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Archive for the ‘UNESCO World Heritage sites’ Category

The Taj Effect

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

251_thumbnail Minhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India.

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“There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.” Truly this comment by former US President Bill Clinton sums up the magic and mystique of the Taj Mahal, perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. An ode to love, the deep abiding love of a King for his beloved Queen, the Taj Mahal is one of the most visited monuments in the world.

A symbol of everlasting love, the Taj Mahal figures high on the list of reasons why the travellers choose to come to India on the Smithsonian Journey’s Mystical India trip. And surely, the Taj Mahal never disappoints. If anything, the Taj is even more beautiful than one had ever dreamt of. On every Mystical India Trip, I have watched our guests stand in the presence of this awe-inspiring monument, their eyes widening to take in the wonderful vista of a snowy white building arising almost out of nowhere.

Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum that took over 22 years to build.  The great Indian poet, writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian and non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature described the Taj Mahal as ‘a teardrop’ which ‘glistens spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever’.  The Taj Mahal is primarily made of gleaming white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan and inlaid with 28 precious and semi-precious stones. The surrounding mosque, guesthouse and gateway are a great blend of marble and sandstone. Pattern and prayers abound on the exterior walls of the Taj Mahal complex – the pietra dura or inlay work comprises of beautiful flowers, geometric pattern and verses from the holy Koran.

On a recent Mystical India trip, guests could not stop clicking pictures of the Taj Mahal from the moment they had their first glimpse of this beautiful edifice from the grand entrance gateway. As the first rays of the sun fell on the perfect white marble onion domes and the walls inlaid with semi-precious stones, the Taj Mahal seemed to be enveloped in a wonderful golden glow. The Taj Mahal always exceeds expectations, appearing grander and much more magnificent than one has imagined. As they walked closer to the Taj Mahal, it seemed to fill their senses, looming larger than life with each step. Truly, nothing can compete with being at the Taj Mahal in person.

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To learn more about our Mystical India tour, click here!

Pura Vida and the Delights of Costa Rica

Friday, January 24th, 2014

687_thumbnailBob Szaro grew up fascinated by nature and started bird-watching while in grade school. His love of birds has led to travels and research around the world including many trips to Central and South America. His passion for different cultures, natural history and photography has led to his exploring the variety of landscapes found in Costa Rica starting in 1982 from the cloud forests of Monteverde to the dry forests of Guanacaste. Bob retired in 2008 as Chief Scientist for Biology for the US Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Bob received a Dual Bachelors Degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from Texas A&M University (1970), a Masters Degree in Zoology from the University of Florida (1972), and a Doctoral Degree in Ecology from Northern Arizona University (1976). He also completed the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard University (1993). Bob currently serves as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution on biodiversity, climate change, and tiger conservation.

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January 6-17, 2014

Traveling through Costa Rica you learn to expect the unexpected.  Everyday something new and exciting was waiting for us as we drove through the mountainous volcanic region of Costa Rica ending with a few days on a gorgeous beach along the Pacific Coast of Guanacaste.  Our journey was one long treasure hunt for cultural highlights and natural wonders.

One of those cultural highlights was spending time talking with Marvin Rockwell (now 91). He was one of the original Quaker settlers of Monteverde. His story amazed us all with how they came to Costa Rica in 1951 and settled their “Green Mountain.” They were attracted by the beauty of the country and the fact that in 1948 Costa Rica abolished its Army to fund schools.  The journey was not easy as several decided to travel from Fairhope, Alabama by land in a few vehicles to bring some of their belongings.  At that time, the Pan American Highway was more myth than reality.  When they traveled through Nicaragua and reached the Costa Rican border they found no road at all.  It took 3 months to travel the 12 miles to the nearest settlement. The Quakers chose Monteverde in particular because of the high elevation and the sizable area of relatively flat land.

Max Vindas (our tour director) and Marvin Rockwell at the Bat Jungle in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro)

Max Vindas (our tour director) and Marvin Rockwell at the Bat Jungle in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro)

The fabled nature reserve they helped start is now a major destination for those seeking to experience the cloud forest. With its many vines, epiphytes, and trees it is one of the natural wonders of Costa Rica. It is also famous for the Resplendent Quetzal and hundreds of other bird species. One of the features of the cloud forest that is hard to miss is, of course, the clouds. Walking through the forest with the mist swirling around us was truly a magical experience. And if that was not enough, we found ourselves at the end of the rainbow.

