Saving the Silk Road

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-13 16:53:00


Burana tower at the Balasagun site Photo: Xu Ming/GT
Burana tower at the Balasagun site Photo: Xu Ming/GT
Kayalyk site Photo: Courtesy of Dmitriy Voyakin
Kayalyk site Photo: Courtesy of Dmitriy Voyakin
Suoyang site in Gansu Province Photo: CFP
Suoyang site in Gansu Province Photo: CFP

Transnational efforts promise protection for old trade route sites

Two-thousand years ago, endless streams of camels carried Chinese silk, porcelain and spice along the ancient Silk Road westward to Central Asia, Western Asia and Europe. Following the same route, Western technologies, plants and handicrafts were transported to China. The endless sound of jingling bells meant that business was thriving, helping to form numerous important trading centers in the countries along the road.

The Silk Road, which started from ancient Chang'an (present day Xi'an) and Luoyang, meandered west to the Mediterranean region and south to the Indian subcontinent and was the longest and most influential route of culture exchange and trade as long ago as 2nd century BC. The prosperity of the road came to an end in the 16th century when it was finally abandoned.

Along the route today are only the remains of cities and trade centers eroded by time, yet not forgotten. Before it is too late, China and five countries in Central Asia that cover the main lengths of the Silk Road, have been making joint efforts to maintain and protect the sites by presenting it to the World Heritage Committee to get it included on the World Heritage List and mark its global value.

New attention

Over 7,000 kilometers and covering 27 countries, the Silk Road has played a significant role in promoting dialogues between countries in culture, trade, religion and so on. But since its abandonment, most of the sites along the road have suffered from natural and human destruction in China without being properly protected.

For example, the site of Jiaohe ancient city in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which used to be an important city on the Silk Road, was destroyed during a war in the 14th century. Since it was built of earth, it has suffered from serious weathering and is in danger of collapse. The site of Loulan ancient city, located in the desert of southeast Xinjiang, was also in danger of becoming extinct due to wind erosion and destruction by treasure hunters.

Some historical sites in other countries, including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, were in a state of oblivion for lack of proper protection and management. Against this backdrop, UNESCO launched "Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue" project in 1988 to address the world value of the road as a rich common heritage of Eurasia.

The project, which consists of a series of scientific expeditions and research, revived the world's interest in the road and made including entire or parts of the Silk Road on the World Heritage List possible.

In 2006, China and five Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan began the job of putting the Silk Road on the list, promoted by UNESCO. In 2011, the first phrase of two lines was decided. One concerns China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for the Tianshan heritage corridor. The three countries are expected to submit the final dossiers by next month as the first step. 

"The Silk Road has made an extraordinary contribution to the common development of human society. Making it a World Heritage will help protect the numerous and rich relics along the path and further promote the communication and cooperation between nations along the line," an official with the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) surnamed Tong told the Global Times.

Transnational job

SACH, the ministry of culture and information of Kazakhstan and the ministry of culture and tourism of Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement about the transnational nomination in Beijing last May in the first meeting of the coordinating committee for nomination of the initiating terminal and Tianshan corridor section of the Silk Road.

According to Tong, the working groups from the three countries have held three meetings to discuss the application, monitoring and management of the tentative sites. "Based on sufficient discussion and study, we have reached an agreement on the main content of the nomination dossier for the preliminary review and final dossiers," said Tong. She added that the dossier for the preliminary review of the three countries have been submitted to the World Heritage Center last September.

As UNESCO suggested, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan plan to submit the final dossiers to UNESCO before February 1st with the hope that it will be submitted to the World Heritage Committee for examination and to be listed in 2014. At present, the workgroups of the three countries are making the final check of the dossiers.

Among the over 7,000 kilometers of the Silk Road sections, over 4,000 kilometers are in China. The Chinese government has placed great emphasis on protecting the relics along the road since the 1980s. It also listed the sections of the Silk Road in China on the preparatory list of World Cultural Heritage in 1994. Since the project was initiated in 2006, the central government has drastically increased financial support for the protection of important relics along the route.

Tong revealed to the Global Times that a total of 22 sites in China will be recommended this time, an adjustment down from the previous 24. It covers six provinces and autonomous regions including Henan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia and Xinjiang, with major sites such as the relics of Chang'an city in Han (206BC-220AD) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the relics of Luoyang city in Sui (581-618) and Tang dynasties and the site of Loulan ancient city.

