Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

March 2 2015 10:12 AM

A Towering Legacy: The Massive Head of Chairman Mao

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Mao Zedong took an active interest in radical politics from an early age. Many of his first forays into communist thinking began in the south-central Chinese city of Changsha, where he is now honored with a massive granite version of his head.

Unlike most representations of China’s Great Leader, the 105-foot-tall sculpture built on Changsha’s river-bound Orange Island remembers the controversial figure as a man in the full blush of youth. With stone hair looking as though it is playing in the wind, and the smooth features of a dashing rogue, the bust, built in 2007, is based on Mao’s look circa 1925. This differs from the usual portrayal of an elder statesman, or “helmsman” of the country.

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The statue stands out not just for its size but its bold presentation. This being the case, the piece was not without its critics. Given the estimated cost of $300 million, many people found the tribute wasteful. However, Changsha’s pride in Mao’s history with the city was so great as to overcome any objections.

No matter how one feels about the great leader, or communism in general, Changsha’s towering piece of hero worship is an impressive sight and an indelible reminder of the man’s continuing influence in Chinese culture.   

More sculptures and statues that make a big impression:

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Feb. 27 2015 12:41 PM

Tuptim Tribute: The Phallic Fertility Shrine in a Hotel Parking Lot

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Accompanying the jasmine, lotus, and incense gifts left at this humble Bangkok shrine are thousands of phallic offerings. Some are well over 6 feet tall, made of stone, but many are small wooden carvings, colorfully painted, left in bouquets around the site. The result is an extraordinary penis forest found in a quiet corner of the Swissôtel Bangkok parking lot.

The fertility shrine was established in the early 20th century by Thai developer and investor Nai Lert for a spirit inhabiting a ficus tree, the goddess Chao Mae Tuptim. Her nature remains somewhat obscure: it has been suggested that her name comes from the Thai for pomegranate (taptim), evoking fertility. This fruity connection might explain the bright red coloring of many of the offerings left here.

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Spirit houses and shrines have sprung up all over Bangkok, and leaving offerings of flowers or coins is an everyday part of spiritual life in Thailand. A place of devotion can appear anywhere, and the explicit fertility offerings left at this particular shrine may well be blush-inducing for the owners of the nearby hotels, but it would be catastrophically bad luck to remove them. It’s unlikely that the hotel owners themselves will advertise this shrine, but take a discreet stroll and you will find this astonishing phallic forest.

Other phallic sights around the world:

Feb. 26 2015 12:35 PM

The Hidden Beach of Mexico’s Marieta Islands

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

A gaping hole in the surface of this lush green Mexican island exposes a secret beach, with ample shade, sun, and crystal-clear water. 

The Marieta Islands are an archipelago, a chain of islands that exist as a result of volcanic eruption. The islands themselves are natural wonders, but it was something else that caused the burrowed beach to be shown the light. 

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Playa Del Amor, more commonly known as the Hidden Beach, is a structure of one of the Marieta Islands, located west of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at the mouth of Banderas Bay. It is rumored that the hole revealing the Hidden Beach was a result of deliberate bombings. In the early 1900s, the government began using the uninhabited islands as military testing sites. Test bombs are the known cause for many caves and rock formations on the island, possibly including the Hidden Beach. 

In the 1960s, scientist Jacques Cousteau led a protest against harmful human activity on the islands. In 2005 the islands were finally named a national park, Parque Nacional Islas Marietas, making swimming, kayaking, and sunbathing the only legal human activities. Extensive military testing damaged flora and fauna on the island for decades, but many years of peace have replenished the islands' pristine waters and marine life. 

The Hidden Beach is invisible from the outside, and is accessible only through a long water tunnel that links the beach to the Pacific Ocean. There is approximately 6feet of space above water level, so visitors can arrive at the beach by swimming or kayaking. The islands are still uninhabited, but are frequently visited by tourists who come to enjoy the diverse marine wildlife and the unique tropical Eden of Playa Del Amor.

Other intriguing beaches worth a detour:

Feb. 25 2015 8:08 AM

The Museum of Miniatures, Where Art Is Tiny but Mighty

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The Museum of Miniatures in Prague features the tiny works of micro-miniaturist artist Anatolij Konenko, viewed via microscope.

Born in Omsk, Siberia, Konenko is one of only a handful of professional micro-miniaturists around the world. His work ranges from “standards” like Matisse’s “The Dance” on a sliver of mammoth bone to more whimsical creations like a caravan of camels parading with ease through a needle’s eye.

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Konenko always takes an object we can identify—a seed, an insect, a needle, a hair—and breathes life into it. Certainly the objects are there to give a reference for scale, but they are also part of a dance. The micro-miniaturist allows himself to be inspired by the object, to play with the idea of the object, and change the way we view it. For example, one of the most spectacular pieces by Konenko is a flea, his feet clad with horseshoes, and his hands wielding a tiny pair of scissors, a key and a padlock.

To create a minuscule pair of scissors, Konenko, like most micro-miniaturists, invented his own instruments, some of which have been used in eye surgeries. As with other micro-miniaturists, he could only work between his heartbeats, for fear of the slight tremor destroying his precious work.

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Camels walking through the eye of a needle.

Photo: Alistair Young/Creative Commons

More miniature works around the world:

Feb. 24 2015 12:34 PM

Quinta da Regaleira: A Portuguese Palace Stuffed With Secret Symbols

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Given free rein to design a palace in Portugal in 1904, a cashed-up, eccentric entomologist named Carvalho Monteiro came up with Quinta da Regaleira: a mishmash of architectural styles sprinkled with inscrutable symbols said to allude to secret societies.

