A timetable for the submittal of an application to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for adding historical sites along China's 2,000-year-old Silk Road to the organization's World Heritage List has been postponed numerous times, with the project having been in the works for over five years.
"Our plan to submit the final application in 2012 has fallen through, as several obstacles have caused our work to progress slowly," said Tang Wei, director of the Division for World Heritage of China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
The newest timetable, created during the second meeting of the Silk Road joint application project's coordination committee in Turkmenistan, states that the application should be submitted on Feb. 1, 2013.
However, Chinese officials are not optimistic about the new schedule.
"Every meeting concludes with the creation of a new schedule, but none of them have been fulfilled," said Tang.
China and several central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, launched an effort to have the road listed back in 2006.
The six countries signed an agreement in Paris in October 2007 that determined the application plan and process. It also stated that historical sites along the Silk Road in China and central Asia would be first in line to apply for the World Heritage List.
"However, the central Asian countries lack expertise, funds and knowledge of cultural heritage protection and management. We still have a long way to go in meeting the list's international requirements," said Tang.
Jing Feng, chief of the Asia and Pacific section of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, said that such a large-scale multinational joint application is unprecedented.
"The joint world heritage application for the Silk Road provides a good opportunity for international and regional cooperation. However, the difficulties the project is facing are not small," said Jing.
"The Silk Road project involves a wide range of countries, and the situations in different countries are very complicated," Jing said.
"The UNESCO World Heritage Center can only help promote the application. The actual application work has to be accomplished by the applying countries, depending on inter-governmental coordination," said Jing.
Jing added that several of the central Asian countries involved have unstable political situations. These are all obstacles delaying the application process, he said.
Starting from the ancient city of Chang'an, now known as Xian, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, the ancient Silk Road extends to the Mediterranean region in the west and the Indian subcontinent in the south. The total length of the Silk Road is over 10,000 km, with 4,000 km located within China.
As the longest and most culturally influential trade route in the world, the Silk Road played an important role in bridging the East and West and creating opportunities for prosperity and wealth for the denizens of both regions.
China has added 48 historical sites along the Silk Road, located in the provinces and autonomous regions of Henan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia and Xinjiang, to the application waiting list. The six provinces and autonomous regions have compiled application documents and implemented a series of cultural heritage and environmental protection projects at the selected sites.
China's central government spends 80 million yuan (about 12.38 million U.S. dollars) every year to protect heritage sites along the Silk Road in its western Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The government of Xian has invested 12.2 billion yuan toward a protection project for the Daming Palace, which is also on the application list.
Enthusiasm for the application has been spreading. The nations of Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iran have also joined the project. However, this has also complicated the application process, as Japan, Iran and India have been aiming to take a leading role in the process.
"Although the number of countries participating in the project has increased to 12, we have always believed that China and the five central Asian countries are the core members," Jing said.
"What I worry about is that if the joint application for China and the central Asian countries continues to be postponed, other countries might apply ahead of us," said Tang.