Archive for the ‘Classic China and Tibet’ Category

Climbing to Great Heights – The Potala Palace

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Ingrid Larsen is a Chinese art historian and specialist in early Chinese painting. She did her doctoral training at the University of Michigan and Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and received national scholarships from the National Academy of Sciences and the Fulbright Commission. While a Chinese language student in Taiwan in the 1980s, Ingrid worked at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and more recently was a consultant for the permanent Ancient China exhibition in the newly opened National Museum of China in Beijing in 2010–11. From 1997–2007 she worked on the project to catalogue the Song and Yuan dynasty paintings in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and has published on the formation of Charles Lang Freer’s Chinese painting collection. In 2012 she served as editor for a catalogue and exhibition of modern Chinese calligraphy at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University entitled Pictures of the Mind: The Art of Wang Fangyu. Her current research focuses on the emergence of Chinese art collections in American museums and private collections during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ingrid has been traveling to China for three decades, and spent five years living in Beijing––most recently 2009–2010.



Lhasa, a trophy destination for 19th century explorers, is still a remote and mysterious place. When I first visited Lhasa in 1984 we endured a three hour bus ride on a bumpy dirt road from the airport. A new highway and tunnel has cut that trip in half.  Back then, Lhasa was a dusty, dilapidated town with wild dogs and open sewers. Today the city is much tidier. Paved roads, traffic lights, sidewalks, and public parks are signs of progress. Despite change, nothing can diminish the towering magnificence of the Potala Palace that tapers towards the sky and reaches an altitude of 12,500 feet on a mountain in the center of Lhasa.  The Potala was the winter residence and political-spiritual nerve center for successive Dalai Lamas who ruled Tibet since the 17th century.  Its fortress-like architecture comprised of the Red and White Palaces embellished with brilliant gold roof tops, is a beacon for Buddhist pilgrims and travelers from around the globe.

IMG_4702-SI-group-at-Potala515The morning our group visited the Potala, we joined the flocks of Tibetan pilgrims and began to climb the zigzagging stair ramps that lead up to the Palace. Feeling the altitude, we paced ourselves and rested on the landing of each stair set before pushing on to the next. Local pilgrims caught up, urged us on with their smiles, and then scampered upward with sure feet and adequate oxygen. At last we reached the top where a family of pilgrims sat on the final steps––savoring a snack and a spectacular view across the Lhasa valley. The women were striking, each wearing three large salmon-color coral beads woven into their hair. Tibetans cherish coral for its medicinal qualities and treat it as a hereditary gem. Our local guide identified the pilgrims as a tribe from a distant region in Tibet. For them as for us, this was a once in a life-time experience.IMG_4711-Pilgrims-climbing-to-Potala515

After reaching the top, we were first ushered into the White Palace to view the Dalai Lama’s main ceremonial hall and throne, private rooms, and a library lined with Buddhist sutras and historical texts. As our eyes adjusted to the interior light, every surface was super-charged with an explosion of color. Painted murals and hanging scrolls dressed the walls with Buddhist deities and historical scenes. Fabric banners and canopies embroidered or appliqued with the “eight auspicious symbols” were draped from ceilings and pillars. Thick Tibetan carpets woven with wool from highland sheep covered the floors and cushioned the seats where monks meditate daily. Here color seems equivalent to spiritual energy.IMG_4717-SI-traveler-climbing-stairs-at-Potala515

Then, through a tunnel-like passage, we entered a more sacred space in the Red Palace and were dazzled by the halls containing lavishly decorated burial stupas with the remains of past Dalai Lamas. Here the pungent smell of yak butter and incense smoke bespoke the daily rituals of monks who worship their past spiritual leaders. One of the most impressive and sacred stupa tombs belongs to the fifth Dalai Lama who is credited with initiating the construction of the Potala Palace in 1648. Standing 41 feet tall, the stupa is adorned with turquoise, coral, pearls and semi-precious stones and gilded with roughly 3,700 kg (8,157 lbs) of gold––amounting to 150 million US dollars at current values for the gold alone. Much of the wealth of Tibet is concentrated in these halls.IMG_4876-Potala515

As we left the Potala and started our descent into Lhasa city, one person puzzled about what happened to all the cultural and historic relics in the Palace during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when the Red Guard demolished many monasteries around Tibet. The Potala was spared at the insistence of Chairman Mao’s comrade, Zhou Enlai, who reportedly deployed his own troops to protect it. Zhou Enlai is also the patron saint who saved the Forbidden City.