Don Gerardo Montoya Traditional Mask-maker (Photo by R. Szaro)

Don Gerardo Montoya Traditional Mask-maker (Photo by R. Szaro)

Visit to Elementary School (Centro Educativo Cerro Alegre) near La Fortuna (Photo by R. Szaro)

Visit to Elementary School (Centro Educativo Cerro Alegre) near La Fortuna (Photo by R. Szaro)

Enjoying the wonders of the cloud forest (Photo by R. Szaro)

Enjoying the wonders of the cloud forest (Photo by R. Szaro)

Waterfall and lush vegetation in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Waterfall and lush vegetation in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Resplendent Quetzal at the entrance of the cloud forest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Resplendent Quetzal at the entrance of the cloud forest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

At the end of the rainbow in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro).

At the end of the rainbow in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro).

But many other natural wonders were waiting around every corner.  It is tough to only highlight a few as we saw so many. They included the Three-toed Sloth crossing the road near Arenal National Park, the crocodiles and monkeys along the Tempisque River, and the many butterflies and iguanas we saw everywhere we went.

Three-toed Sloth crossing road near Luna Nueva private rainforest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Three-toed Sloth crossing road near Luna Nueva private rainforest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Green Iguana displaying for a mate (Photo by R. Szaro)

Green Iguana displaying for a mate (Photo by R. Szaro)

American Crocodile relaxing along the banks of the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

American Crocodile relaxing along the banks of the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

White-headed Capuchin drinking along the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

White-headed Capuchin drinking along the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

But I would be remiss if I did not mention the birds. We saw and heard birds at every stop including toucans, tanagers, trogons, jays and hummingbirds.  In fact, we were even able to have hummingbirds land on our fingers at the hummingbird gallery at Monteverde.

 humingbird

Collared Araçari along Lake Arenal (Photo by R. Szaro)

Collared Araçari along Lake Arenal (Photo by R. Szaro)

Yet, best of all, we were able to meet some wonderful people and make many new friends. Enjoying travel with others makes great times even better.  Pura Vida!

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For more information on our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures, click here!

In Search of Morocco’s Lost Jewish Heritage

Friday, November 1st, 2013

435_thumbnailDr. Moshe Gershovich is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO). A native of Israel, he earned a B.A. at Tel Aviv University and a Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. He taught for three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before traveling to Morocco in 1998 as a Fulbright Senior Scholar to

research the oral history of Moroccan veterans of the French Army. Moshe resided in Morocco between 1998 and 2000 during which time he also taught at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane. He is the author of French Military Rule in Morocco: Colonialism and Its Consequences (Cass, 2000) as well as numerous

scholarly and popular articles related to the modern history and politics of

Morocco and French colonialism. In recent years, Moshe has taken groups of UNO students to Morocco where they were immersed in the study of Arabic and North African history and culture. He is fluent in Hebrew, French, and Moroccan Arabic.

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A Cemetery and a Synagogue, an Orphanage and a Museum

Morocco is a Muslim country as anyone visiting it today can notice right away.  Anywhere you turn you’ll see mosques, madrasas, and other signs of Islamic civilization.  Virtually 100% of the population consists of Sunni Muslims.  Whether or not they observe their faith to the fullest extent notwithstanding, the religious homogeneity of the Moroccan nation is evident.  This, however, was not always the case.  Up to two generations ago, a small yet significant portion of the population exercised the Jewish faith while sharing a common heritage with their Muslim compatriots.  Numbering more than a quarter of a million souls at the time of Morocco’s independence in 1956 (out of a population of about 10 million), the Jewish community today has shrunk to about 5,000 members.  For all intents and purpose, Jewish presence in Morocco has vanished.  The reasons for the mass and rather sudden exodus of Jews from Morocco lie beyond the scope of this piece, as does the long and rich history of Judaism there.  What concerns us here is the manner in which the memory of that history is being preserved in a variety of ways, as our tour has discovered at three distinct locations:  Fez, Sefrou, and Casablanca.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

