Ming Tombs (Shi San Ling)

48km (30 miles) NW of Beijing

Of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), 13 are buried in a box canyon at the southern foot of Tianshou Shan (hence the Chinese name Shisan Ling, the 13 Tombs). The first emperor of the Ming, Hongwu, is entombed in Xiao Ling, near Nanjing. The location of the second emperor's tomb is uncertain, while the unfilial seventh emperor, who usurped the throne after his brother was taken by the Mongols, was buried near the Summer Palace among the graves of concubines. Despite these omissions, this is the most extensive burial complex of any Chinese dynasty. A red gate sealed off the valley, guards were posted, and no one, not even the emperor, could ride a horse on these grounds. The site was chosen by the Yongle emperor, who also oversaw the construction of the Forbidden City. Protected from the bitter northern winds by a mountain range, the tombs are constructed in conventional fashion, with memorial halls at the front and burial chambers to the rear.

The entrance to the Ming Tombs, a long and celebrated shen dao (spirit way) is lined with statues of guardian animals and officials. Only three of the Ming Tombs -- Ding Ling, Chang Ling, and Zhao Ling -- have been restored, and only one (Ding Ling) has been fully excavated. Many of the buildings mirror Ming palaces found in the city. Because of this, the sight can be boring to people who've had their fill of imperial architecture. The Ming Tombs are at their most charming along the shen dao and on the grounds of unrestored tombs (free admission). In contrast, the restored tombs are dank, overcrowded, and uninspiring. The Ming Tombs are so unpopular with foreign tourists that they are often excluded from tour-group itineraries.


Getting There -- The valley is just off the freeway that goes to Ba Da Ling. Many Chinese bus tours to Ba Da Ling also come here, visiting the spirit way and one of the tombs at blinding speed, but if you want time to explore some unrestored tombs (highly recommended), you'll have to make a separate trip. The most comfortable means of public transport is to take the air-conditioned bus no. 345 from the Jishuitan metro stop to Changping and then cross the street and take bus no. 314 to the Nan Xin Cun stop, which is adjacent to the entrance to the spirit way. From there, you can continue north to either Ding Ling Daokou to visit Ding Ling, a further 2km (1 1/4-mile) walk to the west, or on to the terminus at Chang Ling. A taxi hired in Beijing should cost ¥500, driver's fee for wait time included.

Exploring the Area

The spirit way (shen dao) (Apr-Nov ¥30, Dec-Mar ¥20; daily 8:30am-6pm) should not be missed. The main entrance to the valley is the Da Hong Men (Great Red Gate), beyond which is a pavilion housing China's largest memorial stele, and beyond that the spirit way. The path, slightly curved to fool malevolent spirits, is lined on either side with willows and remarkable carved stone animals and human figures, considered among the best in China. The statuary includes pairs of camels, lions, elephants, and mythical beasts, such as the qilin, a creature of immense virtue referred to as the "Chinese unicorn" even though it has two horns.

The largest and best preserved of the 13 tombs is 4km (2 1/2 miles) ahead: Chang Ling (¥45 summer, ¥30 winter; daily 8:30am-5:30pm), the tomb of the Yongle emperor (reign 1403-24). The layout is identical to that of the tomb of the first Ming emperor in Nanjing. It feels like the Forbidden City in miniature, and is perhaps disappointing if you've seen the palace already. Most striking is Ling'en Dian, an immense hall in which the interior columns and brackets have been left unpainted, creating an eye-catching contrast with the green ceiling panels. Slightly wider than the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Ling'en Dian contains a three-tiered platform and building materials that are superior to those of the Forbidden City.

The 1,195-sq.-m (12,863-sq.-ft.) Underground Palace at Ding Ling (summer ¥60, winter ¥40; 8:30am-6pm), rediscovered in 1956, was the burial place of the Wanli emperor (reign 1572-1620), his wife, and his favorite concubine. Construction of the burial chamber commenced before the emperor was 20 years old, making him "the living ancestor" in the words of Ray Huang, author of 1587, A Year of No Significance. The "palace" is a vast marble vault, buried 27m (89 ft.) underground and divided into five large chambers. It's all a bit disappointing. The corpses have been removed, their red coffins replaced with cheap replicas, and burial objects moved to aboveground display rooms. The original marble thrones are still there, now covered in a small fortune of Renminbi notes tossed by Chinese visitors hoping to bribe the emperor's ghost. Outside, behind the ticket office, is the respectable Shisan Ling Bowuguan (Ming Tombs Museum), with short biographies of all the entombed emperors; several reproduced artifacts; a detailed, wood reproduction of the Ling'en Dian; and a 1954 photo of Mao reclining and reading a newspaper on a half-buried marble incense burner at Chang Ling.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.