Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Potala Palace, Lhasa

The Potala Palace (Tibetan: Po-trang Po-ta-la; Chinese: Bùdála Gong) in Lhasa was the primary residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala after a failed uprising.

Today the Potala Palace is a state museum, a popular tourist attraction, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was also recently named one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World" by the television show Good Morning America and the newspaper USA Today.


This hilltop site above the city of Lhasa originally hosted the meditation retreat of King Songtsen Gampo, who built the first palace there in 637 in order to greet his bride Princess Wencheng of China.

Construction of the present palace began in 1645 under the fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, an important figure in Tibetan history. Known as the "Great Fifth," he unified Tibet and made the Yellow Hat sect the state religion. The White Palace was completed in 1648, after which it was used as winter quarters by the Dalai Lama.

Construction on the Red Palace was still underway when the Great Fifth died in 1682. Fearing the project would be abandoned, the monks kept his death a secret for 10 years until the Red Palace was completed. In the meantime, the Dalai Lama was impersonated by a monk who looked most like him.

In 1959, the current Dalai Lama fled to India amid riots against the Chinese military occupation of Tibet; he remains in exile today. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-77), the remaining monks were expelled and the abandoned palace was looted and damaged by Chinese soldiers.

Today, only a few monks are allowed to occupy the Potala Palace under strict supervision and Tibetan pilgrims are not generally admitted to the shrines. The Chinese government operates the palace as a state museum and has recently renovated the building to attract foreign tourists.

What to See

Built on a rocky hill overlooking the city of Lhasa, the Potala Palace has a sturdy fortress-like appearance. It contains more than a thousand rooms spreading over an area of 1,300 feet by 1,000 feet. The stone walls are 16 feet thick at the base, but more finely constructed (without the use of nails) in the upper stories.

The palace is fronted by a great plaza at the south base of the rock, enclosed by walls and gates. A series of fairly easy staircases, broken by intervals of gentle ascent, leads to the summit of the rock. It is important to become acclimated to the high altitude of Lhasa before making the climb.

The Potala Palace is made of two main parts, easily distinguished by their color: the Red Palace and White Palace. The two are joined by a smaller, yellow-painted structure that houses the sacred banners hung on the exterior for the New Year festivals. The rooms inside the palace are identified by numbers as well as names.

Red Palace

The heart of the complex is the Red Palace (Potrang Marpo), painted a deep red and used primarily for religious purposes. Richly decorated with painting, jewelled work, carving and other ornament, it contains several shrines and the tombs of eight past Dalai Lamas. Before the tombs are precious votive offerings, including a pagoda made of 200,000 pearls.

Especially celebrated throughout the Red Palace is the fifth Dalai Lama, whose life story is depicted in murals. His mummified body rests inside a 50-foot stupa covered with four tons of gold and encrusted with semi-precious stones. In another chapel he is shown enthroned as an equal to the Buddha. Also impressive is the golden tomb-stupa of the last Dalai Lama (d. 1933), who made Tibet an independent country.

The Red Palace also houses the monks' assembly hall, numerous chapels and shrines (dedicated to the full extent of Tibet's pantheon of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, saints and demons) and libraries of important Tibetan Buddhist scriptures (the Kangyur in 108 volumes and the Tengyur in 225, all hand-painted from carved wooden blocks).

White Palace

Surrounding the Red Palace is the secular White Palace (Potrang Karpo), the former home of the Dalai Lama and his monks. Originally built in the 1650s, it was extended to its present size by the 13th Dalai Lama in the early 1900s. In addition to monastic living quarters, the White Palace contained offices, the seminary for training Tibetan government officials and the printing house.

The most important shrine in the Potala is the Saint's Chapel in the White Palace, which contains a revered statue of Chenrezi, bodhisattva of compassion. Below the Saint's Chapel is the Dharma Cave, where King Songtsen Gampo studied the Buddhist scriptures after his conversion in the 7th century. These rooms are the oldest part of the Potala Palace.

