The Wall Street Journal

By Stan Sesser, The Wall Street Journal

To see some of the most spectacular spots on earth before the tour buses arrive, visit the sites being considered for World Heritage designation. Three gems in China’s Yunnan province.

The mention on the Linden Centre is nearer the end of the article.

Yuanyang, China

As dawn breaks on top of a mountain near the China-Vietnam border, hundreds of water-filled rice terraces reveal themselves, clinging to the mountainside in geometric patterns in every direction. The rising sun, reflecting off the water, turns some of the terraces bright shades of orange and gold. Then solitary figures appear, black against the rising sun — peasants with their water buffaloes hitched to wooden plows.

It’s one of the most spectacular sights on earth, and local tourism authorities have capitalized on it by building a series of viewing platforms and a big parking lot. But this morning, three cars are parked there and only six people are on the mountaintop, including one woman, from the region’s Hani ethnic minority, selling boiled eggs.

From the Grand Canyon to the Tower of London to Angkor Wat, 878 places around the world have been named World Heritage sites by the United Nations, through its Unesco agency. Each year, the World Heritage Committee names some 20 new sites, whose unparalleled cultural or natural significance makes them “irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” The designation brings benefits including advice and sometimes funds to help protect the historic, artistic or natural treasures at each site. But fame has its price, and in this case it’s the inevitable arrival of tourist crowds, souvenir sellers and exhaust fumes, which can undermine even the most impressive place.

If ever a site deserved World Heritage designation, Yunnan’s Hani Rice Terraces would be it. China proposed them for consideration last year, but they haven’t been selected yet — making them a tourist’s dream, a majestic setting to view and photograph without a tour bus or trinket seller in sight.

The list of proposed World Heritage sites — 1,471 in all, known as the “tentative list” — is full of such places. Countries may select up to two of their candidates from this list in a year to put through the elaborate nomination process, which involves visits and reviews of management and preservation plans by outside experts. The World Heritage Committee is set to vote on the new sites this year when it meets in Seville, Spain, from June 22 to 30.

But why wait for the winners? The tentative list is online (, offering a menu of destinations rich in culture and scenery and largely lacking long lines and jostling crowds.

The U.S. has 14 candidates on the tentative list, some of them as familiar as Virginia’s Mount Vernon and Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, others that even seasoned travelers may be unfamiliar with, such as Ohio’s Serpent Mound Native American burial ground and the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary in American Samoa. Yunnan province, in southwest China, has three sites on the tentative list, including the Hani Rice Terraces. Yunnan is a spectacular land of mountains, rivers and forests, with 25 tribal ethnic minorities making up more than a third of the population.

World Heritage designation has been a mixed blessing, however, for one of Yunnan’s two existing World Heritage sites, the Old Town of Lijiang. It was recognized for its ancient architecture and beautiful mountain setting in 1997. Since then, hotels, cafés and tourist shops, most of them owned by Han Chinese, China’s predominant ethnic group, have pushed aside Lijiang’s Naxi tribal minority along with their matriarchal culture and unique pictograph alphabet, which is often used in indigenous art.

Officials at World Heritage headquarters in Paris say their program isn’t to blame for overdevelopment and commercialization. Art Pedersen, program specialist for heritage and tourism, rejects the suggestion that the World Heritage Convention, signed in 1972 and now ratified by 186 countries, “has been turned into simply a branding scheme.” The committee offers guidance in sustainable development, he says, and at times suggests that countries reconsider initiatives “like an amusement park near a historic city, or a cable car going up the side of a mountain.” The suggestions are “enormously effective,” he adds, “because they take the burden off the country to make difficult decisions and pass them up to the U.N.”

Up from the Hani Rice Terraces, in the mountains above Yuanyang, the water flowing down to irrigate the fields looks crystal clear, and the air is clean. But if there are few signs of pollution, neither are there many signs of economic progress.

In a country that introduced free schooling for all long ago, Hani teenagers hang around the village rather than go to classes, because they say their families can’t afford the 50 yuan (about $7.35) that many teachers demand each semester. Hani men dress in jeans and T-shirts; Hani women wear elaborate, colorful outfits dating back centuries. As with some of the other tribal groups in Yunnan, women carry firewood up the dirt paths and lug rocks at construction sites.

Another of Yunnan’s World Heritage candidates is the Maotian Mountain National Geopark, with its trove of prehistoric Chengjiang fossils. The fossils are imprints of life forms from 530 million years ago, when this area was part of a seabed. The park is a two-hour taxi ride from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, and I made a recent visit there with plans to continue on by bus to Yuanyang and the rice terraces. But in another empty parking lot, the gatekeeper laughed when I asked about buses and taxis. “You’re the first people I’ve ever seen who didn’t come here by private car,” she said. I had to bargain with the taxi driver who’d brought me there to wait a couple of hours and then take me to the nearest town with an intercity bus station.

The fossils, removed from cliffs in the national park that are marked with placards, are displayed in the park’s museum. There are 200 fossil species exhibited, from worms to “giant ancient shrimp with fierce claws and a large-toothed mouth.” “Here in this park is the origin of anthropoids,” a bilingual sign says. The precursors of mankind … that sounded impressive. But was it hyperbole? My guidebook didn’t mention the park. A World Heritage designation would have shed some light.

The third World Heritage candidate in Yunnan is the Old Town of Dali, a place that nearly torpedoed my strategy for avoiding crowds. On a recent visit, I didn’t experience the aura of discovery that I’d felt seeing the fossils and rice terraces. I’d been in Dali 20 years ago, long before Chinese were tourists in their own country. Back then, it was a little town that happened to have ancient walls and lots of old buildings. Now it has pedestrian malls, new construction imitating traditional architecture and thousands of tourists.

A ride toward the lake on a rented bicycle was an escape. Farmers were working their fields in the time-honored ways, without a tourist in sight. Just 11 miles from Dali is the remarkable village of Xizhou, with old courtyard-style houses recalling the Dali I remembered. Last year, an American couple, Brian and Jeanee Linden, leased a traditional courtyard dwelling in Xizhou from the Chinese government and opened a hotel and cultural center where foreigners can stay to study. Adrian Golobic, the Linden Center’s director of operations, says if Dali became a World Heritage site, it “would bring in the money that could be used for proper preservation.”

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W1

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