Jul 01, 2014


Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an is one of the 33 historical sites on the Silk Road that was included in the World Heritage list by UNESCO last month.

For Xie Yanming who heads a team of about 10 people guarding the ruins of Suoyang City in the Gobi Desert, it is an unbelievable honor to have their work brought to international attention. Located in Guazhou county in the far west of Gansu province, the ancient earthen castle dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in June, together with 32 other historical sites on the Silk Road, a legendry Eurasian cultural communication and trade route.

After spending nervous days preparing and waiting, we can finally get a good night's sleep, Xie says. However, it may be for only one night.

Xie knows the world heritage listing means more pressure and heavier responsibilities. He discovered that monitoring work was a crucial consideration for the UNESCO evaluation panel when it visited the site last year.

No one wants our World Heritage site to be deleted from the list in the future due to our poor work, so we need more rigid supervision, he says.

Their base used to be a run-down cabin close to the relic, but a hall built in 2013 has given them an easier way to keep a closer eye on the site with a monitoring system covering the 13,000-hectare heritage zone and costing more than 6 million yuan ($960,000). It is not a small amount for the underdeveloped county in western China, but Xie says over 60 percent of the cost is met by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

The system is not only to safeguard the relic, he says, adding that the harsh natural environment is a major threat. We also record scientific data and observe any tiny changes.


For Xie Yanming who heads a team of about 10 people guarding the ruins of Suoyang City in the Gobi Desert, it is an unbelievable honor to have their work brought to international attention.

Salinity, underground shifting and sandstorms are of the greatest concern. However, Xie admits their outpost struggles to attract young professionals to stay. He says remote data analysis will solve the problem.

Data will be sent to the Dunhuang Academy, which is 150 kilometers away, and well known for its administration of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang. The caves were listed as World Heritage sites in 1987, one of the earliest in China.

According to Su Bomin, head of the conservation institute at the academy, he and his team are required to monitor all earthen relics and caves on the Silk Road which were listed as World Heritage sites and stretch from Gansu province to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Institutions protecting heritage areas are not only custodians of cultural relics, Su says. We will provide suggestions or warnings when we find abnormal data. When talking about World Heritage, people tend to talk about how to better utilize them, but it should be a priority to preserve them.

He says the Mogao Caves now only receive 3,000 visitors a day. Though the number is set to double when a tourist center opens later this year. The time visitors are able to spend in each open cave will be reduced accordingly. The caves will be closed when humidity levels surpass 62 percent.

Su admits that there is no perfect example from which to learn in terms of how to carry out monitoring work, because each site has its own characteristics.

World Heritage protectors all over the country face the dilemma of how to preserve their unique slice of history.


Mogao Caves was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1987.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, is another listed site on the Silk Road, noted for its significance in bringing Buddhism to China. Wang Lei, deputy curator of Xi'an Museum, which administrates the pagoda, says their bid for World Heritage status changed their system of management.

When asked 'have any bricks ever fallen from the pagoda?', I confidently replied 'never', but soon found that was inappropriate, he smiles with embarrassment when recalling experiences of receiving UNESCO experts. Because the follow-up question was 'how can you promise they will not fall in the future?' Apparently, we cannot be too careful when it comes to monitoring heritage. And the work needs to be done more scientifically.

When we clean the weeds on the pagoda, we also knock the bricks to check if they are loose, Wang says, adding that they generally use old methods to control the number of visitors and monitor the construction safety as well as the surrounding environment of the pagoda. He also explains that daily logs provide important references.

High-tech devices alone may not help monitoring, says Wang. But technology will play an increasingly important role if we want to combine efforts from all sides concerned and make full use of the information we have, he adds.

China established its national-level monitoring system in 2013 to better coordinate the country's supervision of heritage sites. According to Zhao Yun, director of the Beijing-based World Heritage Monitoring Center of China, which is affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage. The center has a format with 17 categories of data to fill.

We need a database to collect all relevant information overall analysis and to raise any alerts rather than rely on local cultural relic authorities' reports like in the old days, Zhao says China probably leads the world in terms of having national policies and infrastructure to protect World Heritage sites, but it is a late-starter in terms of specific techniques.

A major problem is that a grassroots protector is sometimes unable to tell which information is meaningful, and therefore records useless data, reducing the efficiency of the platform.

That's why our institution is always ready to offer detailed guidance and criteria, Zhao says, adding that they made a good start.

A uniformed monitoring system which oversees The Grand Canal was set up in 2013. Portions of the world's longest artificial waterway run through eight province-level administrative regions. It made it to the World Heritage list in June.

There are 13 World Heritage sites in China which have been included in the national system, and Zhao expects it to cover all World Heritage sites in China by 2015.

If everything goes well, we will later consider establishing province-level monitoring systems for those with multiple World Heritage sites, such as Henan and Beijing.

China has 47 UNESCO World Heritage areas, the world's second largest number after Italy.

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