Neolithic of Japan").

You can find the full spreadsheet here to see how I determined the scores (or calculate your own).

Missing Neolithic WHS

Europe and the Middle East seem already well-represented among the Neolithic WHS. Arabia and Africa have some too, although less spectacular. One might expect more however from the Indian subcontinent and China. A site that I came across repeatedly is probably the Top Missing Neolithic site: Mehrgarh in Pakistan (a TWHS) - "Located in the Indus Valley, Mehrgarh is one of the earliest known Neolithic settlements in South Asia, dating back to around 7000 BCE. Evidence suggests a transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled agricultural community, with domesticated wheat and barley found at the site."

Do you enjoy visiting Neolithic sites?

Els - 7 July 2024

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Sebasfhb 7 July 2024

Regarding top missing Neolithic sites, how about Bulgaria’s TWHS with the very catchy name “Two neolithic dwellings with their interior and household furnishings and utensils completely preserved”?


Els Slots 7 July 2024

It seems they need to rewrite the text for the Megalithic Temples of Malta as well - even in the 2015 boundary modification they are still considered Bronze Age.


Solivagant 7 July 2024

Hal Saflieni rightly comes out as significant Neolithic WHS - but, as my review from May 2012 highlights, it was actually inscribed as a BRONZE AGE site!!

I quote from the 1980 AB review by ICOMOS - "This unique monument dates back to early antiquity (about 2,500 B.C.); it is the only known example of a subterranean structure of the Bronze Age." This "error" remained in the UNESCO description for many years - I have just checked (using Wayback Machine) and it was still there in Nov 2014.

However, by Feb 2015 the description had been completely rewritten and the site had been given a new statement of OUV ("Criterion (iii): The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a unique monument of exceptional value. It is the only known European example of a subterranean ‘labyrinth’ from about 4,000 B.C. to 2,500 B.C. The quality of its architecture and its remarkable state of preservation make it an essential prehistoric monument"). That statement remains to this day with all reference to the Bronze Age removed ......it even specifies the site's Neolithic provenance as in "The unusual preservation of the rock-cut chambers allows the study of a system of interconnecting spaces very much as they were conceived and experienced by a Neolithic mind. "

But that original AB review remains as "evidence" of the earlier approach!!!


Blog Countries

Completing Norway

With a visit to the Vega Archipelago last Wednesday (see my review here), I finally ‘completed’ Norway. It took me 5 separate short trips during the period 2002-2024. The most memorable WHS was the Rock Art of Alta (photo 1) – I had never been as far north and as with most of the Norwegian WHS the natural setting defeats the cultural OUV. I will happily continue exploring Norway to visit the TWHS of Svalbard and Lofoten which are still on my wanted list.

But why did it take me so long to complete a European country with ‘only’ 8 WHS, no overseas ones and no new sites since 2015?

The lack of clusters

It would surprise me if any of the 31 other people who have seen all WHS in Norway visited them in one go. Looking at the map, the narrow shape of the country and the rugged landscape result in mostly groupings of 1 or 2: the Far North (Rock Art of Alta, Struve), the Central Coast (Vegaoyan), near Trondheim (Røros), and near Oslo (Rjukan/Notodden). There is sort of a cluster around Bergen (Bryggen, Urnes, Naeroyfjord) but that still takes multiple days. Nan managed to do it all in 2 separate trips and has reported how on the Forum

The difficulty of the last mile(s)

The domestic airline network is good in Norway, but the problem is that most WHS cannot be easily accessed from the nearest airport. Renting a car at that airport often is the most practical solution, but there still will be ferries to deal with and it is of course the most expensive option. Completing Norway on public transport only is an achievement and needs to be supported by bike rentals or lots of hiking. Read Nan’s Getting there section on Urnes to get a feel for the effort it takes.

The high cost per WHS

The main reason why I left Vegaoyan for so long is that I couldn’t fit it within my 650 EUR-per-WHS rule: I spent about 850 EUR in the end. But the other Norwegian WHS aren’t cheap either. The cost adds up due to the combination of #1 and #2: you go there for 1 or 2 WHS at the time (so no splitting of the cost of the international flights), in some cases, you need an additional domestic flight as well plus the local transport. Since you’ve come from so far I usually had 2 nights in a hotel around the WHS visit day. Plus food and entrance fees are generally appropriate to the high cost of living in Norway.

The short season

All my 5 visits were in June, July or August. While you may be able to go during other months, you will find visitor centers, restaurants, the Urnes church etc closed and even less public transport than in summer. And you may be faced with demotivating, incessant rain.

The scarcity of tourist facilities

There is little mass tourism, and the Norwegians seem rather to be left alone. They’ve already offered up Bergen and a fjord or two to the cruise crowd. This greatly affects the accessibility of the WHS, the quality of the visitor experience and the cost. In the Vega Archipelago for example, how great would it be to take a boat cruise around the islands or visit an eiderdown farm at one of those? These are rarely on offer, or on request only at prohibitive cost. I know it’s a chicken-and-egg situation (no tourists, no tours – no tours, no tourists), but still, I feel more effort could be put into it.

How do you look back on your Norwegian WHS visits?

