If you only have one day to play Indiana Jones, head straight to this, the mother of Beijing burial grounds, located among the Tianshou Mountains around 30 miles northwest of the city centre. Home to the 13 dead Ming Dynasty emperors, this resting place stretches out, web-like, with architecture resembling the Forbidden City. The 13 tombs branch out from a 4.5 mile 'Spirit Way', forming a tree-shaped complex of mausoleums, each holding its own temples and halls.
Enter the complex via the Spirit Way, which is immaculately paved, and flanked on either side by white stone sculptures of animals, military officials and mythical creatures. At the end of the Spirit Way, hop on the bus to Dingling (定陵), one of the three mausoleums open to the public – the others are Changling (长陵) and Zhaoling (昭陵). Dingling happens to be the only tomb that’s been excavated. Sadly, during the Cultural Revolution the Red Guard raided the excavation site and dragged out the remains of the emperor, empress and concubines to be burned. They also pulled out burial goods, such as silk garments that disintegrated in the sunlight.
The underground chambers and corridors are vast, built with thick, unadorned stone walls. Replicas of the ravaged contents now stand in its halls, while in the chamber itself, coffins resembling perishing wooden trunks sit in place of the originals. Changling, the oldest and best-preserved mausoleum, is the largest of the lot. It can be reached from Dingling by bus 314 or 872, and it boasts the grand Ling’en Hall that commemorates Emperor Yongle (1360 –1424), whose foreboding bronze statue sits, larger than life, on the throne inside.
Zhaoling is more for hardcore history buffs, who may also want to drive (or cycle) out in search of the ten remaining tombs. All are closed to visitors, but you can catch glimpses of temple towers, as well as a full view of Qingling’s ruined buildings. The scenery is spectacular, particularly at dawn.
How to get there For the Spirit Way, take bus 872 from Deshengmen and get off at Nanxincun (南新村), or stay on until Dingling. The tombs and Spirit Way are open 8.30am-5pm daily and are individually ticketed (35-65RMB). For more info call 6076 1424 (Mandarin only).
Silver Mountain Pagodas
If the Ming tombs didn’t quite quench your thirst for adventure, make the 50-minute drive over to the nearby Silver Mountain Pagodas, which hold the ashes of Buddhist monks reaching back almost 1,000 years. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), this site was once a hub of religious activity that included temples, nunneries and Zen-practising monks. However, all that remains today are 18 earth-toned pagodas backlit by lush green mountains.
Walking up from the entrance, you’re greeted by seven large pagodas looming like pines over the central plateau. The tallest three at the front contain 13 tiers and stretch 30 metres high, with the oldest middle tower dating back to 1149. Shorter pagodas and smaller round stupas can be found further back, and the remainder are scattered around the site and in the mountains. While there isn’t much up there (apart from metal barriers and two mood-killing ‘Do not jump’ signs), the hike offers up some sweat-worthy scenery.
How to get there Take bus 345 from Deshengmen and get off at the Changping North stop (昌平北). Transfer to bus 31 and get off at Yinshan Pagoda Forest. open 8am-4pm daily; 25RMB; 8972 6426 (Mandarin only).
The foreign missionaries' graveyard
Despite his services to, and avowed love of, China, the Middle Kingdom’s first Jesuit missionary, Italian priest Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), almost ended up being buried in Macau, as was the law for foreigners at the time. But, as luck would have it, former patron Emperor Wanli granted him a plot in what is truly one of Beijing’s last idylls – a burial space on the Beijing Administrative College campus that’s fittingly evocative of the tranquility of European gardens.
Located next to a missionary cemetery on the south side of the campus, Ricci’s tomb is the most elaborate. The tombstone is classically Chinese in style, but with a European twist: Latin inscriptions can be found, and Western rose motifs adorn the frame under traditional dragon carvings. Fresh flowers are evidence of a devout following, including old Beijingers who come here to pray.
The cemetery of the other missionaries next door holds 63 commemorative slabs, or steles, arranged in close proximity in a semicircle. While most belong to European missionaries, 16 are for Chinese missionaries.
How to get there Take subway Line 6 to Chegongzhuangxi and walk east along the main road to Beijing Administrative College. Pre-booking required – weekdays only; 10RMB; 6800 7279 (Mandarin only).
Eunuch Tianyi's Tomb
We all know what makes a man a eunuch, but if you want to see the gory details for yourself, head to the tomb of high-ranking court eunuch Tianyi, who served for more than 60 years under three successive emperors. Here, you’ll find a graphic exhibition featuring a castration knife, stone dildos and figurines depicting the bloody scene itself. And if that’s not enough of a shocker, there is also an unrelated, dried-up corpse that was disinterred from the nearby area.
Two forlorn-looking guards man the entrance to Tianyi’s tomb, a clipped version of the Spirit Way. You’re unlikely to encounter anyone else here, and past the three circular pavilions of memorial steles ahead, the land becomes a desolate tangle of dry foliage. But at least Tianyi isn’t alone – his tomb mound, at the far end, is flanked by the resting place of two other eunuchs, and his burial chamber is accessible through a nearby opening. This is the real deal – chillingly cold inside, it’s earthy and raw, like something straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ransacked by tomb raiders, it might be devoid of artefacts, but you can get close enough to touch what remains of the wooden casket that once held the body. It might be scary stuff for some, though, so don’t come here alone if you haven’t got the balls!
How to get there Take subway Line 1 west to Pingguoyuan and catch bus 112 (and a host of others) from outside the station to Shougangxiaoqu (首钢小区). The tomb is northeast of the bus stop. open 9am-4pm daily; 8RMB; 8872 4148 (Mandarin only).