My Favorite World Heritage Sites Vol. 3

June 24, 2017 Global Heritage Comments (0) 2096

I live in a World Heritage site in a city in the U.S.A.  Here are the only other two World Heritage sites in U.S. cities and I have visited both – as you probably have as well.

It’s a woman.  Gift from France.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia.  Photo by Alex Rich-Michael, 2010.

Now, both of these are individual structures (more or less) in large cities, unlike here in San Antonio, where our missions cover a 12-mile long stretch of town from downtown south beyond 410 (that’s like the first ring road).  Another US World Heritage site that is more than an individual structure is one I only first saw two years ago.

University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA  One of two World Heritage sites designed by Thomas Jefferson, putting him way ahead of Frank Lloyd Wright as of this writing.

Did your college dorm look like this?  Mine was just like this, except for everything about it.

Yes I know McKim Mead and White redid the Rotunda after a fire, but they did find Jefferson’s lab in the basement during this rehab…

As I mentioned in My Favorite World Heritage Sites Volume 1, most of the U.S. sites are natural, rather than architectural, and I have been to Yosemite and the Redwoods but I am focusing on cultural sites here…


I think we need to get to the other side of the Ring of Fire, to China, which rivals Italy on the number of World Heritage inscriptions, beginning with these tourist staples that I have had the pleasure of visiting a half dozen times each.

I have actually visited four separate sites on the Great Wall during eight visits.

Hall of Peace and Longevity, Forbidden City, Beijing, 2009.

太和殿, Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing.

Part of nine-dragon screen, Forbidden City, Beijing, 2014.

The thing about the Forbidden City is you can visit it ten times and still find new stuff – they can’t even keep all of it open all the time – it is 900 acres!  Imagine Central Park in New York City, completely full of buildings, PLUS 100 acres of more buildings.  Its endless.

I love the roof tile General…

The Hill of Accumulated Elegance, where Accumulated describes matter, not time.  In Emperor’s private gardens at Forbidden City – always crowded with tourists.

There is always something new to discover in the Forbidden City, like this theater stage I first saw in 2011.

Interestingly, the Temple of Heaven, where the Emperor performed rituals to insure good harvest, is a separate World Heritage site in busy Beijing, one I quite like, although it lacks the endlessness of the Forbidden City.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing.

When you go to see the Great Wall, whether at Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshanling or Simitai, they often include the Ming Tombs, which are also World Heritage if pretty touristy and really not my faves.

Great Wall at Mutianyu

This bit is steep.  Actually a lot of it is, and it is more road than wall.  If you see a map of the wall, it looks like a series of scratches that cover some 4,000 miles in over a dozen non-contiguous stripes.  The wall is more of a road to transport things across very mountainous terrain.  To the extent that it is a wall it is really more of an idea – not unlike Kafka’s interpretation of it.  As a wall it never kept anyone out.  Or in.

Summer Palace

The highlight of the Summer Palace has to be Cixi’s insane marble pleasure boat.  The story is she used the navy budget to build this two-story boat which is like a modern casino – perpetually docked and only used for parties.

Okay, now the other big World Heritage site in China, which I have seen maybe four or five times is the temple of Qinshihuangdi in the ancient capital of Xi’an with the famous terra cotta army.  Discovered AFTER the creation of World Heritage status, the site has been gradually excavated and improved over the last 40 years, and is stunning in many ways, from its scope and fabrication to the ongoing discoveries, such as the original painted pigments of the warriors and the fact that the Chinese invented chrome technology two millenia before Harley-Davidson even existed.

The first and largest excavation.

each one is different but none are snowflakes

Kneeling archer

I am not sure I should include Lijiang, a lovely town in Yunnan which was inscribed as World Heritage in 1999, because it has become what we try NOT to do in heritage conservation.  Like Angkor, World Heritage status was seen as a way to turn the city into a tourist trap, an economic monoculture that excluded the original inhabitants.  While wholesale displacement did not occur, the site bears many of the scars of too much focus on tourism, and was a great counter-example for my work in Weishan, also in Yunnan, between 2003 and 2014.

Black dragon pool in Lijiang.  Dead gorgeous.

Downtown is all shops.  Silk, tea, silver, fabrics, and then more of each.  Also restaurants.

Weishan is not inscribed as a World Heritage Site, but does boast a temple mountain with 24 Daoist and Buddhist temples and a historic town at the intersection of the Southern Silk Road and the Horse-Tea Route.  Also this stunning 1390 North Gate.

The gate burned in 2014 and has been rebuilt thanks to detailed drone documentation in 2012. Photo from 2009.

Okay, back to World Heritage.  Suzhou is a lovely city about an hour out of Shanghai that is famed for its traditional Chinese gardens with their landscaping, rockeries, pavilions and water features.  First visited in 2006 and most recently in 2012, Suzhou is a must see with a wealth of different designed gardens all around the city.

Copyright 2006 Felicity Rich.  From our first visit to Suzhou in 2006.

Two of those gardens, the Master of the Nets and the Humble Administrator’s, are World Heritage sites in their own right.

Master of Nets garden, Suzhou.

The gardens privilege the shaping of views from pavilions with a broad array of geometric openings, creating a sense of discovery aped by 19th century landscape architects in the West.

Copyright 2006 Felicity Rich

Lion Grove Garden, Suzhou

Humble Administrator’s Garden.  (Hint:  There is nothing humble about it.)

Since I threw in one Natural World Heritage site from the US here is one I saw and thoroughly enjoyed in China, Tiger Leaping Gorge, which we saw on our Three Gorges Yangtze River cruise in 2008, when the inundation was about 2/3 complete.

25m at its narrowest point, hence leapable by a storied tiger.

One of my favorite World Heritage Sites in China is Pingyao, the walled city with some 400 intact siheyuan 四合院(courtyard houses).  I first visited in 2008 and again in 2011 as an Advisor for the Global Heritage Fund, returned with students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012, and visited again as Executive Director of Global Heritage Fund 2013-2015.

One of the only truly intact city walls in China.  This shot is from 2008.

Some of the courtyards are hotels and some are museums, including this complex which forms part of the rishengchang 日升昌票号, an important draft banking invention that arose in Pingyao and spread across East Asia in the 19th century.  You can see my original blog from 2008 and another from 2011.

Typical hotel conversion.

Market tower on main street, Pingyao

I love yaodong – parabolic-arched brick structures in the rear of the courtyards – helpful in the hot summers and cold winters of Shaanxi province.  The World Heritage inscription includes the Shuanglin Temple six kilometers outside of the walled city.  Its extensive sculptural program famously survived the Cultural Revolution, purportedly by local cadres who filled the temples with grain, hiding the sculptures.

Check out the duogong at Shuanglin – totally Ming Dynasty proportions – the temple history actually goes back even further, nearly 1,400 years.  Definitely one of my favorite World Heritage Sites.

I think we have to have a Volume 4 – there are still a few places left…




















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