Los Angeles, 30 March 2018

Like most children who have spent holidays on a beach somewhere, both my wife and I have memories of playing in sand dunes, I in Norfolk

she along Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Then, after we met and started traveling the world we visited a number of large-scale sand dune systems, far away from any sea. The first we saw, at the start of our lives together, were the sand dunes of Death Valley.

On a business trip a few years ago, I visited the sand dunes of Inner Mongolia which are remorselessly engulfing farmland; I commented on these in an earlier post.

And then there were the sand dunes of Namibia, which we visited one Christmas some ten years ago with our children.

The most awesome of these dunes were a dull red, with the biggest towering over us.

But the blindingly white dunes of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, which we visited last week with our daughter and her boyfriend, are in a class of their own. The eerie beauty of these dunes has led better photographers than I to surpass themselves, and I have shamelessly pinched some of the best of their photos to insert here.

We walked in a big circle, from dune crest to dune crest, marveling at the vistas before us of undulating whiteness, all the way, so it seemed, to the surrounding mountain ranges.

I’ve been careful not to refer to these dunes as sand dunes, because they are not sand as we normally understand that term, that is to say silicate. These are dunes of gypsum (calcium sulphate to the chemically inclined of my readers).

In the morning, we had visited Lake Lucero, which lies to the southwest of the dunes. It is an evanescent lake; it appears during the rainy season in late summer and is gone by the time the windy season in the spring rolls around. When we visited it, there was no sign of any water.

Here we could see how the gypsum “sand” had been created. It all started 24,000 years ago, when a new ice age started and the climate in this corner of New Mexico began to be much wetter than it is today. For nigh on 14,000 years frequent rains lashed the nearby San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges. The rainwater nibbled away at strata of gypsum which had been exposed by the mountains’ uplifting, and streams carried the dissolved gypsum into a lake at the foot of the mountains. This lake has been named Lake Otero. The lake had no exit, so it grew in size until the water evaporating balanced the stream water entering. But the gypsum (and other salts) carried into the lake remained and slowly concentrated. Then, some 10,000 years ago, the ice age came to an end, and the climate here became dryer. Less rainwater fell on the mountains, streams got smaller or disappeared, and Lake Otero began to shrink. As it shrunk, the dissolved gypsum became ever more concentrated until finally the lake water was saturated. The gypsum started precipitating out of the lake water, forming huge crystals of selenite in the process, which then settled onto the lake’s bed. This picture shows a very pure crystal of selenite, which is colourless.

But during our ramble along the shores of Lake Lucero we saw selenite crystals in their more natural state, jutting out of the ground. They were various shades of brown; other substances that were present in the lake water have colored the crystals.


And still Lake Otero kept shrinking, until nothing but Lake Lucero – sometimes there, often not – was left.

With the climate change of 10,000 years ago came strong winds. For the last 10,000 years they have been scouring the alkaline flats left bare when Lake Otero disappeared. They first carried away the thin crust of clay and fine particles, which exposed the selenite. Freezing and thawing cycles went to work on the crystals, breaking them along their weakest plane. The process continues to this day. We saw these crystals of selenite down at Lake Lucero being slowly split open.

The shores of Lake Lucero are littered with fragments of selenite crystals, broken up by wind, frost and heat.

On and on went the work of breaking down the crystals until they had become flakes light enough to be carried along by the prevailing southwesterly winds. As the flakes bowled along over the alkaline flats, tumbling over and over, they cracked and crumbled further until only small sand-like grains were left.

The winds have pushed the grains up into the dunes that we see today. And all that tumbling has so scratched and scarred and pitted the surface of the grains that they reflect back sunlight in all its wavelengths so that we see them as intensely white.

Unbeknownst to us, my wife and I have been living with selenite around us in the apartment in Milan, although in this case in the form of desert roses.

My mother-in-law picked them up in Algeria, where she visited some of the oases south of the Atlas Mountains and walked the dunes of the Saharan desert, like these at the Biskra oasis.

Another dune system for my wife and I to visit – once Isis no longer roams the Sahara desert, kidnapping and beheading hapless tourists.


