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Asia's unseen UNESCO World Heritage sites
10 awe-inspiring locations you've probably never heard of
Asia’s long history and rich cultures have produced nearly 150 UNESCO World Heritage sites, with a long list of monuments waiting to join them in the application pipeline. “Once a site is on the list, it's important. 172 out of 192 countries have signed an international treaty to protect these sites. Individual countries are obliged to answer to the international community on how its sights are managed. These sites are the responsibility of everybody; they are important to the whole of humanity,” says Timothy Curtis, program specialist for culture in UNESCO’s Bangkok office.
Everybody knows the Great Wall or the Taj Mahal. Here are 10 of Asia’s sites less traveled.
1. Lushan National ParkLocation: Jiujiang City, Jiangxi Province, China
As Beatrice Kaldun, program officer at UNESCO’s Beijing office, explains, “Lushan tells the history of China”. Its captivating scenery has inspired much Chinese culture, its Western villas speak to the presence of international colonial powers, and Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong both had houses here. It is also an important site for Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Mercedes-Benz is a major donor to the site. Kaldun stresses the importance of private sector involvement in heritage conservation.
2. Ancient city of Ping YaoLocation: Ping Yao County, Shanxi Province, China
Ping Yao was China’s banking center in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the Ming Dynasty, Ping Yao had been a trade hub, but in 1823, the first remittance shop, Rishengchang Exchange House, was set-up to take deposits, and to loan and remit money. At one point, more than 50 percent of China’s remittance shops were headquartered within Ping Yao’s ancient city walls. Rishengchang collapsed in 1932, but its former headquarters have been restored as a museum.
3. Mount Qingcheng and the Dujiangyan Irrigation SystemLocation: Dujiangyan City, Sichuan Province, China
Mount Qingcheng was the birthplace of Taoism, and the Dujiangyan Irrigation System is a technological and engineering feat dating back to the second century that still takes the waters from Minjiang River to irrigate the Chengdu plains. These sites were at the epicenter of the 2008 earthquake, and sustained substantial damage. Since then, the UNESCO World Heritage Center has mobilized international resources for the sites’ restoration.
4. Orkhon Valley Cultural LandscapeLocation: Orkhon-Kharkorin Region, Mongolia
A relatively easy six-hour drive from Ulaan Baatar, Orkhon Valley encompasses nearly 122,000 hectares of land on both sides of the Orkhon River. Within the site are the ruins of Kharkhorum, the capital of Genghis Khan’s empire. Other archaeological sites date back to the sixth century. Visitors can also experience the nomadic existence of Mongolians.
5. Mountain Railways of IndiaLocation: India
Five railways constructed from the late 19th to early 20th centuries are included in this listing. Three of these railways -- Darjeeling Himalayan, Kalka-Shimla, and Kangra Valley -- run through North India’s rugged Himalayas. The other two, Nilgiri Mountain and Matheran Hill, are in the south. Today, these classic railways, relics of British colonial rule, are still operated by India Railways, and offer exhilarating rides over India’s most scenic mountain trails.
6. Ellora CavesLocation: Verul Village, Maharashtra State, India
These 34 cave monasteries and temples are stunning architectural marvels. Carved out of the Charanandri hill walls, these monuments to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism date back to the 7th to 11th centuries, and are a testament to India’s history of religious tolerance.
7. Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife SanctuariesLocation: Kanchanaburi, Tak and Uthai Thani provinces, Thailand
This wildlife sanctuary is home to some of the most diverse wildlife in Southeast Asia, containing 77 percent of large mammal species. Here, you’ll spot tiger, leopard, Asiatic elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros and hog deer among the 120 mammal species represented in this natural sanctuary along the Myanmar border.
8. Complex of Koguryo TombsLocation: Pyongyang, South Phyongan Province, Nampho, South Hwangghae Province, North Korea
North Korea’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, these 30 odd tombs contain fascinating wall paintings that document everyday life from Korea’s Koguryo kingdom dating back to the fifth century, and spanning from the Korean Peninsula into China’s Jilin province. Only 90 of the 10,000 or so Koguryo tombs found to date contain wall paintings, and nearly half of these, believed to be the tombs of royalty, are located at this site. These tombs and wall paintings are all that remain of this once powerful culture.
9. Hwaseong FortressLocation: Kyonggi-do Province, South Korea
The story behind this fortress wall around Suwon, located 30km south of Seoul, is a palace drama of tragic proportions. It was built by King Jeongjo in the 18th century in preparation to move the capital city from Seoul to Suwon. But it was also built in honor of his father Prince Sado, who was murdered by his own father. Prince Sado was locked inside a rice chest and left to die when he refused his father’s orders to commit suicide.
10. Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of Kii Mountain RangeLocation: Mie, Nara and Wakayama Prefectures, Japan
Set within the beautiful forests of the Kii Mountain range are three sacred sites linked by pilgrimage routes to Nara and Kyoto. The sites reflect the prevalence of Shinto and Buddhism traditions in Japan for more than 1,200 years. The three sites -- Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan -- contain intriguing shrines and temples that date back to the ninth century.
UNESCO works hard to ensure that our heritage does not disappear into oblivion so that future generations can learn from and appreciate the leaps and bounds that human civilizations have made. In Asia, Curtis sites two main threats to heritage preservation -- extreme poverty and rapid economic growth.
Ironically, if not properly managed, being a world heritage site also brings risks. Angkor Wat is a big success story illustrating how its world heritage status mobilized the international community to restore sites that were severely threatened by war, neglect and pillaging, transforming them into revenue-generating tourist destinations for the local community. “Now the threat is too much tourism. Now it's a question of managing its success,” Curtis says. He sites Luang Prabang as another site that needs to pay attention to how tourism is managed, where the monks’ way of life is being threatened as more and more foreigners, who don’t follow the tradition of feeding the monks, buy guest houses within Luang Prabang town leading locals to move outside the core area.
“We really need to work with the tourism industry. Tourism is good. Heritage should be viewed and shared by people, but people need to understand their responsibilities. Officials need to understand the carrying capacity of a site, and put in place crowd control measures such as advance booking. Tourists need to understand how they can minimize the negative effect on the site and the community.”