Quick Facts

Site Information

  • Names: Potala Palace; Bùdála Gong
  • Location: Lhasa, Tibet
  • Faith: Buddhism
  • Denomination: Tibetan
  • Order: Yellow Hat
  • Categories: Castles and Palaces; Buddhist Monasteries; World Heritage Sites
  • Date: Founded 637; present building mostly 17th cent.
  • Status: museum
Visitor Information

  • Coordinates: 29.657715° N, 91.117233° E (view on Google Maps)
  • Lodging: View hotels near this location
  • Phone: 0891/683-4362
  • Opening hours: 9am-3pm daily. Admission is limited to 2,500 visitors per day. Reservations must be made a few hours to one day in advance. Entry time is assigned when the ticket is purchased.
  • Cost: General admission ¥100; admission to relics museum and roof additional ¥10 each

Friday, March 26, 2010

10 great places to play a trick on the eye

What better way to celebrate April Fool's Day than by viewing trompe l'oeil, the artistic style that is French for "tricks the eye"? Ancient Greek artists were some of the earliest to play with perspective and create illusions. "People have always enjoyed being tricked," says Kevin Bruce, author of The Murals of John Pugh: Beyond Trompe l'Oeil (Ten Speed Press, $35). He shares his favorites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.

Mana Nalu Mural Project

401 Kamake'e St., Honolulu

Bruce calls artist John Pugh "the da Vinci of trompe l'oeil." This mural, which means "spirit of the wave" in Hawaiian, shows Hawaii's last queen, Liliuokalani, and surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku. "The work is masterful, and you also learn something," Bruce says. A group of children, painted at the base of the four-story mural, appear so realistic that the fire department supposedly once rushed to rescue them.

Jesuit Church

The Catholic Church knew the appeal of trompe l'oeil and used it liberally during the Baroque period. Bruce likes the work of Andrea Pozzo, who started with a simple barrel-vaulted ceiling and added a magnificent faux dome. The only hint that it's not real is that light can't enter the non-existent windows painted at the top. "It really does trick the eye, and it's really good stuff," Bruce says.

The Staircase Group

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

This painting is said to have fooled George Washington, who said hello as he passed two boys on a staircase. Except, of course, the boys weren't there, and neither was the staircase. The painting does protrude at the bottom with what appears to be the first step. "It's the first instance of trompe l'oeil moving over to the New World," Bruce says. 215-763-8100;

Various buildings

Portofino, Italy

Trompe l'oeil isn't just limited to paintings or murals. Whole towns have embraced the art form. For centuries, buildings in Portofino have sported architectural flourishes that are nothing more than paint. "Even the church up on the hill looks like it's built from stone, but it's not," Bruce says.

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City

San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco

The famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera wasn't above a little trickery. This piece shows the construction of a skyscraper, with architects, engineers, businessman and laborers all at work. There's also a muralist, probably Rivera himself, sitting on scaffolding with his back to the viewer. "It's a mural within a mural showing the builders of America," Bruce says. 415-771-7020;

Trompe l'Oeil With Writing Materials

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Edward Collier's 1702 easel painting looks so convincing, you'll want to reach out and grab the papers that appear to be hanging on the wall. Not so fast: It's all fake. "A classic," Bruce says. "The images are life-size and realistic."

Centre Theatre


With a bit of paint and imagination, artist Richard Haas transformed a blank brick wall into an illusion. His mural creates a 12-story art-deco facade, which appears to show the reflection of neighboring buildings, including some torn down years ago. "It's very deceptive," Bruce says.
Various sites

Lyon, France

In the 1970s, a group of students decided to perk up their city with murals. Now Lyon is known worldwide for its public art. "It literally is a city of murals," Bruce says. "You can spend all day looking around." Many of the paintings are trompe l'oeil— Bruce likes one that shows customers lining up at a fake ATM.


Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls USA, N.Y.