Norfolk dunes: http://www.bringingtheoutsidein.co.uk/landscape_photography/holkham.html
Dunes Adriatic coast: https://www.rentbyowner.com/property/hotel-le-dune/BC-268102
Sand dunes Death Valley: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g143021-d2255762-i116167540-Mesquite_Flat_Sand_Dunes-Death_Valley_National_Park_California.html
Sand dunes Inner Mongolia: my picture
Sand dunes Namibia-1: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/6685099420949300/?lp=true
Sand dunes Namibia-2: https://travelservice.tips/attractions/africa/sossusvlei-dunes.html
White sands-1: https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/wave-dunes-white-sands
White sands-2: http://www.magazinusa.com/us/states/show.aspx?state=nm&doc=10&dsc=White_Sands_National_Monument
White sands-3: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160517-the-beautiful-white-sand-dunes-that-should-not-exist
White sands-4: https://www.newmexico.org/listing/white-sands-national-monument/218/
Lake Lucero: my wife’s picture
Selenite-pure: http://www.crystallinephoenix.com
Selenite crystals in the ground: my pictures
Selenite crystals on Lake Lucero shore: my picture
Gypsum grains: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Sands_National_Monument#/media/File%3AWhiteSandsGypsum.jpg
White sands-5: my picture
Desert rose: https://www.feelcrystals.com.au/product-category/crystal-meanings/desert-rose-crystal/
Tadrart, Algeria: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293717-d504734-i300952025-Algerian_Sahara-Algeria.html
Biskra oasis, Algeria: https://plus.google.com/105463517722617181754


Beijing, 9 March 2014

I was recently in Dubai with my wife for a long weekend. If you don’t like shopping, which I fervently do not, if you don’t get much of a kick out of visiting the tallest building in the world, which is definitely my case, if you don’t quite see the point of going skiing in a mall, which I certainly don’t, then your to-do list in Dubai is really quite short. On one side of the saltwater creek which wends its way through the middle of the city


you can visit gold and spice souqs of dubious antiquity. On the other side, you can visit a small remnant of the old town, saved, so it seems, from the wrecker’s ball by the intercession of Prince Charles with the Sheikh of Dubai. You can follow this up by a visit to the Dubai Museum, housed underneath a quaint little old fort and filled with a rather pathetic set of dioramas showing the old ways of life in the sheikhdom. A 20 minutes’ walk downcreek will bring you to the Sheikhs’ old residence (or rather, a nearly complete reconstruction of it) filled with some old photos of Dubai. You can cross from one side of the creek to the other in supposedly old wooden boats which ply the waterway. And that’s it. Of the four days that my wife and I spent in Dubai, we actually only needed two to visit the city itself. We used one of the days to visit Abu Dhabi (or rather, the planned eco-city district of Masdar) and while I was sitting in a conference my wife used another to visit Al Ain, an oasis town some two hours’ drive from Dubai.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s really very pleasant to wander around without haste, poking your nose in here and there, snapping photos of this and that, taking long lunch and coffee breaks, and enjoying mild and sunny weather. But what really got my goat was a small exhibition which we stumbled across somewhere in the souqs, which proudly announced that some time this year Dubai expected UNESCO to nominate the creek and its immediate surroundings as a World Heritage Site. Give – me – a – break! The Dubai creek a World Heritage Site?! That’s ridiculous!! For those readers who may not be familiar with this UN programme, I should explain that it implements an international convention, the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, whose purpose is to protect and conserve for present and future generations cultural heritage (monuments, groups of buildings, sites) or natural heritage (natural features, geological formations, natural sites) of outstanding universal value. Please note: outstanding universal value. Those are big, big words. Put another way, the sites which are nominated as World Heritage Sites should be so fantastic that it would be a crime for me and every other citizen in the world not to do everything in our power to protect them for future generations to marvel at. Does that describe Dubai creek? I – don’t – think – so!

