Short visit to the land of the departed

One of the places listed in most guide books for the Beijing area is the Ming Tombs. In the Eyewitness Guide it says “best visited by taxi” – and maybe I should have believed them. But that would be really expensive (it’s quite a distance from town), and there’s the hassle of arguing with the driver about the price for basically a whole day off the meter, so I decided to go the “local” way and use public transportation. After all, there are bus routes that go there. But the simple truth is that there really isn’t a “local” way to visit this place – locals just don’t go there.
As you can see, there are no other passengers on the bus, just the driver and the girl who takes the money, since this bus isn’t equipped with a card reader. The ride all the way to the Ming Tombs cost Ұ2, less than US$1. The catch is that it took well over an hour, and in this picture you can see one of the reasons why. We’re sitting still with the engine off on a narrow road that has a fence along one side and cars parked haphazard along the other, making it impossible for traffic to go in both directions at the same time, even though it is a two lane road. This is apparently a popular picnic spot (there’s a lake at the bottom of the hill on the right side) and there is no proper parking. So the bus and everyone else has to wait for a break in the oncoming traffic in order to grab the available lane. I didn’t see anyone directing the cars, it was just a free-for-all. Previous to this, we’d sat still for a long time at a construction site where they were working on a bridge.
As I said, locals generally don’t go here, but the place was far from empty. It’s a standard stop on many tours that go to the Great Wall at Badaling, since it’s on the way. The bus will swing by here in the morning, let the tourists have an hour or two to look around, and then continue on to the Wall.
As it turns out, 2009 marks the 600th anniversary of the building of the main tomb, which is called 长陵 (Changling) and houses the remains of the Ming Emperor Zhu Di (also called Yongle), who died in 1424. You might notice that 1424 to 2009 does not make 600 years. The tomb was built in 1409 when the empress died, and when the emperor himself died, he was brought here as well.
The main mausoleum is a very large building, the largest mausoleum in China.
Inside, there is a museum of relics from Zhu Di’s time, and this statue of him.
This is an incredibly elaborate crown made mostly of tiny gold wires woven into shape.
And these are some “household” objects carved of jade.
After passing out the back of the mausoleum, you continue on to another building. If you look closely through the arched opening, you can see a group of people stepping over the threshold of a gateway. Tradition has it that when you approach the grave area, you walk around the side of this gate, and when you come back from the grave area, you step over the threshold while loudly saying “I’m back!” so the spirits will know that you belong in the land of the living.
The last building contains a large stele. Zhu Di is buried somewhere in the tree-covered mound you can see out the back. The tomb has never been excavated, and is believed to be untouched since the burial. The tomb of one of the later Ming emperors was excavated back in the 1950s, but the projct was such a disaster that China has shied away from this kind of archeology since. That was in the days when the country was closed to the outside world, and the were quite a bit behind in scientific excavation techniques, and even more behind when it came to preserving the artifacts uncovered. Thousands of precious silks and scrolls were lost because China at the time did not have the means to save them.

The Chinese name for the Ming Tombs is 明十三陵 (Ming Shisan Ling), which means Thirteen Ming Tombs. There are twelve other mausoleums scattered around the area, but the distances between them are too great to be practical on foot, so I wasn’t able to see any of the others. I also missed the famous Spirit Way with its line of statues. I’m told it should have been possible to see it from the bus if you knew exactly where to look, which I didn’t.

As it was, the round trip transportation time was more than three times what it took to actually see what was there. The museum was nice, and would certainly be worth visiting if it wasn’t so hard to get to.

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