The origins of Judaism in the extreme northwestern corner of Africa are unclear, but that presence may be traced back to ancient times, predating by at least half a millennium the arrival of Islam to that part of the world.  Jews arriving from the Eastern Mediterranean integrated among the Imazighren (Berber) tribes, some of whom may have converted to Judaism, before switching to Islam.  Andalusian Jews fleeing from the Christian Reconquista found refuge in Morocco and helped build its unique identity in later centuries.  Benefiting from their protected status as “People of the Book,” Moroccan Jews added skills and resourcefulness to the Sharifian Sultanate but remained a distinct minority group.  With the growth of European influence during the 19th century, many among them embraced the economic, cultural, and educational opportunities it provided.  By the time the French Protectorate was established in 1912, Moroccan Jews had already began to assimilate into French culture, although they remained subjects of the Sultan, whose symbolic protection helped them traverse the painful era of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War II.  With the advent of Morocco’s struggle for independence, however, Jews felt by and large left out, suspected of affiliation with the colonial order and with the newly formed State of Israel.  Presented with the opportunity to migrate, amid uncertain future in the independent Morocco, many Jews voted with their feet and left during the 1950s and early 1960s.  Another wave of migration came after the 1967 Six-Day War, which had intensified tension between Jews and Arabs throughout the Middle East.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

A Cemetery and a Synagogue in the Mellah of Fez

On the afternoon of its first day in Fez, our group visited the old Mellah (Jewish neighborhood). Even though Rabat is Morocco’s political capital, and Casablanca its economic hub, Fez may be said to represent the soul of the nation.  The imperial capital of the north, built more than twelve centuries ago, has served as the seat of power and religion for most of Moroccan history.  The Mellah itself, originally created during the 14th Century, as part of the Marinid construction of “New Fez,” was intentionally situated next to the royal palace, as if to signify the Sultan’s protection of “his” Jews.  The elegant balconies facing the main street of the Mellah, a tribute to the Andalusian architecture most original inhabitants of the Mellah had left behind, stand in stark contradiction to the austere and simple outward look of the old Muslim Medina.  In that section, which we had visited that same morning, a home’s beauty can only be appreciated once you pass beyond the simple, non-distinct façade.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Jews have resided in Fez since its creation twelve centuries ago and their history there includes periods of great scholarly tradition and economic prosperity, where others suffered poverty and persecutions.  The city’s most famous Jewish inhabitant was philosopher Moses ben Maimon, “Maimonides,” who escaped from Cordoba, Spain during the Almohade terror of 1165, and lived in Fez for five years, before moving to Egypt.  In modern times the local community underwent turmoil and changes.  In April 1912, a military uprising against the imposition of the French Protectorate resulted in a three-day attack on the Mellah and the killing of at least 45 of its inhabitants.  A few years later, Jews began to leave the Mellah and move to the newly built European city.  Towards the end of the Protectorate, the Jewish population reached 22,000.  Today, however, only about 60 Jews continue to live there and none reside in the Mellah.

One of these Jews, a caretaker, Monsieur Gabai, met us at the edge of the old cemetery and led us through it.  The cemetery dates back to the early 17th century and is still in use today as can be seen by recent tombstones of community members who have deceased in recent years.  All tombstones are white and most are made of simple stone.  Many tombs are unmarked, bearing victims of the Black Plague, who had to be buried hurriedly.   While dotted with the graves of notable religious scholars and communal leaders, the cemetery’s most famous figure was 17 year-old Sol Hachiel, AKA Lalla Suleika.  A native of Tangiers, this beautiful maiden had been falsely accused of conversion to Islam and then reneging on her conversion.  When she refused to abandon her Jewish faith, she was condemned to death and beheaded in 1834.  Her martyrdom propelled her to the level of popular saint, revered by both Jews and Muslims.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

From the cemetery we proceeded to visit the Ibn Denan synagogue.  This 17th century house of worship, one of the oldest and most important still in existence in North Africa, had been built by a prominent Moroccan Jewish family and renovated to its present form in the late 19th century.  It is a rare relic of a period in which the Jewish community of Fez had thrived.  Its importance comes from the fact that it contains the only complete set of Moroccan synagogue fittings in existence.  After suffering from many years of neglect and disrepair, due to the shrinking size of the Jewish community, the synagogue eventually became included in the World Monuments Watch’s list of 100 endangered monuments in need of preservation.  Its renovation involved contributions from various private and public bodies including the Moroccan government and descendants of the Ibn Danan family.  Restoration work began in the late 1980s and completed a decade later with a May 1999 dedication ceremony, patronized by the Moroccan government.

