Seven Rarely Visited Wonders of the World

There are still some great places in the world that very few tourists ever visit - not everywhere worth going to is overflowing with coach loads full of camera wielding package tourists. Some of these lesser known wonders of the world can be hard to get to, some require expensive and inconvenient visas, and several of these destinations will require some planning and research, but none are particularly dangerous and all offer something different.

Iran: Kandovan

Kandovan is similar in many ways to Cappadocia in Central Turkey but it's smaller, dirtier and less homogenised. The villagers live in cone shaped caves that were formed from volcanic ash spewed out by Mount Sahand over thousands of years. Their homes can be up to four stories high, often with a dedicated area for their animals on the lowest level.

Some believe that the name 'Kandovan' derives from the plural of 'kando', meaning 'bee's hive', while others believe that the name means 'land of unknown carvers'. The layers of hollowed out cones stacked up against the hill side are actually closer in appearance to termite mounds than to bee's hives (termite mounds with washing hanging out the windows and donkeys crapping down the path ways).

If it wasn't for the Iranian tourists wandering around with their digital cameras and mobile phones, you could almost be emerged is some strange medieval time warp. The present villagers actually believe that Kandovan is around 700 years old and that it was formed by people fleeing from the advancing Mongol armies, who used the caves as a refuge and a place of hiding. More recent evidence, however, seems to suggest that the caves may have been inhabited for up to 3000 years - this would mean that the troglodytes' ancestors would have been contemporaries to the first known Zoroastrians in the region

Getting a tourist visa for Iran can be expensive and inconvenient (especially for Americans) but once in Iran you are largely free to do what you want. From Tabriz - not far from the Turkish border - it is easy and affordable to hire a car and driver to take you to the nearby village of Kandovan. The tourist office, positioned over the main entrance to the market, can also help in organising a day trip to Kandovan with other tourists.

Ethiopia: Lalibela

Lalibela is a small town in the Ethiopian highlands, best known for its monolithic rock-hewn churches. These monumental structures aren't just carved into the side of hills but are unique free standing structures, carved straight down into solid volcanic rock and standing up to 9m tall.

According to legend, King Lalibela was inspired to build this 'New Jerusalem' after the original holy city fell to the Muslims in 1187, shortly after he had visited it himself. Another story is that he was visited by God, in a dream, who simply ordered him to construct 10 monolithic churches, giving him detailed instructions on their construction and even their colour. There are actually 13 rock-hewn churches, assembled in four groups, with many connected to each other through underground tunnels. As many believed that such magnificent edifices couldn't possibly have been engineered by medieval Ethiopians, a whole series of legends evolved to explain their existence: while many believed that angels must have descended from heaven to help in their creation, others still insist that they were actually built by either aliens or freemasons.

Lalibela used to be either expensive or had work to get to but now, with better roads and cheaper flights for foreigners, it will inevitably start to attract as many international tourists as it does Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims.

Sudan: Meroe Pyramids

Meroe was the southern capital of the Napata/Meroetic kingdom (c. 800 BC - c. 350 AD) in Nubia (modern day Sudan). This once powerful civilisation grew rich enough to resurrect the Egyptian burial customs about 400 years after the decline of the Egyptian Empire in the 12th century BC, and about 800 hundred years after the Egyptian's built their last pyramid (the Meroetic period is roughly contemporary with the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Romans - around the time of Antony and Cleopatra).

Over 40 Nubian/Kush Kings and Queens were buried in the Begrawiya pyramids along with all that they would need in the afterlife: as well as weapons, treasure and kitchen utensils, the ruler's comrades and servants would also get thrown in for good measure (for this reason, conspiracies within the court were rare). It was the gold, silver and jewellery, however, which would really bring in the crowds, many centuries later. By the time that the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Ferlini (1800 - 1870) had dynamited of the tops of the biggest of the Meroe pyramids, most of the treasure had long been looted - for all the destruction that he wrought upon the then not so ruined ruins, he found very little remaining of any monetary value (a couple of the smaller pyramids have since been restored but they look a little too new and shiny in comparison to their more battered neighbours).

There is little real tourist infrastructure in Sudan, and the government still seems set on making things unnecessarily difficult, but it has recently become far easier to obtain a tourist visa for independent travel. Once you are in Khartoum it is possible to visit the Meroe Pyramids at Begrawiya on a (long) day trip using cheap public transport (although you may find yourself having to hitch back through the Nubian Desert).