Els - 30 June 2024

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Nan 1 July 2024

@patrik 2 months to complete Norway is quite slow travel for this community ;)


Patrik 1 July 2024

I visited Norway in 2019 when I drove to the North Cape through Norway and back via Sweden. I spent a bit over 2 months in Norway and it was easy to fit in all sites. Only Røros was out of the way and I treated myself to a scenic train day trip on my birthday from Trondheim that cost a bit over €100.

I had no trouble finding reasonably priced airbnb's or huts on campings where I could self-cater. The people who received me in their homes were all open and kind. I had a tent with me but didn't use it.

What I disliked were the unpredictable road toll fees that seemed to be billed randomly months after I returned. Also it seemed Norwegians are keen on using heavy machinery and concrete. And I had a craft beer once on a sunny terrace that cost almost €20 ...


Wojciech Fedoruk 30 June 2024

I am a novice to Norwegian WHS (first tick this year) but I started from exploring 'the hardest' ones in two trips (the first was Alta + 2 Swedish WHS, the second was Vega and Roros). I re-visited Norway after 15 years and found it much cheaper than it was in 2009, at least from the Polish perspective. A one day visit to Vega (not even counting Roros) cost me not more than EUR 330, partially thanks to very cheap Wizzair flights from Gdansk.

The country is great, especially in the summer months, when there is no night even in Trondheim, not counting the northern areas.


Jay T 30 June 2024

Congrats on completing Norway! It definitely has its challenges as you noted, but that makes it fun. Hope you enjoy the Lofoten and Svalbard when you get there some day.

Just completed my first three Norwegian World Heritage Sites earlier this month. Randi and Svein took me on a fantastic tour up to Rjukan and Notodden, and they had a great recommendation for the Struve hike outside Alta.

I imagine it will take me up to two more visits to complete Norway, depending on how much time I choose to spend in country next time I go. Urnes and Vegaøyan will likely be the most challenging for logistics. But the journey is worth it with such a beautiful country!


Nan 30 June 2024

Norway took extra high levels of planning. But given the costs I didn't want to leave anything on the table and I managed to stay well below 650€/WHS. At least, hotels and transport, I found affordable. Food meanwhile...

Luckily, most sites are rewarding, so cost/reward ratio is good.


Blog WH Travellers

Getting a Stoclet Pass

No, this is not about how to get into that city palace in Brussels. In a recent discussion in our WhatsApp group, Astraftis introduced the term “Stoclet Pass”. It means a visit that is good enough for an otherwise off-limits site. He wrote: “Referring to (semi)inaccessible locations like Roman limes or pile dwellings. If all you can do is to stand on the shore and to contemplate the water surface, then yeah, you get a Stoclet-pass for me".

We've since fully embraced his neonym. So for which WHS is a Stoclet Pass applicable, and what does it involve?

When not being able to enter

The most obvious group of sites to look at is the ones we have gathered in the connection “Not open to tourists”. Here we find:

  • the Decorated cave of Pont d'Arc and the Thracian tomb of Kazanlak. You can peer through the fence around the original tomb or touch the door to the original cave, but for both, you need to visit a replica to see the paintings. For Pont d’Arc, it can be argued that it adds value to see the cave’s original natural setting, but for Kazanlak, as Clyde concludes, “the visitor experience can only truly be enhanced by visiting the other accessible tombs at the remarkable royal necropolis of the Thracian city of Seuthopolis (currently tWHS extension) and the worthwhile National Archaeological Museum in Sofia.”
  • It also includes the Vézère Valley whose main caves are also closed to the public and have a replica cave. In this case, however, I would argue that you also have to visit one of the minor caves to earn the pass as they are quite good and have original paintings.
  • Stoclet House: stand on the pavement and look at the ‘wrong’ side of the building, that’s all you can do at the moment; looking at the 289 members who have checked this site, the community has no scruples here.
  • Los Katios National Park – the acceptable way to ‘see’ it is from the Atrato River by taking a boat from Turbo to Riosucio which crosses the core zone. Its OUV lies in region-specific fauna, birds and endemic plants, and I doubt that you would see any of those from a fast-moving boat. 
  • Papahanaumokuakea -  Midway Atoll is the only part that ever has been accessible (until 2012). Now the only option is to visit as a scientist or become a volunteer at the annual albatross count. I can’t think of any Stoclet Pass that would be applicable here instead. 
  • Gough and Inaccessible Islands: a significant marine area is included, and landings are allowed on Inaccessible Island (not on Gough). Probably this site should be removed from the Not open to tourists connection. It is similar to Surtsey where being in the marine core zone and seeing the island up close lead to a satisfying visit.
  • Fully closed is the Indian Sundarbans NP. As Solivagant stated about his Sundarbans visit: “by a very strict definition we haven't visited it even though we have a. seen inside the core from a distance, b. travelled and walked through land which is essentially the same and is situated inside a protected area albeit not an inscribed one. It would seem to be "obsessive" not to "count" it!”
  • Chiribiquete is a similar case. With its mixed OUV (including rock art), a fly-over tour seems hardly sufficient (although you may see its natural OUV, the tepuis). One could visit Cerro Azul, which has rock art in a similar natural setting to the WHS and lies in its buffer zone. An argument against this is that you cannot see into the core zone from there. I would say the combination of a specific fly-over and a visit to Cerro Azul earns you a Stoclet Pass.
  • As we know, Mt. Athos is not open to women. The Stoclet Pass here allows a woman to count it after having seen the landscape and the main monasteries via a specific cruise along the shoreline. Men are not allowed to use this pass and have to set foot on the peninsula!