Standing inside the beautifully restored interior, facing the ornate Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) with my fellow travelers sitting on both sides of the Bimah (raised platform) was the perfect setting for me to deliver an impromptu lecture about the long history of Moroccan Jewry and its relations with the government of the Sultan.  I also talked about the reasons for the departure of most Moroccan Jews and the prospects for the future of that community.

An Orphanage in Sefrou

The following morning we left Fez and drove east to Bahlil, a charming Arab-speaking village in the midst of a Berber-speaking region, where we were treated to a tea ceremony in a cave-dwelling.  From there we continued to Sefrou, the region’s administrative center.  Located at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains, 28 km (18 miles) from Fez, this town of some 80,000 inhabitants has played an important role as a trading center on the route of caravans from the southeastern oasis of Tafilalt, birthplace of Morocco’s ruling dynasty.  Nowadays, the local economy is based mostly on agriculture and the town is known for its annual cherry festival in the month of June.

Sefrou used to be a cultural crossroads where Jews and Muslims, Berbers and Arabs peacefully coexisted for centuries.  This cultural mosaic led numerous American anthropologists, notably Clifford Geertz, to choose Sefrou for their field research.  For much of its history, Sefrou had been one of a handful Moroccan villages with a high percentage of Jewish population.  By the time of Moroccan independence in 1956, Jews still composed a third of Sefrou’s population, about 5,000 living in the small Mellah.  Only a few remain there since the mass exodus of Morocco’s Jews in the 1960s and early 1970s.  The Jewish Mellah is now inhabited by Muslims and the property left behind is taken care of by them.

Our group visited one of these places, an orphanage named Em Habanim (“Mother of the Boys”), situated just outside the Mellah in an enclosed compound.  The orphanage had been part of the Em habanim network of Jewish Moroccan schools, established in 1912 by a group of Jewish women as a counterpart to the Francophone system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.  The first school and orphanage was established in Fez and the Sefrou school was inaugurated in 1917.  It provided elementary education to Jewish children for five decades.  Today, the place is deserted for the most part, except for groups like ours who visit it occasionally.

Our tour focused on the orphanage’s synagogue, which is well preserved and contains a small library of Hebrew prayer books (Sidurim) as well as some books in French.  The pastel colored walls and decorations hint at the identity of its original residents.  A short clip from a 1997 documentary film by director David Assulin, called  Haaretz Hamuvtahat (“The Promised Land”) contains original footing, presumably from the 1950s, depicting Jewish boys eating and praying at the school.  The clip can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SQiNNH6WOc.

A Museum in Casablanca

On the last day of our tour we reached Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca.  As we approached the city from its southern side, having arrived from Marrakech, we stopped at the plush suburb of Oasis to visit the Museum of Moroccan Judaism.  This is the only museum of its kind in any Arab-speaking country and one of only two museums in any Muslim country (the other is located in Istanbul, Turkey).   It is also the only museum in the entire city of Casablanca, the fifth largest city in Africa.

Situated behind the thick white walls of a lovely villa, which once served, just as in Sefrou, as an orphanage. The museum is surrounded by a beautiful garden, which blends well into this plush neighborhood.  There are no signs to guide the visitors to its location and only when you get there can you notice a generic plaque stating it’s a “museum” in Arabic and French.  A second sign above the inner entrance provides more proper introduction in four languages, including English and Hebrew.  Another plaque, in French only, is dedicated to the man who founded the museum and the foundation for the preservationof Moroccan Jewish culture, Simon Levy.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Widely regarded as Morocco’s foremost authority on Moroccan Jewish culture, Levy was born in Fez in 1934 and died in Rabat 77 years later. He was a professor in the Spanish Department of Mohamed V University in Rabat since 1971. A devoted activist since his youth to the cause of Moroccan independence and human rights, Simon Levy had been imprisoned numerous times during the late colonial period and again during the reign of King Hassan II.  He was a leading figure and active member of Morocco’s Communist party, in which he held key positions for more than 30 years. He was also the Secretary General of the “Foundation of Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage” and the Founding Director of the Museum in Casablanca.

The museum contains a permanent display of artifacts related to the rich history and culture of Moroccan Jewry.  These range from large items, such as the restored bimah from a synagogue in Tetouan (Northern Morocco) to small dolls depicting Jewish brides in their wedding dresses.  Full-size garments are also displayed, along with stunning jewelry pieces worn by brides.  Various religious artifacts such as mezuzahs (doorposts), Hanukiah menoras, Kiddush cups, etc. can also be found in the exhibit halls.  Other than the permanent collection, the museum also organizes occasional exhibits on related topics.