"There is no exact number of the sites in China yet," said Tong. "The 22 sites selected are consistent with the sites nominated in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan geographically. Most of them are key sites under national protection and managed well."

Kazakhstan will nominate eight objects in the Semirechye section of the Silk Road along the Tian-shan Mountain, according to Dmitriy Voyakin, regional facilitator for the project in Almaty. It includes Antonovka ancient settlement - medieval Kayalyk, Talgar ancient settlement, Kulan ancient settlement, which are important sites on the Silk Road dating back from the 6th to 13th centuries and earlier.

Kyrgyzstan will nominate three archaeological sites in the Chuy Valley in the north of Kyrgyzstan, including City of Suyab (Ak-Beshim), City of Balasagun (Burana) and City of Nevaket (Krasnaya Rechka). Ainura Tentieva, member of the international working group on the nomination in Kyrgyzstan, told the Global Times the nomination dossier has already been compiled and they are now conducting the final check.

Bitter first

The model of nominating cultural roads as world heritage sites is new and this is a first for China. Also, it is the first transnational nomination of so large a scale in history and that means great difficulties.

Jing Feng, an official with UNESCO's World Heritage Center, said the transnational application provides good opportunities for cooperation between countries and regions.

Tentieva told the Global Times that the project helps all the participating countries to better understand the Silk Road through mutual scientific and cultural exchange. "Since the initial project started in 2006, Kyrgyzstan has definitely enhanced communication and coordination with China and Kazakhstan in terms of relic protection."

But it also means great difficulties. It is reported that the deadline for China and the five Central Asian countries to submit the final dossiers had to be postponed several times. "A new deadline would be proposed in every meeting, but it was always delayed," Tang Wei, director of World Heritage Department of SACH, once told media.

Jing said the job went slowly because it is a very complicated project and the basis for application in these countries is uneven. "World Heritage Centre can only push the process. The concrete job relies on the coordination between different governments."

Since the three countries are from different cultures, the working groups need to overcome hurdles caused by language, geographical and cultural differences in the coordination. "The challenge is, the three teams are working separately, which causes some extra load on communication: double, triple translation, mailing, and so on," said Tentieva, "but we overcome this in the project."

While preparing the final dossiers, working groups of the three countries are busy pushing forward the job of monitoring, protecting the relics and the environmental renovation around them. The work must be finished before June because a group of international experts will visit every site to evaluate and examine them between July and August.

 "Regulations regarding the protection and management of the relics have been compiled in every site," said Tong. "They also have enhanced the monitoring and exhibition of the relics and interprovincial communication and coordination to secure the authenticity and integrity of the Silk Road sites."

Sweet later

The general process goes smooth in each country, but due to the long history and the large scale of these sites, challenges remain in terms of identification, preservation and management. Voyakin told the Global Times that it takes a huge investment of manpower and time to manage every step of the project.

Another difficulty is to mark the border and the buffer zones. He said most sites in Kazakhstan are surrounded by residences or are being used in some other way. They need to persuade the people to leave, if necessary, or sign agreements with them asking them to be careful around the sites nearby. "We cannot simply ask them to leave," Voyakin said, "We need to be careful and flexible."

The working group in China faces similar challenges. Wang Ge, director of the sites protection office in Luoyang, said the nominated sites in Luoyang cover over 10 square kilometers and the main site is in the countryside. It covers three administrative regions, and has resulted in overloading coordination and management resources.

"As to the surrounding farmland, there is consideration of establishing a ruins park and ecological or sight-seeing agriculture," she said, "[the plan should] consider both the protection of the sites and the farmers' interests."

In spite of the tedious and hard process, the prospects of the project are obviously bright to Tong and her counterparts in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. "If the nomination succeeds, it will not only enhance the protection and management of Silk Road relics and the management of other relics, but also promote sustainable and harmonious development of the local society and economy."

"We hope it will attract more tourists to visit the ancient Silk Road and boost the economic development for Kazakhstan," said Voyakin. "The money can be used for the future protection of these sites."

He added that the New Silk Road, the Eurasian Continental Bridge that travels through over 40 countries and regions in Central Asia and Europe, basically overlaps sections of the ancient Silk Road. "It is amazing. The monuments lie along the new road, uttering cultural voices along the road that connects China and other countries' economic relationship today."

 Since the transnational project started, it has attracted increasing international attention. The participating countries have increased from the initial China plus five Central Asian countries to over 10 other countries, including Japan, India, Iran and Afghanistan.

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