When not being able to see its OUV

Other WHS may be ‘open’ but still provide difficulties in getting a good visit. These are the WHS where the OUV is covered underground or underwater or is just not present on site anymore. Notable examples include:

  • Prehistoric Pile Dwellings: Visiting a location with visible stumps seems to be the favoured way to get a satisfying tick. At other locations, you have to do what Ian did “I stared intently at the water trying to spot the merest hint of some buried rotten wood.” Other reviewers tried visiting different locations and regional museums to enrich their experience. Solivagant has written a philosophical answer to whether these detours improve the 'tick'. 
  • Roman Limes: the Lower German Limes is particularly low on visible remains, there are some original stone walls here and there but none of the reviewers returned happy (which also explains the low site rating, #1180 overall). Even the museums here aren’t fully recommended. The Danube Limes comes out only slightly better. A way to earn your Stoclet pass here is to visit several locations.
  • Fossil hominid sites: here the bones of the early humans will all have been taken away. Reviewers of sites such as the Peking Man Site, South Africa’s Fossil Hominid Sites, Sangiran, Gorham’s Cave, Mount Carmel Caves seem to be satisfied with getting an official entrance ticket, access to the core zone/dig site, look into “the” cave or at exposed series of archaeological strata, visit an on-site museum or even one outside where the original findings are shown.

When you can use the Pass

Going by the reviews and the lists of community members who claim to have visited the sites mentioned above, when you can enter the core zone people are always inclined to 'tick' the site, even when they did not see its OUV. I would even argue that encountering gigantic statues of early hominids or the pseudo-ruins at Xanten makes us feel better about it. And those wooden stumps of pile dwellings surely do!

When you cannot enter, a few things are valued:

  1. Having unobstructed views into the core zone from the closest you're allowed to go (a “from-the-outside-looking-in” visit).
  2. A visit to the buffer zone with similar features.
  3. In addition to (1) or (2), visits to museums or similar sites in the region – more is better to come to grips with the subject.

You can’t use a Stoclet Pass when you miss out on a site because of your own fault. Visiting a site that is always closed Mondays on a Monday for example. Not booking a tour beforehand when one is required. Not wanting to pay the entrance fee and just driving by.

Have you ever used a Stoclet Pass?

Pictures: (1) pile dwelling stumps at Fiave, (2) pile dwelling location at Bande: this rusty telescope enables to look through the ages, in a distant and blurred past (© Astraftis), (3) skull fragments of the Australopithecus africanus, found at Makapan Fossil Hominid Site and now in a regional museum

Els - 23 June 2024

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Philipp Peterer 24 June 2024

All the places I think I should do better are on my "revisit needed" list. For a lot of them I have clearly been in the core zone, but I missed something that I consider important. Recent example is a revisit to Champagne, where I visited a production site this time.


Jarek Pokrzywnicki 24 June 2024

As for Los Katios - personally I visited core zone during my 2011 Colombian trip - I had a possibility to visit area around Sautata as an unofficial guest of scientists. Oficially the place was (and probably still is) off limit for tourists. I did not mention that in my review not intending to make problems for persons allowing my visit but since many years has gone I may one day add also core zone to my review.


Clyde 23 June 2024

Altamira's case is very similar to Lascaux; a visit to a minor cave apart from the replica to earn a Stoclet pass.


Jay T 23 June 2024

Squiffy has a better example of not getting OUV while in a core zone. I was more commenting that I don't see the OUV of more Roman limes beyond what had been on the list (Lower German Lines, Danube Lines). Just because something is Roman doesn't make it universally outstanding. And if it is outstanding, I'd rather they do an extension on a limited basis.

As for the Monarch Butterfly WHS, I'm not counting it until I get to an inscribed core zone site, since they are quite accessible. I just didn't get a tour from Mexico City that took me to the inscribed components when I visited in 2017. That said, just seeing the butterflies on the mountain in Valle de Bravo did give me a sense of the OUV.


Nan 23 June 2024

Jay is hinting at a reverse Stoclet pass... Being in core but not counting due to missing ouv experience.


Squiffy 23 June 2024

I definitely used the Stoclet Pass for Pont d'Arc. There was no way I could make the case for lugging a 6 month old child up a trail to a locked door. I haven't for Stoclet itself - I've still never bothered to go gawp at its backside.

Conversely, I have definitely got a tick for Saloum Delta, despite not seeing any of the aspects that contribute to its OUV. As I note in my review, the Fathala Reserve I visited seems to be an area that either a) should have been removed from the nomination, or b) will only be justified once the original plans to extend into a Mixed site (plans which have never materialised) come to fruition. But definitely within Core Boundaries so... Tick, I guess?


Joel on the Road 23 June 2024

I used one for Mount Athos, ticking off from the boat cruise. Feels pretty unfair to the other party when you're travelling as a couple.