Conclusion:  Judaism as a Component of Moroccan Identity

As we were about to exit the Jewish Museum, we stopped in front of a plaque in Arabic and French, containing the preamble to the newly revised Moroccan Constitution of 2011, which reads as follows:

“A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plentitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity. Its unity, is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan- components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

 

The official inclusion of both Berber and Jewish (“Hebraic”) identities as components of Morocco’s national identity is a very meaningful act, which recognizes the contribution of both Berbers and Jews to Morocco’s history and culture.  Thus, even though very few Jews continue to reside in Morocco today, those living in other countries (notably Israel, but also in Europe and North America) are still regarded as belonging to the Moroccan nation and are encouraged to visit it and invest in its future.  While the physical presence of Jews in Morocco may have nearly ended, their impact on its character continues to be felt nearly everywhere you go.

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To learn more about our Splendors in Morocco tour click here.

Poulnabrone Dolmen – The Stones of Ireland

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Miriam C. Davis has an M.A. in medieval archaeology and a Ph.D. in medieval history. She is a professor of history at Delta State University, where she teaches European history and the history of Christianity, and has participated in archaeological excavations in Mississippi, Alabama, England, and Scotland. In addition to her scholarly publications, Miriam has written for the popular press on archaeology, history, and travel. She has lectured throughout the U.S., Great Britain, and Israel.

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Silhouetted dramatically against the horizon, it’s a stark reminder of past millennia, millennia that we know too little about.

We pile out of the bus and begin the short walk up the trail to our destination. Our tour has taken us to Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare, one of the most famous portal tombs in Ireland, and a relic of the Neolithic Age. “Neolithic” means “New Stone Age,” when agriculture emerged in Ireland. It’s also the period of the megaliths, the great stone monuments that dot the landscape of Western Europe.

At Poulnabrone, as we circle the tomb, taking pictures from different angles, we must step carefully. Deep fissures fracture the ground; it’d be easy for the careless visitor to trip or twist an ankle.

That’s because we’re in the Burren, a stretch of land in northwest County Clare in the west of Ireland. Long ago, erosion carved deep grooves in the limestone pavement, leaving a jagged moonscape. But the Burren can also be surprisingly green, as grass readily grows between cracks in the rock due to the mineral-rich soil.

The dolmen itself is made of limestone slabs. A pair of portal stones – that is, large upright stones at the dolmen’s entrance – and two smaller standing stones support the capstone, which slants downward from the front to the rear to create an 8 x 4 foot chamber. (In the 1980s, one of the portal stones was replaced because it had cracked; the original stone still lies nearby.)  Originally, a low, oval-shaped cairn, or man-made pile of rocks, surrounded the dolmen to steady the whole structure.

“How did they get the big stone on top?” someone asks. It’s a good question; twelve feet long and seven feet wide, the capstone weighs over 3,000 pounds.  Probably a mound of dirt was constructed and the slab pulled up it using rollers made of tress. No doubt it involved a lot of sweat. And cursing.

And manpower. It’s no accident that the megaliths (“big stones”) appear in the Neolithic period, after the introduction of agriculture. Hunting and gathering during the Mesolithic Age had supported only a very small population, eight or nine thousand in all of Ireland, living in family groups of about twenty-five. But the coming of agriculture about 3500 BC brought food surpluses that supported larger populations, providing the manpower necessary to erect the dolmens.

We know the dolmen was a tomb, because archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of at least thirty individuals. From the bone fragments we can tell that the dead bodies were already decomposed when they were interred in the chamber around 3000 BC. Why were these particular individuals chosen, and why was so much effort put into their interment? We don’t know.

While its ritual and symbolic functions remain unknown, Poulnabrone Dolmen continues to exert a powerful attraction in the modern world, drawing in thousands of visitors each year. As we walk back to the bus, past the sellers of Celtic crosses and other souvenirs who congregate at the entrance to the site, I think of these long-ago people, whose names we’ll never know. We, with our modern technology — our smart phones and our laptops – we can still be awed by what people did 5000 years ago.

That’s not such a bad thing.

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To learn more about our Emerald Isle tour, click here.

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.

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IMG_4890-Potala515

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.

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