The five-floor hilltop mansion, located in the southern coastal town of Sintra, mixes Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, and Manueline styles. Its surrounding gardens are a fantasy land of grottoes, fountains, statues, ponds, underground tunnels, and a deep, moss-covered Initiation Well, believed to be the former site of Masonic rituals.

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Quinta da Regaleira’s architecture hides shapes and symbols relating to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. A Roman Catholic chapel in front of the palace depicts Catholic saints, with a few pentagrams thrown in for kicks. It’s a confusing mix, but one that’s undeniably beautiful.

More majestic palaces around the world:

Feb. 23 2015 8:56 AM

Lookout Mountain, Hollywood's Top-Secret Nuclear Film Studio

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

On Wonderland Avenue in the Hollywood Hills there's an eight-bedroom, 12-bathroom compound that was built in the early 1940s.  The exterior is a little drab, and there is nothing particularly remarkable about its appearance. But the complex, once known as Lookout Mountain, has an incredible history. Between 1947 and 1969, some of Hollywood's most talented scriptwriters, producers, editors, and directors made furtive journeys to this place to work on a top-secret project: filming nuclear explosions.

The United States Air Force established Lookout Mountain in 1947 in order to produce movies and photographs of nuclear tests. It was a full-service facility: military and civilian filmmakers would head to test sites in the Nevada desert or Pacific islands, capture footage of exploding bombs, and bring it back to Laurel Canyon for editing and post production. 

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The facility was equipped with a soundstage, screening rooms, film storage vaults, and, naturally, a bomb shelter. During its 22 years of operation, Lookout Mountain Laboratory produced approximately 6500 classified films for the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission, documenting nuclear test series such as Operation GreenhouseOperation Teapot, and Operation Buster-Jangle.

The compound has since been converted into an eight-bedroom, 12-bathroom residence. In January, Variety reported that Jared Leto has purchased the former top-secret studios for $5 million.

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A still from the opening credits of Operation Greenhouse (1951).

Image: Public domain

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Another still from Operation Greenhouse.

Image: Public domain

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A simulated scenario in Operation Greenhouse.

Image: Public domain

More remnants of the Atomic Age:

Feb. 20 2015 8:30 AM

The Beer Bottle Temple of Thailand

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In 1984, one monk and his acolytes had grown tired of the mounting litter in the Sisaket area of Thailand near the Cambodian border. To promote recycling and the cleaning of the landscape, the monks encouraged everyone in the area to bring them recycled beer bottles that would be used to build a temple complex. The result was Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew: the Million Bottle Temple.

Using mostly green Heineken and brown Chang (the local favorite) beer bottles, the monks began with a temple and later formed a crematorium, water towers, sleeping quarters and even toilets. Pushed into the concrete of the walls, the recycled bottles—around 1.5 million of them—form every detail of the buildings, inside and out. Aside from whole bottles, the monks also incorporated bottle caps to create mosaics and Buddhist designs inside of the temple.

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Other eye-catching temples around the world:

Feb. 18 2015 8:30 AM

Livraria Lello, Portugal’s Most Beautiful Bookstore

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

When you first enter Porto's Livraria Lello, you might think that you've stumbled into a church instead of a bookstore.

Its Neo-Gothic façade hides a beautiful Art Nouveau interior, with a stained glass ceiling, carved wood paneling, and a breathtaking, curvaceous staircase that stretches across the store. 

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The building was designed by Portuguese architect Xavier Esteves. Over the windows can be seen figures painted by José Bielman, representing "Science" and "Art." Along with a stained glass window bearing a monogram of "Lello and Brother" with their motto Decus in Labore ("Honor in Work"), are plant motifs and geometric shapes.

Opened in 1906, Livraria Lello has certainly aged well over the years. It is consistently named one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.

Other bewitching bookstores around the globe:

Feb. 16 2015 8:35 AM

A Swiss Bridge Built for the Daring Adventurer

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Stretching over an arm of Lake Triftsee (itself a product of the Trift glacier), hidden among the high Swiss Alps, the Trift Bridge is a thin modern suspension bridge that looks like it could blow over with one stray wind, but is in fact quite safe. 

Originally built in 2004, the bridge was replaced in 2009. The first bridge was constructed to allow workers from the Trift hydroelectric plant to access a power plant that was built below the glacier to collect and use the run off. A few short years after the original bridge was built, the second, sturdier model was hung across the wide ravine and the site was opened to the public.

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Currently the bridge spans a vertigo-inducing 560-foot gap in the mountains, suspended over 300 feet from the valley floor. Unlike some of its more primitive inspirations, the Trift bridge is made of thick steel cables over which wooden planks have been bolted. Despite the modern construction it still looks like a death trap.  

While the bridge itself is an impressive site to visit, the journey there is harrowing in and of itself. You'll need to take a cable car, which also rises high above the ground.

Other breathtaking bridges:

Feb. 13 2015 10:26 AM

Forbidden Corner: Garden of the Odd and Unexpected

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Within Tupgill Park in North Yorkshire, England, is a garden full of grottoes, tunnels and mazes that bills itself as the strangest place in the world. 

Built during the ’80s and ’90s, the Forbidden Corner has faces in its grotto walls, arms sticking out from beneath building eaves, and a stone knight in armor holding his own severed leg aloft. A giant ax sticks out of the ground and a horse’s head peers over one of the stone walls. Nothing quite makes sense, and there is no central motif beyond oddness.

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Though initially intended as a private garden, the Forbidden Corner opened to all in in 1994 in response to demands from the curious public. Visitors do not receive a map, but are instead given a checklist of things to look out for, including a tree spirit, a temple leading to the underworld, and a giant skull.

The Forbidden Corner opens for the 2015 season on March 28. Admission is by prepurchased ticket only.

Other gardens that confound and delight:

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