Els Slots 23 June 2024

In response to Nan & Jay: I would draw the line for (mostly) natural sites with similar features elsewhere at the buffer zone. Yes, you may have seen the OUV (the butterflies, the levadas) elsewhere, but when you were at a totally different place we could start counting random zoos or city museum etc as well.


Jay T 23 June 2024

Definitely used a Stoclet Pass on Stoclwt itself. Did not use a Stoclet on Mexico's Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, where I spent three hours watching the butterflies in January 2017, but at a park not included in the WHS.

For the Lower German Limes, I had a fun time looking for sites in Bonn and Cologne, and enjoyed what I saw there and in Utrecht, but I find no OUV in these sites.


Nan 23 June 2024

For me, I would see further reasons:
* Near misses due to bad tentative site maps.
* High emotional investment to get to a closed door.
I could also see an argument for nature reserves where buffer zone and core zone are the same apart from the protective status.


Els Slots 23 June 2024

I think the Hiroshima site is a good example; although you can fully walk around the ruined building and see much more of it than at Stoclet, it isn't really about the building itself of course and a way of contemplation.


mmarqz 23 June 2024

Would Hiroshima Peace memorial be considered? Since it has no access to the core zone.


Blog Countries

Top Tips for Travelling to Kazakhstan

In 2017, Jarek wrote on the Forum “I guess that during next years Kazakhstan will develop a little bit their touristic infrastructure (I found it completely insufficient in many places) and adjust prices towards budget travellers (let's hope as right now they tend to overprice the services offered).”

Oh boy, was he wrong! I spent 11 days there in June 2024 and I am glad I went as it broadened my view of the country and its WHS are worthy, but tourist friendly it still isn’t. Below are my Top Tips for Travel to Kazakhstan as a WH Traveller.

1.      Don’t be put off already beforehand!

Usually when preparing for trips I get more and more excited about the destination. Kazakhstan is the only country I can remember from my recent travels where the more I learned about it, the less enthusiastic I got. It all seemed such a hassle with sights few and far between. I couldn't even finish reading the Bradt Guide on Kazakhstan as it was so boring.

2.      Its cities are a pleasant surprise

Visiting the main Kazakh cities certainly made my outlook on the country more positive. They seemed pleasant to live in, as there is lots of green, the streets are very pedestrian-friendly and they have plenty of coffee shops with terraces to watch the world go by. A wide range of cuisines is available, so it will be easy to steer away from the Central-Asian staples (which I do not like) to more common Asian, Turkish and Western options. Both Almaty (Soviet modernist) and Astana (neo-futuristic; photo 1 shows the Khan Shatyr Shopping and Entertainment Center) are worth a full day. The people generally are friendly and honest and it feels very safe.

3.      Providing transport to travellers isn’t their thing

Hurdle #1 for travelling in Kazakhstan on your own is the lack of modern public transport. The cities in the South (Almaty-Taraz-Shymkent-Turkestan) aren’t that far apart, but it can be a hassle to get between them. There’s one “fast” train per day, a bus or two on an ungodly hour, and for the remainder, you have to rely on marshrutkas or shared taxis that will make the trip when full. I always used the latter two options. When you have an early start (before 8 am) you won’t have to wait long, but especially marshrutkas aren’t that frequently available later during the day. You need to bring a certain experience in travelling this kind of way as it’s all very informal.

Renting a car is seriously discouraged (probably instigated by the tour company maffia, see #4), but to me, it all seemed doable, especially for those WH travellers who have driven ‘everywhere’ already (about the same difficulty level as Tunisia I'd say). Car rental companies will charge you by the km, so costs can add up if you’re doing a road trip. Traffic police are notoriously active. Gas is heavily subsidized and extremely cheap.

4.      The prices of established tour companies are a joke

Hurdle #2 is getting to any destination that lies more than 10km outside of a major city and is not covered by the already sketchy public transport. Unfortunately, two of the Kazakh WHS belong to this category (Tanbaly, Saryarka). If you approach a local tour company (for example those recommended in the Bradt guide or those with a strong online presence), they will shamelessly come back with a quote of 500 USD per day. I was quoted 500-600 USD for a day trip to Korgalzhyn from Astana by 3 different companies. Pricing is even more ridiculous than in the Caribbean, where the ‘cruise factor’ is incorporated into everything.

The high cost may be caused by the English-speaking guide they are always trying to add on even when you did not request it (speaking English well is a highly valuable skill in Kazakhstan, as it is rare). But it seems there’s also a cartel at work, as their prices were all remarkably similar. The cheapest alternative may be to arrange a car+Russian speaking driver via the place you’re staying at. I played it a bit safe (to be sure a car was available on the right day and I ended up at the right place with a good visit to the WHS) and arranged both Tanbaly and Korgalzhyn (Saryarka) via Indyguide.com, which is an online marketplace for freelance driver/guides.

5.     Despite its size, consider it as a small country 

As a destination, Kazakhstan seems to either be tremendously overrated or totally underrated. Due to the enormous size of the country (it’s the world’s 9th largest), from their land surveyor perspective Nomadmania has split the country into 14 regions and MTP even has 18 KZK locations. It’s all the same steppe, guys! For reference, Uzbekistan has only 7 MTP locations and Turkey has 12.