I had first entertained serious doubts about the World Heritage Site listings when we went on a family holiday to Finland some ten years ago. I had seen that a church along our itinerary had been listed. Intrigued, I dragged the somewhat unwilling family to visit it (to this day, my children remind me of this and other churches I forced them to visit in Finland). What we were confronted with was a small, rustic church whose three main claims to fame were (a) that it was quite old, (b) that it was made entirely out of wood, and (c) that no nails had been used to make it … this was “outstanding universal value”?? Puh-lease! My cynicism over World Heritage Site listings only deepened over the following years as everywhere I went I came across really quite ordinary sites which had been listed. UNESCO’s convention has obviously been hijacked by the tourism industry and its hacks in Ministries of Tourism to brand national sites and raise tourism revenues. And no doubt political correctness has reared its head. It won’t do for just a few countries to have all the heritage sites of outstanding universal value, every country should be able to claim at least one …

This debasing of the World Heritage Site brand is a pity, because I think there are a number of places around the world which through some magical combination of geometry, colour, light, and siting really do have an outstanding and universal value to all of us in the world and whose preservation truly deserves the concerted attention of the global community. My wife and I put our heads together, and what follows is our list. Its main weakness is that it is based only on places which we have seen – so much of the world for us still to see …

Since Dubai got me going, I’ll start with cityscapes:

– Venice, which must be the most beautiful city in the world


view from ferry

– Paris, especially the part along the banks of the river Seine running from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Eiffel tower

Paris-Notre Dame

Paris-Eiffel tower

(I find Paris to be at its best at night, when all its buildings are lit up like theatre backdrops)

– Rome, especially the Baroque part of the city

Rome Piazza Navona

where, though, older Roman urban fabric can poke through

Rome Pantheon

– The historic nucleus of Istanbul, on its peninsula jutting out into the Bosphorus


– Old Prague


– On a smaller scale, San Gimignano in Tuscany

San Gimignano-1

San Gimignano-2

which can stand for all those wonderful hilltop towns and villages scattered throughout central Italy (Siena, Todi, Gubbio, Assisi, Volterra, Arezzo, Perugia, Urbino, and on and on …)

– I will add Savannah in Georgia. My wife and I stumbled on the city by chance thirty years ago, and we were blown away


I wonder if I should I add Edinburgh? My wife is doubtful, but the New Town there is really very nice, with a magificent view over the Firth of Forth


and there is the dramatic backdrop of Edinburgh castle


What about Manhattan?

Manhattan Office Vacancy Rate Drops In Second Quarter

I’m torn. Manhattanites certainly think that the borough has outstanding universal value, non-residents may not be so sure.

After cityscapes we list a series of buildings and complexes that stand out because of the beauty of the buildings themselves, often highlighted by their siting:

– Taj Mahal, which must be one of the most sublime buildings in the world

Taj Mahal

and which can stand in for a series of wonderful Mughal edifices dotted around northern India (Fatehpur Sikri, the Mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra, the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, the mausoleum of Humayun, …)

– Angkor Wat


with its wonderful faces carved in the temple walls


– The rock gardens and temples of Kyoto

Kyoto Tofuukuji rock garden-2

kyoto kinkakuji

kyoto ginkakuji

– The chateaux of the Loire in France, especially Chenonceau

Chateau de Chenonceau

and Azay-le-Rideau


– The Alhambra palace in Andalusia


with its typical Arab love of water


We don’t just list old buildings. We would add at least two modern buildings:

– the Sydney Opera House

sydney opera house 014

– the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington DC

east wing national gallery

My wife thinks we should also list Labrang, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery-town in Sichuan


I’m not convinced that it really has outstanding universal value, yet.

I’ll add here a couple of the wonderful garden-parks which were created around some of the grander country houses in the UK in the 18th century.

– Stowe gardens


Stowe gardens-house

– Fountains Abbey and Gardens

fountains abbey

fountains abbey gardens-1

fountains abbey gardens-2

Which brings us naturally to our last list, our choices of natural heritage sites of outstanding universal value. We would start with the canyons in the American west. Rather than list the Grand Canyon, which some might consider the natural choice, we would list some of the smaller canyons:

– Bryce Canyon, especially lovely in winter, which is when we saw it:

bryce canyon

– and Canyon de Chelly


– We are moved to list here too the Atlas mountains in Morocco. When we first saw them, we were immediately reminded of the canyonlands in the US

Atlas mountains

but what was even better was that the locals were still making their villages from the local clay so that villages seemed to grow out of the landscape

atlas mountains-villages

– From canyons on land to canyons on the sea, and here we found the fjords in New Zealand more striking than those in Norway

New Zealand South Island Fiordland National Park Milford Sound

– From water to none, with the red sand dunes of Namibia

Namibia -Dune 45

– and back to water again, with the Amazon River

Amazon river

– from hotter to cooler, with the high meadows of the Alps in the Trentino in Italy


– from grass to trees, in this case the truly magnificent sequoias


– and finally back to grass and water, with the Scottish Highlands



Well, that’s our list of cultural and natural sites which we would consider to have outstanding universal value. As I said earlier, the list is no doubt incomplete simply because there are still lots of places we haven’t visited. We’d be interested to know how readers feel about this. What sites would they put on their own list?