Philippines: The Whale Sharks of Donsol

Time after time, swimming with Dolphins is voted in polls as tourist's number one holiday experience. This seems very tame, however, when compared to swimming alongside whale sharks that can grow up to 18m long.

The residents of Donsol have known about the whale sharks for over a hundred years but had always assumed they were dangerous. It wasn't until 1988, when a group of scuba divers first came into contact with the underwater giants, that Donsol quickly became known as 'the whale shark capital of the world'.

As these huge fish were often killed by local fishermen, they are now highly protected and all visits to them are controlled by the local Department of Tourism. Before heading out on a small boat (holding a maximum of six tourists) you have to register at the tourist office and watch a WWF approved video giving guidance on interaction with the creatures. Officially, you are not supposed to swim closer than 2m to them but when I dived in after them, they swam straight up at me with their gaping 2m wide mouths wide open, and I had to swerve to avoid colliding with them head on. The guide from the boat seemed unconcerned and casually pushed them out of the way when they tried the same trick on him. There's no guarantee that you will always see them but during the peak season - between February and May - the small boats can often be surrounded by these playful and friendly giants.

The residents of Donsol have known about the whale sharks for over a hundred years but had always assumed they were dangerous. It wasn't until 1988, when a group of scuba divers first came into contact with the underwater giants, that Donsol quickly became known as 'the whale shark capital of the world'.

Mali: Djenne Mosque

The Great Mosque of Djenne is the largest mud brick building in the world. Along with the rest of the ancient walled city, it was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988. This masterpiece of the Sudanese / Sahelian architectural style wasn't actually built until 1905 but it was constructed on the remains of a 13th century mosque (and what was later a palace).

The Great Mosque is large enough to hold around 5000 believers, features three large towers which are each topped with an ostrich egg, and has rodier palm sticks conspicuously poking out of its adobe walls - as well contributing to the mosque's distinctive style, these wooden protuberances also serve as scaffolding to be used during the annual repairs. Each year the town of Djenne comes together, in a festival, to share in the repair of their mosque: the boys are given the job of stirring up mud, clay, sand, straw and shit in pits to the side of the mosque, while young men compete to be the first to daub the newly mixed adobe over the cracks in the crumbling walls.

The best time to visit Djenne is probably on a Monday when the square in front of the Grand Mosque overflows with a grubby but colourful Sahelian market. Unfortunately, tourists were recently officially banned from entering the mosque, after a few individuals were deemed to have acted with insufficient respect. You wouldn't have to wander around Djenne for very long, however, before being introduced to the Mullah's son, who will happily arrange for you to visit the mosque's forbidden interior for more than many backpackers are willing to pay.

Borneo: The Niah Caves

After arriving at the Niah National Park, and renting a decent torch from the helpful headquarters, you get a small boat across the river before following around 3km of raised wooden walkways through the jungle to the beginnings of this huge cave complex. The cathedral like Great Cave lies in a 1km long block of limestone and is up to 75m high in some places. Boardwalks and wooden stairways allow relatively access through a dimly lit underworld that would otherwise require some serious potholing gear. Some rickety looking wooden scaffolding reaches up to parts of the bat covered ceiling where bird's nests are plucked down for use in the highly valued soup.

The cave is also an important historical site where human remains up to 40,000 years old have been found. Around 150m from the Great Cave, is the Painted Cave, where you can just about make out some rock paintings that are reckoned to be around 1,200 years old.

While not as extensive as the Mulu Caves, further into the interior of Sarawak, the Niah Caves can easily be visited by public transport or chartered taxi from Miri (around 1.5 hours), whereas to reach the larger Mulu Caves complex would normally mean flying there especially.

China: The Echoing Sand Mountain, Dunhuang

The story goes that these enormous sand dunes got their name after an army that was resting at the Crescent Moon Lake oasis was taken by surprise by a massive sand storm that completely submerged them and that the sound you can sometimes hear echoing from the dunes is the screams from the still buried soldiers. Others think that the sound has something to do with the wind and its shifting of the Gobi Desert sand dunes but I prefer the first explanation.

Most visitors to the Mingsha Shan National Park, on the edge of Dunhuang, opt to ride up the mountains of sand on the back of a Bactrian camel before snaking down through the dunes towards Crescent Moon Lake. This stunningly located oasis was formed by a natural spring in the desert and even though its depth has now decreased quite significantly, it has still retained its half moon shape.

Most independent travellers choose to stay at Charlie Jhong's guest house, located right up against the edge of these huge sand dunes. From Dunhuang it is also easy to visit the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Magao Caves (also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas).


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