On the other hand, the infamous Lupine's 5 ‘Stans Tour allocates only 1 day out of the 14 to Kazakhstan – on that they drive from the border with Kyrgyzstan to Almaty, where they have a city tour that afternoon.… So they even miss out on that fabulous Khoja Ahmed Yassawi Mausoleum (photo 3).

I think the WHS are a fairer representation of the country, both in subject and in geographical spread. Kazakhstan has 3 WHS of its own, plus 2 transnational sites, which are as good or probably better seen in the other participating countries. The 3 Kazakh-only WHS are nicely spread across the regions of Almaty, Shymkent/Turkestan and Astana. Any future WHS will be very niche: some Turkic rune stones maybe, or the Mangystau Region with its natural features and rocky mosques (a nomination is being prepared apparently). Kazakhstan will participate in upcoming Silk Road serial nominations, but its components do not stand out on their own. Baikonur Cosmodrome is on our Missing List, but it is technically an exclave on Kazakh soil leased out to Russia.

Els - 16 June 2024

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Bin 27 June 2024

Hi Els, very useful tips. I am planning my trip to Kazakhstan in August. Can you share the guide info for visiting Saryarka and Tanbaly? I haven't found a suitable in indyguide. Thanks.


Blog WHS Visits

WHS #909: Tanbaly

On a map, the Kazakh WHS of Tanbaly (not to be confused with Tamgaly Tas!) doesn’t look to be too far from Almaty, but it takes quite some time to cover the 170km between the two places (we did it in 2h45). I went with a car & driver which I’d hired for the day via Indyguide, and we first had to navigate the busy and chaotic traffic to get out of Almaty. Then there’s a good stretch of highway west and, after the turnoff to the north which is signposted to the Site of Tanbaly, what remains is a B-road with some potholes but little traffic. The only thing you see by the side of the road are large farms, and they keep sheep and horses as livestock. As so often with rock art sites, Tanbaly lies in a remote river canyon that once had special meaning for people living in or passing through the region but lost its significance later on. It’s also the only piece of exposed rock in an area of steppes and offers protection against the sun and wind.

Our first stop was at the museum, which was given a proper building in 2021 and even comes with a museum shop. They show a few findings from the site, such as pottery found in the graves. Otherwise, it is mostly large photographs of the rock art on display. They also explain how they cleared the rocks of graffiti, which has been a real problem at this site in the 1990s when there was no oversight. WH collectors can also find the original WH certificate on a wall inside the museum.

About a kilometre further along the road you enter the fenced reserve where the rock art and associated archaeological sites are. There’s a large parking lot and at the reception area, you must pay the entrance fee of 500 tenge (1 EUR). We were surprised that we were not the only visitors – a large bus was already parked there. It belonged to a group of art students, who were painting ‘en plein air’ at the site for a competition. We found them sitting everywhere with their canvases.

A visit to the site itself is done on foot via well-marked trails. Not all rock panels were open (they have 7) – we did 3, 4, and 5, and watched panel 2 from a viewpoint. Contrary to what I read online beforehand, you do not need a guide and no guides are available at the reception area. I was with a driver/guide who had been there before, but she wasn’t a specialist in the subject. She did know where to look though for the more special engravings such as the pregnant cow, the fighting dog, dancing people and some sun-deities.

I had brought my superzoom camera, which came in handy as the rock art often could be viewed better from a distance than when you were standing right in front of it. The specific kind of rock found here seems very suitable to keep the rock art preserved and the way it was done (chiselling or picketing the objects out of the rock with the use of tools, not carving) seems to be beneficial for the viewing conditions as well. You can see them well and they are not as weather/sunlight dependent as other rock art sites around the world. I especially liked their silvery backgrounds.

The main trail, which takes about 1.5 hours to complete, ends at some Bronze Age burial sites. These are stone ‘boxes’ in the ground (see 3rd photo). Both adults and children were laid to rest here in crouched positions, and some graves are considered to be cenotaphs (so having had no body at all). A few of the boxes hold interior engravings similar to the rock art.

Overall, I enjoyed my visit - it gets you deep into the Kazakh countryside, the rock art is well-visible and some of it is very old. The site seems well-managed nowadays and there was a pleasant atmosphere with the visiting group of students. We brought our own picnic lunch (there are no restaurants or other amenities in the area) and ate it sitting on one of the benches in the parking lot.

Els - 9 June 2024

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Blog Countries

Top Tips for 15 days in China

As Solivagant has written, China is a new country every 10 years. I hadn’t been there since early 2019 - and even since then it has changed again. It has started to look more and more like Japan, especially in the most prosperous part of the country. If you look closely you may still notice an elderly person spitting into a garbage can, and I even spotted a group of pensioners playing cards (or gambling?) under a bridge in Hangzhou. But the younger generations in the cities seem like a different breed.

To stimulate the return of international tourism after COVID, the Chinese government has allowed a 15-day visa-free entrance into the country for a select group of nationalities (the group seems a bit random but a major factor appears to be the country's appeal to visiting Chinese tourists). So fortunately the Chinese love the Dutch flower fields and I was let into the country without questions. 

Please find below my Tips for visiting WHS in China on the 15-day visa-free scheme.

