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The Ultimate Beijing Travel Guide: The Ming Tombs

Beijing holds many extraordinary historical artefacts that honour their mighty historical power and significance. The sacred UNESCO site is visited by millions of foreigners and locals alike paying their respects to the nation’s forefathers. The mausoleums of the Ming Tombs caressing the southern edges of the Tianshou Mountain remain as a genuine site of homage to former emperors of a once-mighty dynasty.

This place undoubtedly deserves a spot on the China bucket list, and is one of the most significant sites in the entire country! In that case, let me guide you through everything you need to know about visiting the Ming Tombs.

The Details

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is in the out-stretching county of Changping to the North-West of Beijing. Due to its close proximity to Beijing’s centre, along with the site’s historical significance, the Ming Tombs are a popular hotspot for tourists and natives alike.

It should be noted that the Ming Tombs complex isn’t a one-stop attraction. Instead, its scattered widely across a large area along mountain edges. Each tomb is a considerable amount of distance from the other. A few keen adventurers walk the distances (although more authentic), however, the quick thinkers take advantage of the public transport.

Important Info:

As each tomb is essentially its own attraction, each site also has individual prices of admission which varies by season. Children are also able to enter for free.

SeasonSacred WayDingling TombChangling TombZhaoling Tomb
April – October30 RMB60 RMB45 RMB50 RMB
November – March20 RMB20 RMB30 RMB30 RMB
A guide to the entrance fees to the different sites at the Ming Tombs

Similar to other attractions in Beijing, opening hours depend on the season. Times also vary by site.

SeasonSacred WayDingling TombChangling TombZhaoling Tomb
April – October 8:10 – 17:508:00 – 17:308:00 – 17:008:00 – 17:00
November – March 8:30 – 17:008:30 – 17:008:30 – 16:308:00 – 17:00
A guide to the opening times of different sites at the Ming Tombs

Getting There

Due to its proximity to Beijing, there is a subway station (Ming Tombs Station) that will guide you most of the way. However, the name is a false promise, as it’s still another 2.5 miles away from the complex itself. But prepare yourself for a long laboured walk.

The subway will however cut down a considerable portion of the journey. However, If you take the subway to Chongping Dongguan, you can take the number 314 bus the rest of the way to the tombs (making sure it’s heading West). Once you’re there, it’s easy to hop on the number 314 bus between all the hotspots.

The pick-up locations of each bus are also labelled on the side of the pavement – The 314 bus

It’s also possible to get to the tombs directly from central Beijing all the way by bus. Bus number 872 from Deshengmen Bus Station takes you directly to the tombs. Other than this, there are no other real public transport options to the Tombs. Otherwise, your remaining option is the extortionate prices of taxi’s/didi’s.

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Things to See

As much as it appears, this isn’t a haphazard layout. It’s very carefully designed with feng shui principles attempting to demonstrate the good fortune brought by the dynasty. 13 of the 16 Ming dynasty emperors were buried in this complex of tombs, however, not all can be visited. Only a few tombs are open to the public; 3 tombs in fact. The only tombs being Changling Tomb, Dingling Tomb, and Zhaoling Tomb. Both Dingling and Changling receive the most visitors.

So let me guide you through everything there is to see at the Ming Tombs.

The Sacred Way

ming tombs guide
The Red Gates of the Sacred Way

The first destination you’re likely to arrive at is the immaculate Sacred Way. Formerly known as the Road to Heaven, this pathway used to return former emperors to where they had come from, heaven, where they can be laid to rest.

As you pass through the Red Gates, you’ll begin the same journey towards the tombs as others have for centuries. You’ll be guided along an arrow-straight path which is surrounded on either side by spectacular streaming willow trees and consecutive statues lining the edge of the paving stones.

ming tombs guide

Take note of the meticulously selected paving stones; the central stones appear much more pristine. This is an intentional piece of design found across many sites in Beijing (such as the Temple of Heaven). The central stones were used solely by the emperor and the deteriorating bricks on either side were reserved for the peasants.

ming tombs guide
An official overlooking the Sacred Way

Some of the most striking statues represent former government officials which were significant to the dynasty. These include some immaculately designed generals that appear to stand guard for any passing royalty.

The rest of the statues represent several different animals which come each with their own significance and unique symbolism. Each animal has four statues, two of which kneel towards the pathway. They include lions (for solemnity), camels (for the territories the dynasty controlled), elephants and horses (due to their importance to the dynasty’s success).

ming tombs guide
A kneeling two-humped camel

Other animals include two mythical creatures; a xiezhi (a kind of unicorn) to ward off evil spirits with its ability to sense right from wrong. The other is a qilin; one of the four divine animals (the others being a dragon, phoenix and tortoise). Legend says that the animals change guard at midnight.

Dingling Tomb

ming tombs guide
Entrance-way into the Changling Tomb

This tomb stands as the largest and oldest tomb of the whole complex, housing the resting place of Emperor Yongle (1402-22). Along with the mausoleum itself, there’s also a stone statue commemorating the same man. The surroundings also include some immaculately designed halls and palaces, and some small exhibitions of clothing and artefacts.

The tomb itself contains a few artefacts from the time of the dynasty, such as authentic pottery that was found at the site. The central chamber also holds the throne of the emperor and the empress. You’ll also be able to view the site where the original tombs once stood.

The coffins that once held the mighty emperors had sadly deteriorated beyond repair upon the excavation of the tomb. As a result, you’re only able to see where the coffins once laid upon large concrete slabs. There’ll also be some extravagant red replicas to give you an idea, however, look a bit more of an eye-sore in the otherwise striking tomb.

ming tombs guide
The central chamber of Dingling Tomb

You’ll also notice a considerable amount of money donated at the base of each of these relics and artefacts. As a simple reference, the biggest piles of cash illustrate the sites of most significance. Even the completely bare concrete paving slabs have piles of cash lining their edges. These endless donations are for the emperors that once laid here.

Changling Tomb

Eminent Favor Hall of Changling Tomb. Photo by rheins, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

From certain points within the tomb complex, you’re able to see just how vastly spread out each tomb is. You see the distribution of similarly designed architecture surrounding the base of the mountain range.

Dingling is the other most visited tomb, and possibly the most immaculate. It was built for Emperor Wanli (1572-1620), his beloved wife and charmingly his favourite concubine (side-chick). Demonstrating the power and bravado of the dynasty itself, the construction of the tomb was even completed before the emperors 20th birthday.

Money money. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun on Flickr

Another selling point is the fact it’s the only fully excavated tomb. The tomb itself also includes an underground palace. Much like in Changling no genuine coffins remain, due to their decay and being unsuitable for display. Instead, they have been replaced with replicas. Nearby will also be the Museum of the Ming Tombs, which holds several items excavated from the tomb itself, such as two imperial crowns.

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Zhaoling Tomb

Gate of Zhaoling Tomb. Photo by Xiquinho Silva on Flickr

Home to the Zhu Zaihou, the Ming Dynasty’s twelfth emperor and his three empresses, Zhaoling Tomb was the first to be restored. Though it may be a lot smaller than the other two, it remains just as beautiful. It also boasts a similar layout with a combination of a square yard at the front with a circular yard at the back.

Just behind the Gate of Blessing and Grace of Zhaoling Tomb is a blank stele on a stone turtle standing beneath a pavilion. Due to Emperor Zhu’s pretty extraordinary reign as ruler of China, there was little to inscribe about his achievements. Despite that, it still attracts plenty of visitors who come to touch the turtle that’s beneath the stele! It’s said that touching the turtle’s head will free you from worries for the rest of your life; touching its behind will make you healthy for life.

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