Dubai creek: http://www.guiaemdubai.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Dubai.creek_.jpg [in http://www.guiaemdubai.com/dubai-creek/%5D
Venice-aerial view: http://weddinginvenice.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/venice.jpg [in http://weddinginvenice.net/blog/aerial-view-of-venice%5D
Venice-worm’s eye view: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8149/7667954390_2eafc258f6_h.jpg
Paris-Notre Dame: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Notre_Dame_de_Paris_by_night_time.jpg [in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattedrale_di_Notre-Dame%5D
Paris-Eiffel tower: http://wallpapersus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/eiffel-tower-sunset-architecture-city-cloudy-dusk-famous-river.jpg [in http://wallpapersus.com/eiffel-tower-sunset-architecture-city-cloudy-dusk-famous-river/%5D
Rome Piazza Navona: http://www.bonjouritalie.it/uploaded/images/Piazza_Navona_Evening.jpg [in http://www.bonjouritalie.it/en/news/46/PIAZZA-NAVONA-the-Roman-s-playroom-.html%5D
Rome Pantheon: http://www.dewereldwonderen.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/pantheon-omgeving.jpg [in http://www.dewereldwonderen.nl/andere-wereldwonderen/het-pantheon/%5D
Istanbul: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02012/istanbul-biennial_2012683b.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/8796386/Istanbul-biennial-art-at-the-crossroads-of-the-world.html%5D
Prague: http://www.discoverwalks.com/prague-walking-tours/wp-content/blogs.dir/5/files/4/not-many-people-can-show-you-this.jpg [in http://www.discoverwalks.com/prague-walking-tours/prague-castle-tour/%5D
San Gimignano-1: http://www.roma-antica.co.uk/custom/San%20Gimignano.jpg
San Gimignano-2: http://www.hotelilponte.com/writable/public/tbl_galleria/grande/v961b38120234375.jpg
Savannah: http://www.shedexpedition.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/gingerbread-house-Savannah-Georgia-1899-Carpenter-Gothic.jpg [in http://www.shedexpedition.com/savannah-georgia-best-quality-of-life-and-visitor-experience/%5D
Edinburgh-New Town: http://www.stravaiging.com/photos/albums/places%20in%20Scotland/towns/Edinburgh,%20Midlothian/IMG_9890.jpg [in http://www.stravaiging.com/blog/edinburgh-world-heritage-official-tour/%5D
Edinburgh-castle: http://waimhcongress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/edinburgh_-_calton_hill_nov_12_0.jpg [in http://waimhcongress.org/location/about-edinburgh/%5D
Manhattan: http://www.elikarealestate.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/nyc001.jpg [in http://www.elikarealestate.com/blog/manhattan-sales-time-high/%5D
Taj Mahal: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/Taj_Mahal_in_March_2004.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal%5D
Angkor Wat: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02381/Angkor_wat_2381155b.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/cambodia/9638352/Canals-may-have-sped-up-building-of-wonder-of-the-world-Angkor-Wat.html%5D
Angkor Wat Gods: http://www.urbantravelblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Angkor-wat-gods.jpg [in http://www.urbantravelblog.com/photos/angkor-wat%5D
Kyoto Tofukuji rock garden: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_bWbsTZVSaLw/S8uzFo1o2mI/AAAAAAAAAO4/tq11td38q3I/s1600/april-13+141.jpg [in http://kyotofreeguide-kyotofreeguide.blogspot.com/2010_04_01_archive.html%5D
Kyoto Kinkakuji: http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2011/travel_kyoto/01_kinkakuji.jpg [in http://content.time.com/time/travel/cityguide/article/0,31489,2049375_2049370_2048907,00.html%5D
Kyoto Gingakuji: http://lookjapan.org/photos/ginkakuji-temple.jpg [in http://lookjapan.org/kyoto.html%5D
Château de Chenonceau: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d0/Chateau_de_Chenonceau_2008E.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_de_Chenonceau%5D
