UNESCO World Heritage Sites and why they are worth going out of your way for.
29.11.2016 - 05.12.2016 35 °C
My passport has to stay at the Embassy of Côte d’Ivoire over the weekend. It's pretty overdue. The visa is supposed to take less than 48 hours to process, but I've heard nothing since Tuesday when I handed in my passport, and they promised to call me when it's ready.
Instead of wasting my time in Ouagadougou, I figured I’d head out of the capital to see some of rural Burkina Faso. I decided to head to Lobi Country in the south-west. Why? Because that’s where the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site is located. The site is essentially just some overgrown stone walls, without any explanations, and very little is generally known about the locality; I doubt many people would have made the seven-hour bus ride to get here, just for that. Especially, because I have to make the return journey back to Ouaga to fetch my passport on Monday (if the visa's ready). 14 hours in buses for some overgrown, unexcavated stone walls. Sure, ruins are significant because they are some of the only precolonial stone ruins in West Africa and there is a lot of tourist potential, but still, overgrown walls aren't really something to travel far and wide for given the state they’re in at the moment.
So why do I bother?
There are two reasons. A good one and a bad one. Let’s start with the bad one. It’s a way for me as a traveller to keep score. Out of the world’s 1052 Heritage Sites have I visited 146 (and there are seven more in the countries I'm heading to). I’m a competitive guy, and most people like to brag about what they are good at. As someone who spends way too much time and money on travelling I need something to show for it.
Travellers aren’t different from other dedicated people with a particular hobby or interest. We need some way of comparing reproductive organs. Just like a mountaineer, who have scaled Mount Everest more than once or an artist who's proud of having yet another piece exhibited at a renowned museum. Most travellers simply count countries. We do that because we have been to quite a few of them and that’s an easy way to compete and brag - no-one who've only visited a handful of countries cares to keep score. But there really isn’t an agreed consensus about how many countries there are in the world as there's no official definition of what a country is. Therefore, it might be worth looking at additional ways of competing. Just for the record, I think there are 208 countries in the world* and I’ve visited 90-something once I’ve finished this trip.
Countries come (South Sudan) and go (the Soviet Union), and many have pretty arbitrary borders. Africa was demarcated by a bunch of Europeans sitting around a few desks in Berlin in 1896. A few countries have more interesting, but just as arbitrary, stories behind their borders. Part of the Gambia’s border was decided by sailing a gunboat down the Gambia River, shooting cannon balls onto the shore. Wherever the canon balls landed marked the boundary between the English and the French colony.
Determining the scope of my travels based one something as arbitrary as the number of countries I have travel, visited or just passed through seems strangely unsatisfying.
That's when the second reason for going out of the way to visit UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites comes into play. These places are landmarks selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance for the collective interests of humanity. These are places of outstanding cultural or natural importance, and such places do seem more fitting as a measure for travelling.
Heritage Sites aren’t always in the guide books either. But for anyone who appreciates history, culture and nature they're often rewarding anyhow. Realising that Africans built massive stone forts to protect their gold mines a thousand years ago is an important antidote to the common idea that Africans lacked civilisation, technology, etc. before Europeans came down here a few hundred years ago. So while it might not have been the big tourist attraction, it was definitely worth the long bus rides to get some perspective on West Africa’s past that I wouldn't have got otherwise.
And that's the strength of UNESCO’s list. No matter where you travel on this planet, there might be something significant close by that you wouldn't have visited otherwise, had it not been on that list.
The list isn’t without its issues, though. Its focus on history and technology makes it bias towards “the Old World”. Combined, the 17 West African countries I’ve travelled through hold 34 Heritage Sites (8 of which are built by Europeans). Morocco holds nine of these, places like Sierra Leone and Liberia none. In comparison, Italy alone has 51 sites. China 50, Spain 45, France 42, Germany 41 and India 35. However, I still find it a better way of keeping score, than by counting countries. Because the World Heritage Sites add some depth and thought provocation to one’s travels, and because they can take you places you might not have gone otherwise.
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No, really, there aren’t any official definition of what a country is. So I’ve made my own criteria (it’s about to get nerdy):
The UN have 193 member states, plus two observers. The observers are the Vatican (the least country-like country in the world) and Palestine, which is only recognised by a 138 UN members (plus the Vatican). Then there are places with limited recognition, but without UN status, like Western Sahara (recognised by 84 UN members), Kosovo (recognised by 110 UN members) and Taiwan (which is formally recognised by 21 UN members + the Vatican, and unofficial recognised by most of the Western world). I count these as countries because their recognition is significant, while de facto states such as Somaliland, Transnistria, Nargono-Karabakh, etc. simply do not have enough recognition (official or unofficial) to make the list. So, 193 UN states, plus two observers and three partly recognised countries. That’s 198.
Next, there are constituent countries, that is countries that are constitutionally part of a sovereign state: Scotland and Wales (of the UK) fall into this category, but not Northern Ireland, which is only a province. Greenland and Faeroe Islands (of Denmark); Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten (of the Netherlands), and French Polynesia. That’s 206. Finally, there are five countries of free associations - that is, they are officially independent, bit rely so much on their supporting state that they de facto aren't independent. Three of these, Marchall Islands, Micronesia and Palau, is in association with the US and independent UN member states (thus already counted), while the last two, Cook Islands and Niue, are in association with New Zealand aren’t UN members. If we count the former three, we ought to count the latter two as well. And that is how we arrive at 208 countries.
Provinces, self-governing territories, overseas protectorates, Hong Kong and Gibraltar, and whatever else is around are not countries. Period!