1.      You can pack in a lot in 15 days

China is so huge that it doesn’t matter whether you have ‘only’ 15 days or 3 months. You need multiple return visits anyway to see most of its provinces and cover all its 59 WHS. There are plenty of clusters of about 10 WHS that are suitable for this kind of short trip. The hotspot connections of Beijing, Fujian, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Luoyang, Nanjing, and Sichuan can inspire you to decide where to focus. Although I had visited China already 5 times before and had spent some 5 months in total covering 41 out of the 59 WHS, I easily found a cluster of 8 ‘new’ WHS for me to do. My itinerary can be found here.

2.      Plan, plan, plan

Draw up a detailed itinerary beforehand to get the most out of the 15 days. Check the Chinese (school) holidays (+ and – a few days) and avoid weekend trips to the busiest sites (usually those with cable cars). Research the train routes and schedules, and avoid overly long transfers – you can get quite far in 2 or 3 hours already on a high-speed train. Write it all down into a day-to-day schedule and stick to the plan.

3.      Be sure the itinerary is varied enough

To keep the journey enjoyable instead of just ticking the boxes on high speed, the itinerary should have a mix of sights. Try to avoid too many (sacred) mountains, as although their sceneries vary a lot, the visitor experiences often are similar. Also, keep an eye on the site ratings – be sure to have some of the very good (4+) ones in there. An excursion into the countryside adds another perspective (this time I did Tusi’s Laosicheng which fits the bill, but Fujian Tulou also is a fine choice in this category).

I would also suggest including two or three days in one of the major cities (such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, or Hangzhou, Xiamen for example) – this will give you access to city attractions which can be explored on foot or a bike and allow you to enjoy more non-Chinese restaurants than the average provincial city offers. After 10 days or so, you will start craving some non-sweet bread and cheese, or that craft beer.

4.      Download a select group of apps

China operates in a different digital universe from the rest of the world, and you’ll have to join it at least partly as otherwise you’d not be able to do much. For a short trip such as this, one method of digital payment (Alipay is the easiest) and a foreign sim should be enough: no VPN, no special maps, no WeChat. Train reservations aren’t needed long ahead either. More on this can be found in the Forum post.

5.      Expect an excellent ROI

A short trip to China delivers both quantity and quality at a low cost. You can all DIY as virtually all Chinese WHS are very accessible. Sites are usually open every day of the year, with reasonable hours and no pre-booking required. And there are few WHS among China’s 59 that aren’t worth visiting: there are only 5 sites with an average rating of less than 2.5 stars. Travel costs are low: public transport (including taxis), food and hotels are all inexpensive. Entrance fees usually are a bit pricier (especially when you want to use all of the site’s additional ‘attractions’) but there’s no foreigner pricing. I managed to average 275 EUR per WHS (all-inclusive, even international flights), which is way below my usual budget of 650 EUR and in the range of Turkey (only Tunisia and Morocco so far have been cheaper).

Els - 2 June 2024

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Blog WHS Visits

WHS #904: China Danxia

China usually doesn’t have much trouble inscribing sites, but it did have a hard time with China Danxia. “Danxia” is an elusive subject, even Wikipedia isn’t able to define it in one sentence (it calls it “pseudo-karst” consisting of red-coloured sandstones from the Cretaceous and limited to China). ICOMOS and IUCN couldn’t really wrap their heads around it either – IUCN basically saying there isn’t such a thing as a globally acknowledged Danxia landform and ICOMOS insisting that this should be a cultural site (criterion VI, rich cultural associations) instead of a natural site (criterion VII, natural beauty).

Eight out of the nine locations that comprise the WHS of ‘China Danxia’ have so far stayed unreviewed on this website. I visited a ‘new’ one – the Guifeng section of Longhushan National Park. This site is separate from the main Longhushan park (both in geographical reality and in the inscribed list of components), but they share the same site management and Global Geopark status. The strength of Guifeng is that it is very compact, so you can get a good impression of what Danxia entails within a relatively short amount of time.

Unlike other Chinese mountain WHS, this is not a place to wander endlessly. There is one main trail that everybody follows. Here and there you can choose to skip a specific detour to a peak or an ‘attraction’ (more on those later!), but in general, you all start and end at the same place. I walked 8.7 km in total and the loop took me 3.5 hours with plenty of stops. I went on a Sunday morning and there were many day-tripping families and groups of friends around, but nowhere it got too crowded. Drinks, ice cream and other snacks are sold from stalls along the route.

After some initial climbing of stone stairs, you reach the flat, paved walkways that were attached to the sides of the Danxia ‘inselbergs’. This is the best part of the site, as from there you get panoramic views of the landscape of isolated, eroded peaks, which – when the sun is out – show their red colours well. The name Dan Xia was derived from a Chinese poem and means “vermillion sunglow”.

Despite being a Global Geopark and a natural WHS, there is little explanation on site about the geology of the area. The park is much more geared toward providing a fun day out. As if the landscape itself wasn’t pretty enough, several manmade attractions were added. At the far end of the loop, there is a Glass Skywalk. Closer to the end of the trail, you can risk your life in the sleighing on grass or on the giant water slide. The trail ends at the dock, from where a (heavily overpriced) ‘sightseeing’ boat will take you back to the visitor center. I had opted out of that when I bought my ticket but had to succumb to it in the end as I saw no other trail to walk out.