Château Azay-le-Rideau: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d2/Chateau-Azay-le-Rideau-1.jpg/1024px-Chateau-Azay-le-Rudeau-1.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_d’Azay-le-Rideau%5D
Alhambra: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Detail_Charles_V_palace_Alhambra_Granada_Spain.jpg [in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Detail_Charles_V_palace_Alhambra_Granada_Spain.jpg%5D
Alhambra-2: http://www.earthalacarte.com/images/destination/1370429824_0!!-!!4.jpg [in http://www.earthalacarte.com/destinations/alhambra/%5D
Sydney Opera House: our photo
East Wing National Gallery: http://www.greatbuildings.com/gbc/images/cid_2880204.jpg [in http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/East_Wing_National_Gallery.html
Labrang: http://korihahn.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/dsc_0423.jpg [in http://korihahn.com/2010/11/01/beijing-to-lhasa/%5D
Stowe gardens: http://www.landscapearchitecturedaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Stowe-Landscape-Gardens.jpg [in http://www.landscapearchitecturedaily.com/?p=2599%5D
Stowe gardens-House: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-9CU7qypYuhw/UTi58Pz-zXI/AAAAAAAABjU/t5dzpqANduk/s1600/photo+%286%29.JPG [in http://theelephantandthepirate.blogspot.com/2013/03/day-tripping-stowe-gardens.html%5D
Fountains abbey: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-yHJdJ-LcSwI/TaSbP30qvOI/AAAAAAAACZQ/Mt-9gkW8Wj4/s1600/Fountains+Abbey+reflected+blg.jpg [in http://saltairedailyphoto.blogspot.com/2011/04/fountains-abbey.html%5D
Fountains abbey gardens-1: http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980_jpg/600x/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980_jpg_600x.jpg -[in http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey%5D
Fountains abbey gardens-2: http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980a_jpg/600x/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980a_jpg_600x.jpg [in http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey%5D
Bryce canyon: http://www.mikereyfman.com/Photography-Landscape-Nature/Bryce-Canyon-National-Park-Utah-USA/big/MR0105.jpg [in http://www.mikereyfman.com/photo/photo.php?No=5&Gallery=Bryce-Canyon-National-Park-Utah-USA%5D
Canyon de Chelly: http://believegallup.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/canyon-de-chelly.jpg [in http://believegallup.com/canyon-de-chelly/
Atlas Mountains: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/81928810.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/81928810%5D (Toubkal National Park)
Atlas mountain village: http://www.destinationlemonde.com/images/17/photo1-ag.jpg [in http://www.destinationlemonde.com/images/17/photo1-ag.jpg%5D
Milford Fjord New Zealand: http://globalconnection.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Milford_Sound_Fiordland_National_Park_South_Island_New_Zealand.jpg [in http://globalconnection.com.au/product/new-zealand-south-island-post-convention-tour/%5D
Namibia-Dune 45: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Dune45_Sossusvlei_Namib_Desert_Namibia_Luca_Galuzzi_2004.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dune_45%5D
Amazon River: http://assets.worldwildlife.org/photos/1818/images/story_full_width/meandering_amazon_%28c%29_WWF-Canon__Andre_Bartschi.jpg?1345553423 [in http://worldwildlife.org/tours/the-great-amazon-river-cruise%5D
Alps in Trentino: http://hqscreen.com/wallpapers/l/1280×800/67/alps_italia_italy_trentino_alpi_1280x800_66754.jpg [in http://hqscreen.com/alps-italia-italy-trentino-alpi-wallpaper-66754/%5D
Sequoia national park: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-lABhQdL_8II/UwXlmbxPEuI/AAAAAAAArw0/VfGi2Htb0jI/sequoia-national-park2.jpg?imgmax=1600 [in http://www.latheofdreams.com/%5D
Scottish Highlands: http://timeforbritain.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/scottish-highlands1.jpg [in http://timeforbritain.wordpress.com/beautiful-scotland/%5D