China's UNESCO Sites: Natural Heritage
On December 12, 1985, China ratified the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and since then has taken important measures to preserve the country’s environmentally, culturally, and historically significant sights, many of which are valuable tourist resources.
With 50 UNESCO world heritage sites, China ranks second in the world, just behind Italy. Out of these 50 sites, 35 are cultural heritage sites, 11 are natural heritage sites, and four are combined cultural and natural sites.
China’s World Natural Heritage Sites
Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area, Sichuan
Date of inscription: 1992
The Jiuzhaigou region is one of the most spectacular in China, home to awe-inspiring natural wonders and Tibetan-influenced Buddhist monasteries. Jiuzhaigou airport sits atop a leveled-off mountain, so you approach at the same heights as the surrounding mountain peaks and land at an altitude of 3,448 meters (11,312 ft) above sea level. During the summer season the airport has flights directly from Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing and Guangzhou, so it is easy to integrate it into a China tour. Note, however, that flights through this airport are not cheap. Around 140 bird species call this 72,000 hectare area in Sichuan their home. The Jiuzhaigou valley encompasses diverse forest ecosystems, narrow conic karst landforms, waterfalls, and glaciers.
South China Karsts, Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunnan, and Chongqing
Date of inscription: 2014
Covering an area of 176,228 hectares in Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunnan, and Chongqing, the South China Karst is one of the most incredible humid tropical to subtropical karst landscapes in the world.
There are various types of karst landform found in the area, including tower karsts, pinnacle karsts, and cone karst formations. To complete the fabulous landscape there are also natural bridges, gorges, and large cave systems.
Some of the most famous landmarks include the stone forests of Shilin; the cone and tower karsts of Libo, and the Wulong Karst, which is dotted with dolines, natural bridges, and caves.
Mount Sanqingshan National Park, Jiangxi
Date of inscription: 2008
Mount Sanqingshan National Park is a unique landscape of forested granite pillars and peaks concentrated within a 22,950-hectare area. While the park may not be big, it is remarkably beautiful.
China Danxia, Hunan, Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, and Guizhou
Date of inscription: 2010
The China Danxia are landscapes developed on continental red terrigenous sedimentary beds influenced by endogenous forces and exogenous forces. These red cliffs and erosional landforms, formed from the uplift of the earth and climatic, erosion and weathering conditions, comprise six component parts: Chishui, Taining, Langshan, Danxiashan, Longhushan, and Jianglangshan. The China Danxia are found in the subtropical zone of southeastern China.
Xinjiang Tianshan, Xinjiang
Date of inscription: 2013
The Tianshan mountain range is one of the largest mountain ranges in the world and possesses unique characteristics. This is a place where snowy mountains, red-bedded canyons, and glaciers meet with undisturbed forests, clear rivers, and lakes. This rich environment contrasts heavily with the vast desert landscapes. Xinjiang Tianshan is made up of four different areas, namely Tomur, Kalajun-Kuerdening, Bayinbukuke and Bogda.
Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, Yunnan
Date of inscription: 2013
Located in the Ailao Mountains in southern Yunnan, the Honghe Hani Rice terraces were carved out of the dense forest by the Hani people over the course of 1,300 years to take advantage of the elevated mountains and high rainfall environment. Today, there are as many as 3,000 terraces between the lower edges of the forest and the valley floor.
The terraces extend across an area of around 1,000 square kilometers and reflect the underlying geological characteristics. These features can be seen particularly in 3 areas: Bada, with its gentle gradients; Douyishu, which is steeper; and Laohuizui which is steeper still. These three areas are within three river basins: the Malizhai, Dawazhe, and Amengkong-Geta.
Date of inscription: 2016
Shennongjia is one of three biodiversity centers in China and is home to many rare animal species including the Chinese Giant Salamander, the Sichuan Snub-nosed Monkey, the Common Leopard, the Asian Black Bear, and the Clouded Leopard.
Shennongjia Forestry District and Badong County to the west, and Laojunshan to the east, are the main components of the site, which is situated along a zone of climate transition, which means that the climate shifts from subtropical to warm temperate. The Subtropical Gyre controls where the warm and cold air masses from the north and south meet.
Date of inscription: 1992
The Huanglong valley is home to the easternmost glacier in China. Huanglong has many unique landscapes, including a diverse forest ecosystem, limestone formations, hot springs, and waterfalls. As with many other natural reserves in China, Huanglong is home to several endangered animals such as the giant panda and the Snub-nosed Monkey.
Chengjiang Fossil Site, Yunnan
Date of inscription: 2012
The Chengjiang Fossil Site offers an unparalleled view of the past. Most major groups of animals had their origins in the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, known as the Cambrian Period (530 million years ago). The Chengjiang Fossil Site is one of the most complete Cambrian era marine ecosystems, with very complex and rich diversity of species.
About 196 species have been documented in the Chengjiang Fossil Site, although many groups remain unidentified.
Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, Sichuan
Date of inscription: 2006
More than 30% of the world’s population of pandas live in the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries around Wolong, Mount Siguniang, and the Jiajin Mountains. This is also the most important place for captive breeding. Pandas enjoy special status in China and are highly protected. However, there are many other endemic and threatened species living in the Sichuan sanctuaries, such as the red panda, snow leopard, and clouded leopard.
The Sanctuaries are also one of the botanically richest places of any temperate region in the whole world. Anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 recorded species call this place home.
Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan, Yunnan
Date of inscription: 2003
The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan cover 15 protected areas, grouped into eight clusters. This 1.7 million hectare site is one of the most important places for Chinese biodiversity, as it is the meeting point of three of the world’s major biogeographic realms. The upper reaches of three of the Asia’s great rivers, the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween, run approximately parallel, north to south
The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan are home to river gorges, forests, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, alpine karsts, and danxia (sandstone landforms).
Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Areas, Hunan
Date of inscription: 1992
The Wulingyuan Scenic Area consists of three parts: Zhangjiajie National Park, Suoxiyu Nature Reserve, and Tianzi Mountain Natural Reserve.
There are over 3,100 peaks in this quartz and sandstone geomorphological structure. Over 1,000 of those peaks rise at least 200 meters.
Perhaps one of the most famous of these peaks is the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain, previously known as Southern Sky Column, which inspired James Cameron’s 2010 movie “Avatar”.