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 (35-70RMB). For more info call 6076 1424 (Mandarin only).