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 Tiānshòu Mountain remain as a genuine site of homage to former emperors of a once-mighty dynasty.
At first, I envisioned a closely scattered array of marvellously decorated tombs, perhaps around an immaculately designed water fountain. However, that’s not the case. The entire complex of tombs are scattered far and wide around the base of the mountains.
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This UNESCO World Heritage Site is situated in the out-stretching county of Changping to the North-West. Being in such close reach to Beijing’s centre, along with the site’s historical significance, makes the Ming Tombs a popular hotspot for tourists and natives alike.
An important point to consider; the Ming Tombs complex isn’t a one-stop attraction. 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.
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.
Opening hours like most at Beijing’s attractions depend on the season. April-October8:00am-5:30pm and November-March8:30am-3:00pm.
As each tomb is essentially its own attraction, each site has individual prices of admission, again varying by season:
Due to its proximity to Beijing, there is a subway station (Ming Tombs Station) that will take 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. Be prepared for a long laboured walk.
The subway will however cut down a considerable portion of the journey. 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 dropped off at one of the many destinations worth seeing, it’s easy to hop on the number 314 bus between all the hotspots.
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. The remaining option is the extortionate prices of taxi’s/didi’s.
Things to See
The Sacred Way
The first destination you’re likely to arrive upon of the incredibly vast complex would be the sacred way. Passing through the Red Gates, you’ll begin the same journey towards the tombs as those have for centuries. Formerly known as the Road to Heaven; this was the pathway the former emperors were returned to where they had come; heaven.
Passing through the gate unveils a picturesque expression of the tranquillity of nature and peace. A suitable environment for the royalty being laid to rest. The Sacred Way is a long straight paved walkway extending toward the mountains. The arrow-straight path is surrounded on either side with spectacular streaming willow trees and consecutive statues lining the edge of the paving stones.
Take note of the meticulously selected paving stones; the central stones appear much more pristine and given noticeably more care. This is an intentional piece of design found in many artefacts 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 other peasants.
Some of the most striking statues are dedicated to former government officials considered important to the dynasty. These would include some immaculately designed generals that appear to stand guard for any passing royalty.
The rest of the statues represent several different animals, each with its own significance and unique symbolism. Each animal has four statues, two of which kneel towards the pathway. The animals include lions (for solemnity), camels (for the vast territories the dynasty controlled), elephants and horses (due to their significant importance to the dynasty’s success).
The others 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). The myth goes that the animals change guard come midnight.
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. Examples of authentic pottery that were found at the site are displayed. 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.
You’ll also notice a considerable amount of money donated at the base of each of these relics and artefacts. 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.
Upon leaving the tomb you’re directed towards the stairway that allows you to look back towards the entrance gates leading to the tomb and the entire area alike. It allows you to spot other unmistakably immaculately designed Chinese roofing indicating sites of other tombs around the base of the mountain.
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.
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, as they decayed and 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.
There is an important consideration when it comes to travelling, that usually comes with time restrictions. Is it worth it? It’s unrealistic to see everything, so when it comes to pick-and-choose, is this a must-see or not?
Well frankly if time really is a factor, then you can rest easy if you choose to leave it out of your itinerary. Despite its cultural and historical significance, it doesn’t have any more than that found at the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace. If it’s an incredibly jaw-dropping experience you’re after then there are better ones.
The other negative is its accessibility, it’s a fucking ball-ache. It essentially requires an entire day to visit, most of which wasted on the travel. Also, due to the size of the complex, many visitors only have time to see one or two of the sites. Of course, many travellers choose to combine the tombs with a visit to the nearby wall. However, if you have a limited number of days to see Beijing, then a stop at the Ming Tombs isn’t necessary.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.