The intangibles: Unesco’s world heritage feelings
A more unusual bucket list
The Great Barrier Reef, Yellowstone National Park and Machu Picchu are some of the world’s most sought after travel destinations; all three are on Unesco’s large list of world heritage sites. Robben Island and Mapungubwe are two of the eight South African heritage sites listed. Very few people, though, know about Unesco’s other list – the “intangibles list”, which turns 10 this year, and you’re probably wondering why things that are neither landmarks nor historical structures are given protected-heritage status. A difficult concept to wrap your head around, these “intangibles” are experienced as an ethereal concept rather than a physical object, emphasising that not all the world’s greatest attractions can or should be touched.
It’s hard to argue that some of the ideas inscribed on the list aren’t a little obscure. Who would have thought that watching the making of “kimichi” (a side dish of salted and fermented vegetables) would be a must-see cultural experience? The Danish zeitgeist that is hygge (the word for a mood of warmth and comfort which evokes feelings of wellness and contentment), the most obscure ethereal concept yet, is pushing to make it on to this year's Intangibles list, which is yet to be released. Intangible? Definitely. But cultural heritage? Debatable. Entering its second decade, Unesco’s intangibles list includes everything from summer festivals in Spain (La Tomatina and Batalla de Vino) to particular types of wrestling in Kazakhstan and royal drum dances in Burundi.
Here is my selection of Unesco Intangibles one should experience.
Basel Carnival (Switzerland)Held in Basel every year around Easter, the annual riot of a festival begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday and lasts 72 hours. Basal Carnival is the largest in Switzerland, with up to 18, 000 fasnächtler – outrageously costumed participants –running wild in the street. According to Unesco, “the carnival can be compared to a huge satirical magazine, where all visuals or rhetorical means are used to make fun of flaws and blunders”. Anyone can participate (any age, social status, origin etc) in the madcap festival, which brings so much joy to the land-locked nation.
Mongolian Calligraphy (Mongolia)Calligraphy in the East Asian nation is the specific technique of handwriting in classical Mongolian script. The script is comprised on 90 letters vertically connected by continuous strokes to create words. The 90 letters are formed from six main strokes – head, tooth, stomach, bow, stem and tail – and are used traditionally for official letters, diplomatic correspondence and invitations. For centuries, mentors selected the best students and trained them to become calligraphers over a period of five to eight years; but globalisation and urbanisation have led to a large drop in the number of young calligraphers. “Moreover, increases in the cost of living mean that mentors can no longer afford to teach the younger generation without remuneration,” says Unesco.
Tango (Argentina and Uruguay)One of the most sensual experiences of movement, the tango is a fundamental part of cultural life in Argentina and Uruguay. Originally developed by the urban lower classes in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, “the music, dance and poetry of tango both embody and encourage diversity and cultural dialogue”. Tango is practised in the traditional dance halls of Buenos Aries and Montevideo “spreading the spirit of its community across the globe even as it adapts to new environments and changing times,” explains Unesco.
Tibetan Opera (China)The most admired traditional opera of minority ethnic groups in China, Tibetan opera is an art that combines folk song, dance, storytelling, acrobatics and religious performance. Narrated by a single speaker, the heart of the opera is a drama enacted by performers supported by acrobats, dancers and singers. The actors wear traditional masks in a variety of shapes and colours. Rooted in Buddhist teachings, Unesco says “the stories told in Tibetan opera recount the triumph of good and the punishment of evil and therefore serve a social teaching function for the community”.
The Kaapse Klopse (South Africa)This local celebration is not on Unesco’s list; however it should be noted as a must-see intangible experience for all locals and foreigners. Every year in the first week of January, the Mother City’s streets are engulfed in a flurry of colour, face paint, song and movement. Thousands of people from the Cape Coloured community are divided into several minstrel troupes as they march through the city’s streets from Zonnebloem to colourful Bo-Kaap. Dressed head to toe in gaudy, glittery uniforms, the minstrel troupes strum on banjos and perform in their signature ghoema style. A truly South African experience.