Read more about upcoming departures of our Classic China and Tibet tour.

The Sun Always Shines On The Great Wall of China

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Virginia BowerVirginia Bower is an expert on Chinese art and archaeology. Virginia did her graduate study at Princeton University, and is now an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; she also teaches regularly at Rutgers University. 

Recently, Virginia led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey though Classic China and Tibet. This is her second of two posts from the trip. (See her previous post on Giant Pandas here.)


Mutianyu Section of The Great Wall

Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall. Photo by author

Originally we were supposed to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall on Saturday, May 19, but drizzle and the forecast of a heavier rain caused us to postpone the trip to Sunday, our last full day in Beijing. As we made our way out of the city and headed northeast toward the predominantly 16th-century section of this famed structure, I glanced at the overcast sky and consoled myself with the knowledge gained after 14 visits to various sections of the Great Wall since 1980 that the Great Wall never fails to impress, even when enveloped in clouds or obscured by rain. However, our Tour Director, Mike Zhao, had predicted a bit of sun and perhaps even some blue sky for this visit to the Great Wall… and indeed, a few sunbeams appeared! Soon we were all admiring and walking on the Great Wall. And no, thank you for asking, I never get tired of visiting it!

The Great Wall

The Great Wall through the trees. Photo by author


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Classic China and Tibet tour here.

Black and White and Red, Too

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Virginia BowerVirginia Bower is an expert on Chinese art and archaeology. Virginia did her graduate study at Princeton University and is now an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; she also teaches regularly at Rutgers University. 

This spring, Virginia led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey though Classic China and Tibet. See her post from the trip below:


As we drove toward the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding after arriving in Chengdu from Xi’an and having a quick lunch, we were informed by our Chengdu guide that because it was not too hot the pandas would most likely be outside and possibly even somewhat active, although not necessarily all that easy to photograph.

That proved to be true. Still, we all caught many glimpses of black and white Giant Pandas, not to mention the red raccoon-like Lesser Pandas, and managed to capture a few good snapshots to take home with us.

It was great to hear that the important research work done by experts at this site was now completely resumed after the major earthquake of May 2008, which had damaged so much of this region of China.


Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Photo by the author


Panda at play. Photo by author

Panda in tree

Panda resting in tree. Photo by author

red panda

Red Lesser Panda. Photo by author


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Classic China and Tibet tour here.

First Stop: Beijing – The Imperial Palace

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Victoria Cass, Professor of Chinese StudiesVictoria Cass is a professor and author with special expertise in traditional Chinese culture. She has taught Mandarin and Classical Chinese language, as well as Chinese literature, at Johns Hopkins University, the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Minnesota; and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

She is currently in the field, leading our Classic China and Tibet tour. Read her post below detailing the group’s first stop: The Imperial Palace in Beijing.

The afternoon was brilliant—the gusting winds from the day before had cleared the air, making the immense spaces of the courtyards feel, if possible, more vast than what I remembered. I could easily imagine how exposed and how diminished some ambassador would have felt making that long center walk down the length of the vast reception grounds, tracking dead center to the red beamed halls that wait at the end of each of space. But we moved along the side pavilions, following the red bannisters that line the side buildings, looking down into the gigantic courtyards. We wanted to make sure we had leisure to enjoy what the Qian Long Emperor had enjoyed—the scholar’s garden in the very back of the royal compound. We were working our way back to his living quarters, through the chain of side passageways. We were essentially by ourselves, as we hugged the tall sides of the buildings, and I felt less like a tourist, and more—in the privacy of these side spaces—like a messenger. We entered the garden in the living quarters of the fourth Qing Emperor, and the sense of vastness and formality of the front grounds and grand halls vanished, as had the crowds. We entered through a simple small open gate, coming face to face with the pock-marked strange stones (guai shi) and weathered tree-trunks. Small pavilions were laid out as if in monastic retreat, and the small benches and low smooth stones made it easy to sit for a bit and sense the intimacy of the garden. The late afternoon sun felt lovely on our backs, and the trees caught the sounds of the remaining Beijing winds.

Dragon symbol at the Imperial Palace in Beijing

Image courtesy of Flickr user Mal B.

Learn more about future trips to China and Tibet.