My visit made me think that these kinds of Disneyfied natural sites prevent Chinese city dwellers from coming in contact with ‘real’ nature. If you look closely, there is some left though, I even saw a few animals when I walked on my own - first a squirrel and later a stick insect crossing the paved footpath. At least the latter made me smile – I had never seen a stick insect run but this one did, perhaps to keep its time out of the bushes as short as possible.

Practicalities

Guifeng is an easy half-day trip from Shangrao, which itself is a good hub for the WHS of Sanqingshan and Wuyishan. Take the fast train to the city of Yiyang from Shangrao (17mins) and from Yiyang railway station you can take bus #2 or a Didi taxi (15mins/40 yuan) to the site, known as ‘Guifeng Scenic Area’ or ‘Guifeng Mountain’. Trains run fairly frequently but with some gaps in between certain departures; I left Shangrao on the 7.30 train and got back on the 13.01 from Yiyang. The site entrance ticket costs 60 yuan (for some reason I did not have to pay this), plus 20 yuan for the shuttle ‘train’ from the visitor center to the start of the mountain trail and 80 yuan for the boat ride.

Els - 26 May 2024

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Blog WHS Visits

WHS #903: Mount Wuyi

The WHS of Mount Wuyi has not been covered well by reviews yet - at least I think they do not do justice to the complexity of this mixed WHS. After reading beforehand about what to see and do in the area I decided to spend more than one day here and explore various parts.

On my arrival day, I moved straight to the second location called “Ruin of Han Dynasty City”. This lies some 15km outside of the Wuyi scenic area. From Nanpingshi railway station (formerly known as Wuyishan East) I took the recently installed tramway and got off at Chengcun, from where it’s a 3km walk to the ruins (it’s signposted and you can use the bike path). It’s a location of interest in the inscription history of this WHS, as ICOMOS in 1999 actually considered it a separate site and thought it would be better to split this cultural archeological site from the more nature-focused main site.

The split didn’t happen though and now the Han City Ruins are part of the Wuyi WHS, and they proudly display the WH logo everywhere. Strangely, access regulations are different between the two locations – while the main site requires quite costly one or multiple-day passes, the entrance here is free. The ruins lie in a sleepy village and at the sites (I went to the museum and the palace ruins) no one else was around except for one person at each reception. The museum is quite a grand building and was modelled after Beijing’s Imperial Palace. The Han City dates from the 1st century BC and testifies to the time when the region became incorporated into the Han state and the local ruler became a vassal to the Han Emperor. These city ruins are considered unique for China as later constructions have never overlaid them. What remains though are hardly more than the foundations of what once was a walled city. Photo 1 above shows the ‘Bath Pool’.

The next morning I was up early and managed to be among the first to enter Wuyishan NP. The park opens already at 6.30 in the main season. For some reason, I only had to pay for the shuttle buses (70 Yuan (9 EUR), which even became 65 after an inexplicable Alipay discount) and not for the entrance (which is listed as 140 Yuan for 1 day). I had read online that they had given free entrance until April, but maybe they continue this practice.

I had chosen to visit the Da Hong Pao area first – it turned out that I was the only one wanting to go there at this early hour and I sat alone at the bus. That was fine by me as it resulted in a very pleasant and quiet hike. This area in the northern part of the park is known for its growing of tea plants. The so-called Tea Trail, 4.5km long, connects Da Hong Pao with the Water Curtain Cave via a narrow path through valleys and up and down stone stairs. The area was used as an Imperial Tea Farm and still produces a specific red kind of tea. A key spot is its remaining set of 6 original tea trees that are over 300 years old.

Along the way, you will also pass a fine 18th-century temple and ancient cliff dwellings high up against the cliff wall. As it was so quiet, I saw several birds such as a red-headed trogon and the very pretty Silver Pheasant (which is mostly white). The trail ends at the Water Curtain Cave, which is a steep waterfall that in this dry season only trickles from the top. Maybe it's not really worth the steep climb to get there, but there’s a Neo-Confucian shrine (infested with bees) at the bottom end of the wall so you can ‘tick’ the Neo-Confucian part of the OUV as well!

After 2 hours of hiking, I took a shuttle bus back to the main area near the park's South Entrance. Here I did another short walk: to Zhi Zhi An nunnery. This easy path starts at Wuyi Palace and follows the bending river. There’s a good viewpoint from where you can take pictures of the bamboo rafts floating downstream against the backdrop of the cliff walls.

Els - 19 May 2024

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Durian 20 May 2024

As Da Hong Pao tea drinker, I really want to see the original Da Hong Pao tea trees at Mt. Wuyi.


Blog Connections

Strict Nature Reserves

While preparing for my upcoming trip to Kazakhstan I found out that both parks that together form the Saryarka WHS are ‘Strict Nature Reserves’. We already have a connection for that (of course), and I took the opportunity to refresh it. I had always thought that these Strict Reserves wouldn't allow for tourist visits (we had that in our connection description as well: "a zone with the highest wilderness protection and not open to tourism"), but it turns out that the story is different.

What is meant by “Strict”?

IUCN over the years has developed a system to categorize protected areas – the most recent incarnation dates from 1994. It is meant to provide international standards and is used locally to provide a basis for legislation. This system ranks from high to lower levels of protection, represented by categories I to VI with I being the highest. See this source for how it works, the quotes below were taken from this document.

