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UPDATED: August 29, 2014 NO. 29 July 17, 2014
Winding Road to the Wild West
After 26 years, the first section of the world's longest historic trade route has finally been named a World Heritage Site
By Bai Shi

In 2011, the World Heritage Committee made a major adjustment to the Silk Road project: Experts on the committee suggested dividing the Silk Road into 54 corridors, which reduced organizational and paperwork difficulties. The committee encouraged countries to apply for separate corridors using multinational cooperation.

Based on their assessment, according to Chen, the original bid from China and the five Central Asian countries was divided into two parts: the Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor and the Amu Darya Corridor.

In January 2013, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan jointly submitted paperwork for the Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor route to the World Heritage Committee. Over years of preparation, China has built a close partnership with the two countries, Chen said.

As for selecting the components included in the application, it depended largely on the degree of the relationship between the relic and the route, as well as its condition. The parts of the road weaving through China were home to 24 components when first announced in 2012; after strict inspection, the number was cut to 22.

Chen also noted that the applied-for section of the Silk Road did not include all the ancient routes crossing through Chinese territory.

For example, Kashgar, a major city in southern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, missed a chance at becoming a World Heritage Site. Kashgar was the transport hub between the northern and southern branches of the ancient Silk Road, thus the central crossroads of multiple cultures and religions. Today, innumerable ancient relics are preserved there.

Concerted preservation

Due to the multinational nature of the project, however, and after the three countries had considered all possible areas of preservation, the application team decided to give priority to the route along northern Xinjiang. Thus, said Chen, hopes of including Kashgar were abandoned during preparatory work.

"The purpose of inscribing the Silk Road on the list of World Heritage Sites is to better protect the historical relics along the ancient route," Tong said.

Tong indicated that historical sites recognized by the list become world-class centers for education and tourism, and tend to generate greater economic and social benefits. More importantly, they are able to receive more preservation support, like financial aid from the World Monuments Fund, a non-profit that works to preserve the architectural integrity of significant monuments, buildings, and sites across the globe. Due to these factors, many countries eagerly apply for World Heritage Sites year after year.

"In fact, we've made efforts to improve protection of the sites in the past few years, and conditions of many spots along the Silk Road improved a lot even before the UNESCO application," Chen said.

"In the future, we will continue to enhance preservation of the Silk Road. What's more, we will focus on improving the international cooperation mechanisms behind cultural relic conservation, because sites along the Silk Road—throughout China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other nations—are an integral whole," Chen said.

However, Liu Qingzhu, a researcher with the Institute of Archeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, warned that local governments must refrain from over-developing these sites.

Ancient habitats, routes, and temples are common treasures that belong to all people, said Liu. Being included on this list, a site will not only increase in popularity but will also drive up local tourism income and economic growth. However, excessive commercial development of a location will inevitably damage its original landscape and reputation, Liu said.

Joining the list of World Heritage Sites is not the be-all and end-all in efforts to protect the Silk Road. In fact, many places along the route are already in danger, particularly those surrounded by deserts and subject to wind erosion, Chen stressed. Learning how to preserve these relics in such a disadvantageous natural environment remains a major challenge to both archeologists and conservationists.

In addition to the Silk Road, the Grand Canal, another historical Chinese transportation system, was added to the list this year. So far, a total of 47 sites in China have been inscribed on the roster, ranking the country second in the world by number of World Heritage Sites.

Email us at: baishi@bjreview.com

Time-Honored Route

Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor covers some 5,000 km in the extensive Silk Road network, stretching from Chang'an (now Xi'an)/Luoyang, the capitals of China during the Han and Tang dynasties, to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia. During that time, this network of roads linked multiple civilizations and facilitated the far-reaching exchange of activities in trade, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, technological innovation, cultural practices and the arts. It took shape between the second century B.C. and first century A.D., remaining in use until the 16th century. The 33 relics in this area include capital cities, palace complexes of various empires and Khan kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, post houses, mountain passes, beacon towers, sections of the Great Wall, military fortifications, tombs, and religious buildings.

(Source: The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO)

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