Trompe l'oeil is a people's art, as demonstrated by this mural at an outlet center. "It's on the wall of a mall, but the artist has taken it and stuck Niagara Falls in there," Bruce says. 800-414-0475;

Study With Sphere & Water
Student Center, University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Fla.

Artist John Pugh created an illusionary library alcove at the University of North Florida's student center. There's a painted skylight, ivy seems to hang from a planter, and a scientific sphere appears to jut into the room. "A kid up on the library ladder is pulling down Immanuel Kant, which is probably the hardest book anyone would read in college," Bruce says. 904-620-1000;

Monday, March 22, 2010

Waitomo Glowworm Caves, North Island

  • Location: Southern Waikato region of the North Island, New Zealand
  • Best Time to Visit: Throughout the year
  • Getting there: Waitomo Glowworm Caves, situated 8 kilometers along Waitomo Caves Road, are within proximity to the North Island. It is about 2 hours south of Auckland, 2 hours west of Rotorua and only 1 hour south of Hamilton. Depending upon your personal preferences, you will get the option of traveling by private car, self-drive hire car, motorhome or coach.
  • Entry fee: 22.57 USD for the adult and 9.76 USD for the child
  • Nearest airport: Hamilton International Airport
  • Nearest rail station: Otorohanga
  • Time required for sightseeing: Approximately 9 hours

This is a site like no other! Imagine thousands of glow-worms displaying their surreal iridescence within the dark recesses of a massive limestone cave, which goes up in tiers, matching in grandeur the most sublime Gothic cathedrals. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves, North Island, a part of the Waitomo Caves system that incorporates the Ruakuri Cave and the Aranui Cave, is famous for its population of glowworms, Arachnocampa luminosa. For more than 100 years, the trip to Glowworm Cave of Waitomo has attracted millions of travelers from all over the world.


The name Waitomo comes from the Maori word 'wai' meaning 'water' and 'tomo' meaning 'hole'. Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Waikato had been known to the Maori for quite some time before the wide-ranging exploration of 1887 by Tane Tinorau, the local Maori Chief and Fred Mace, an English surveyor.

Flora and fauna

The most distinguished animal found in the cave is the glowworm named Arachnocampa luminosa. Apart from it, other insects seen here include albino cave ants, giant crickets, and other species of glowworms.

The walls of the caves are covered with various fungi including the cave flower which is a mushroom-like fungus. There are several underwater lakes, made by freshwater creeks or brooks.

Visit to Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The tour to the Glowworm Cave brings the visitors through 3 different levels, joined by the Tomo which is a 16 meter vertical shaft made of limestone. You will start visiting the cave from the top level of the cave and the Catacombs. The second level, known as the Banquet Chamber, is the place where the tourists stopped to eat. The final level descends into the Cathedral, the demonstration platform and the jetty.

The Aranui Cave, located 3 kilometers from the Glowworm Cave is an additional benefit for the visitors. The wonderfully delicate formations create a majestic place for quiet contemplation and a time to reflect on the surprises of Nature.

Things to do

The climax of the captivating tour is the fascinating boat ride through the Glowworm Grotto. The journey takes you into the underground Waitomo River where the only light comes from the tiny glowworms generating a sky of living lights. For the adventure-lovers, black-water rafting is an absolute must and if that is not also enough, go for rock climbing and abseiling.

Where to stay

Waitomo offers a wide range of accommodation options for the visitors. Starting from the arresting splendor of the turn-of-the-century Waitomo Caves Hotel to the pure comforts of the Kiwipaka YHA for backpackers, there is something to suit all tastes, moods and budgets. Some of the popular places to reside near Waitomo Glowworm Caves of North Island are Abseil Inn, Juno Hall Backpackers, Kamahi Cottage, Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge, Woodlyn Park - Unique Accommodation.

Discover the ancient underground labyrinth of limestone caves and grottos and experience natural history during your memorable trip to Waitomo Glowworm Caves.v

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