The Strict Nature Reserve is category Ia. Here, “human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values”. The reserves protect natural features “that will not survive outside of such strictly protected settings” and can be studied in near-pristine circumstances. They are “managed for relatively low visitation by humans”.

There’s also a category Ib, “Wilderness Area”, which also doesn’t survive on tourism revenue. They are larger and less strictly protected from human visitation than category Ia. I think we can have a separate connection for them too. I’ve found a few WHS already: Shirakami-Sanchi, Barrington Tops National Park (Gondwana Rainforests), Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park & Wrangell–Saint Elias Wilderness, and some of the Cold Winter Deserts of Turan.

Updates

I verified our connected sites by checking their IUCN category status (mostly via the UNEP-WCMC website). We lost Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng there. Also, Białowieża Forest doesn't seem to be one (according to this statistic, Poland has no Ia sites) although it includes an area named "Special Reserve". I also removed the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries as the status of the part that could be (Wolong Natural Nature Reserve) is unsure.

I added the following new sites that I got from doing a query on the UNESCO website and drawing inspiration from the No Road Access and Not open to tourists connections:

Ones that did not meet the cut where I perhaps expected it: Shirakami-Sanchi (it's Ib), Central Amazon and Lorentz NP (both reclassified to category II, a National Park), and Chiribiquete ('only' a National Park as well - its strict access rules may be more safety-based than conservation-based). The latter 3 are too vast - a common denominator among Ia sites is that they are fairly small.

A mixed bunch

The resulting list of 20 connected WHS is a mixed bunch. My main conclusion is that very few WHS are made up of a Strict Nature Reserve only. In most cases, and especially with serial sites, there are both strict and less strict parts.

Fully covered are:

Consequences for accessibility

So in most cases you can just visit another location to avoid the conditions of the Strict area. And even among those that a Strict Reserve fully covers, none of the WHS is inaccessible to the general public. There are few restrictions at Yakushima (Photo 1) and Saryarka. Others may be expensive (Aldabra, Gough, Heard and McDonald), dependent on good weather conditions for landing, or you need a (hiking or climbing) permit - but you can get there in the end. Even entering the core zone of the Indian Sundarbans seems a possibility nowadays - at "Nethi Dhupani island located in the Western range of the National Park where regulated tourism (13 boats per day) is permitted" (IUCN Outlook 2020) and you can loop around Surtsey (in its marine part) by boat.

If you know of additional Ia or Ib category sites, or special requirements for getting into them, please let us know

Els - 12 May 2024

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Els Slots 12 May 2024

I register them in the same connection with the note "Partly", Carlo. Thanks for the research!


Carlo Sarion 12 May 2024

You may add Hubei Shennongjia and Archipiélago de Revillagigedo too:

http://world-heritage-datasheets.unep-wcmc.org/datasheet/output/site/hubei-shennongjia/
http://world-heritage-datasheets.unep-wcmc.org/datasheet/output/site/archipielago-de-revillagigedo/

My partner went on a diving trip in Socorro in Revillagigedo and yes, it's pretty much highly restricted.

The following sites on the other hand have components whose IUCN designation is either 1a or 1b. I don't know how you would consider this under the Strict Nature Reserve connection though.

1. Xianjiang Tianshan - 1b Tomur Peak National Nature Reserve, West Tianshan Mountains National Nature Reserve, and Bayinbuluke National Nature Reserve
2. Western Tien-Shan - 1a for Aksu-Jabagly State Nature Reserve and Besh-Aral State Nature Reserve
3. Western Caucases - 1a for Kavkazskiy State Biosphere Reserve
4. Virgin Komi Forest - 1a for Pechoro-Ilychsky Reserve
5. Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve - 1a for Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve (not the national park)
6. Shiretoko - 1a for Onnebutsedake Wilderness Area
7. Laponian Area - 1a for Sjaunja Nature Reserve
8. Kluane / Wrangell-St Elias / Glacier Bay /tatshenshini-Alsek - 1b for Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park
9. Central Sikhote-Alin - 1a for Sikhote-Alinskiy Nature Preserve (Zapovednik)
10. Banc d'Arguin National Park - 1a for Cap Blanc Integral Reserve


Els Slots 12 May 2024

I also found Putorana and Wrangel Island to be Ia (from the less than 1,000 visitors a year connection).


Els Slots 12 May 2024

You're totally right Carlo. I should have known about the Subantarctic Islands. Their 'Australian brother' Macquarie island is Ia as well. Will add them.


Carlo Sarion 12 May 2024

I just reviewed a couple of sites inscribed under natural criteria so this topic just looks so timely! This is interesting, countries have their own categories of conservation and resource use and do not necessarily adopt the IUCN protected area management classification system. The IUCN system does not also automatically fit for marine protected areas (MPAs) because of the nuanced issues in the marine environment, though I learned somewhere that they are actually applicable and helpful in creating legislative and operational settings in the establishment of MPAs (need to find that document somewhere). Anyway, in the case of nature reserves that form the NZ Sub-Antarctic Islands, I believe they are categorised under 1a:

http://world-heritage-datasheets.unep-wcmc.org/datasheet/output/site/new-zealand-sub-antarctic-islands


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