New 2016 UNESCO Sites: Our 3 Picks for Sites in Uzbekistan and Iran

New 2016 UNESCO Sites: Our 3 Picks for Sites in Uzbekistan and Iran

UNESCO a Go-GoEvery July, UNESCO throws a big conference and decides which of the world’s most awe-inspiring places qualify as new World Heritage Sites. The stakes are high, with tourism money flooding in to the new sites, but so are the requirements. Not only do the sites have to have universal cultural or natural significance, but they have to be sufficiently protected from development and encroachment.

In 2016, the UNESCO committee added 21 new sites to its list, including seven in MIR’s destinations.

Here are our picks for three sites to add to your bucket list – two in Iran, and one in Uzbekistan.


1. The Persian QanatPersians developed the low-tech but ingenious qanat technology in the first millennium BC, and its advent was crucial in bringing water – and agriculture – to the arid regions around Iran. A qanat is a system consisting of vertical shafts similar to wells, the first of which is dug down to an underground water source. Sloping tunnels carry the water from the original or “mother” well down to the lowlands where it is used for irrigation and drinking. Other shafts are used for ventilation and maintenance of the tunnels. In 2016 UNESCO declared 11 of Iran’s 40,000 qanats to be World Heritage Sites, including Zarch Qanat in Yazd, the longest in the world.

 Qanats in Yazd Photo: Hilary Cline

Badgirs, or windtowers, draw desert air across the water in an underground qanat in Yazd
Photo: Hilary Cline

The Zarch Qanat is Iran’s longest underground water aqueduct, snaking some 50 miles below the ground from its mother well to Yazd. The Zarch qanat may be up to 3,000 years old. 2,115 vertical shafts allow ventilation and access to the qanat; the shafts are ringed with earth berms of excavated sand, like big anthills. Qanats are hand-dug and maintained, requiring close cooperation among all parties across generations. In Yazd, many of the richer houses sat astride a qanat, and a badgir, or windtower, was built above the water to hydrate the desert air and cool the home. An example of this can be seen at the Water Museum in Yazd, a former merchant’s house built over the UNESCO-listed Zarch Qanat.

2. Dasht-e Lut DesertThe UNESCO-listed Dasht-e-Lut, or “Desert of Emptiness,” in southeast Iran is exceptional for several reasons. One is its spectacularly strange landforms, called lut, created over centuries as a uni-directional wind scoured away sand and lighter particles, leaving tall rows of rock formations that look from afar like cities in the desert. Another reason for its UNESCO status is that its land temperature, taken on a dark-pebbled lava plateau (locally called “Toasted Wheat”), has been measured at 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest land temperature in the world. The old city of Kerman is set in a high valley between the huge massif of the Zagros Mountains and the Dasht-e Lut Desert. 

Desert landscape outside Kerman, Iran Photo: Jake Smith

A landform called a lut in the Dasht-e-Lut Desert outside Kerman, Iran
Photo: Jake Smith


3. Western Tien Shan MountainsIn 2016, the UNESCO committee listed 13 sites within seven nature reserves in the Western Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Though they are all gorgeous, we’ve featured the most easily accessible here.

Tien Shah Mountains in Kazakhstan Photo: Michel Behar

Tien Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan
Photo: Michel Behar

Uzbekistan’s Ugam-Chatkal National Park is located northeast of Tashkent, in the northernmost tip of the country, and includes the famed Chimgan resort area. Founded in 1947, Ugam-Chatkal was recognized as a biosphere reserve in 1978, and a full-fledged UNESCO Site in 2016. Its forests, alpine meadows, river valleys, and mild mountain slopes harbor 44 species of mammals and 230 species of birds.

Ugam-Chatkal abuts two other UNESCO Sites, Kyrgyzstan’s Besh-Aral State Reserve and Sairam-Ugam National Park in Kazakhstan; together they make up a wildlife corridor that crosses the three countries.

A complete list of all the 2016 UNESCO Sites

Read about all the new sites on UNESCO’s website.

Travel to Iran and Central Asia with MIR

You may experience these new UNESCO Sites on some of our journeys to Iran and Central Asia: on a small group tour, on a rail journey by private train, or on an independent trip put together just the way you want it.

  • Custom Private Journeys
    • If you would like to tour some of the new UNESCO Sites in Iran or Central Asia, MIR can work with you to create a custom, private journey that reflects your desires and timeline. You can also travel on one of MIR’s hand-crafted private independent travel itineraries, Essential Iran or our new Essential Iran Enhanced.

Top Photo: Traditional badgirs, or windtowers, in Yazd, Iran; Credit: Martin Klimenta

PUBLISHED: September 20, 2016

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