The Ming Tombs are often overshadowed on the Beijing tourist trail by the nearby Great Wall, one of the world’s greatest wonders. In the past, en route to the Great Wall, I’ve quickly visited the publicly open parts of the 13 tombs of Ming Dynasty emperors buried in an arc-shaped valley at the foot of the Jundu Mountains, about 40 km north of the Forbidden City.
The second Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di, decided to build royal tombs in his northern capital of Beijing in 1420 rather than the southern capital, Nanjing, chosen by his predecessor because of its distance from the Mongolian frontier. The tombs themselves have been ransacked and emptied of valuables, starting in 1644 when the rebel army of Li Zicheng’s ransacked and burned many of the tombs as he advanced toward Beijing, where the last Ming emperor committed suicide shortly thereafter. But the glorious structures remain.
Today, there are three public museum sites among the 13 tomb locations. It’s a massive, sprawling complex that stretches over 40 square kilometers. I feel sorry for the tourists who never get to visit the tombs because of the even-more-famous sights to see in Greater Beijing.
Off the beaten path of tourist Beijing, the tombs have their own fascinating history that touches the contradictions of modern (and ancient) China. After the Yongle Emperor built the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1420, he decreed that a burial site be found to house the remains of future Ming emperors. Four years later, his was the first of 13 mausoleums built in a verdant valley beneath the Jundu Mountains, not far from the Great Wall.
The place has been ransacked repeatedly in the six centuries that have followed, most notably during the revolution that preceded the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the Cultural Revolution that followed the rise of Mao Zedong. Its tombs have been raided for political and pecuniary purposes. But its Sacred Way, sometimes known as the Spirit Way or the Avenue of the Animals, remains as a reminder of the permanence of Chinese history, despite its periodic revision.
A final contradiction: A photo of Mao admiring one of the spirit elephants is posted on the Sacred Way, but Red Guards a few years later seized the remains of Emperor Wanli from the Dingling tomb, posthumously “denounced” him and burned his remains, along with his Empress.
The astronomical observatory in longest continuous use in the world is …
No, it’s not England’s world-famous Greenwich Observatory, creator of “Greenwich Mean Time.” It is the Ming Dynasty’s observatory in central Beijing. Near the southeastern corner of the old City Wall, the Beijing Ancient Observatory, originally built in 1442, is 233 years older than Greenwich.
The eight sets of astronomical instruments on the observatory’s roof have had a distinguished scientific past. Their design was strongly influenced by the Renaissance in Europe but they have some distinctive Chinese elements such as dragons and lions. The observatory’s treasures were pillaged in the 1900 war by marauding foreign troops retaliating for the lengthy siege of diplomats and Chinese Christians in the nearby Legation Quarter by Boxer cultists and the Qing military. Germany, defeated in the First World War, was the first nation to return the stolen treasure.
Today, the observatory is a small gem for in-the-know Beijingers (and a very few international tourists). There are interesting historical displays in the Ziwei Palace and some fascinating astronomical devices.
The Great Wall of China is Beijing’s most famous wall. But there’s another not-as-great wall in Beijing that is more relevant to the capital city’s history and culture. The “Inner City Wall” was built in 1419 early in the Ming Dynasty and formed a highly fortified rectangle that stretched for about 40 km around the Forbidden City and the “inner city” of Beijing.
Well into the 20th century, camel caravans would approach the city gates from the Silk Road, and horses (animal and then iron) would approach from the port of Tianjin. Moats surrounded the defensive fortifications, and a series of watchtowers provided housing for the soldiers.
Several of the gates were heavily damaged by troops from eight foreign nations during the 1900 “Boxer rebellion,” but the walled city remained, in its decaying grandeur, until a combination of the Cultural Revolution and the coming of the Beijing subway resulted in the almost-complete destruction of the ancient wall.
Today, few remnants of the old city wall remain (unlike the restored walls of Xi’an and Nanjing). But there is a mile-long stretch from the Southeastern Watchtower near the former Dongbian Gate to the Chongwen Gate that has been preserved as Beijing Ming City Wall Relics Park. The park was created in the early years of the 21st century when the ramshackle residences, with no heating, running water or plumbing, that abutted it were bulldozed and replaced by flowering trees, grass and hiking paths. (The ancient trees from the Ming era remain.) A small museum on the ramparts contains historical photos, an art exhibit and a few relics. You can walk atop a short section of the original ramparts then continue your stroll at street level. Ancient history, hidden in plain sight.
- Check your cultural assumptions with your luggage. Life is different here. Don’t view life in China through the prism of your American or European experiences.
- Beijing is crowded and massive. Don’t be intimidated by the volume of traffic, the human gridlock or the seeming chaos on the streets and in the subways. You’ll get used to it.
- Don’t be afraid to jostle people. There is no sense of personal space here. Don’t take it personally if somebody elbows you or pushes you.
- There is no “walk right, pass left” etiquette here. People walk, bike or drive every which way. Cars DO NOT stop for pedestrians. Bikes DO NOT yield to pedestrians. In fact, nobody yields to anybody.
- Be decisive. Indecisive people get run over by bikes or cars or other pedestrians.
- Don’t get upset when people spit on the street at any time in any place. Spit happens in China.
- Do not expect Western-style toilets. Get used to holes in the ground. Don’t complain about it. Get used to it.
- If there is not a price listed on an item in a market, you are expected to bargain. At tourist-oriented markets (such as the Silk Market), the original prices might be ten times what is reasonable. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Even if you are interested in buying something. Negotiate aggressively. If you don’t want to negotiate, go to a regular store.
Food and drink
- Don’t drink the water. Use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth.
- Be smart when it comes to street food. Some of it is delicious, but some of it is cooked in oil that is, simply put, poisonous. Unless a Beijinger vouches for a vendor, think twice before trying it. I’m afraid I speak from experience (some bad “stinky tofu”).
- Don’t be afraid to sample the rich variety of tasty regional cooking. Experiment beyond your comfort zone. Try things.
- Don’t expect Chinese food to be the same as American Chinese food. It’s better. Most of all, it’s different.
- Your drinks may be warm or hot when served at restaurants. This includes water, milk and juices. Chinese meals maintain a balance. Cold drinks can throw a hot meal off-balance. If you want cold water (or beer) make sure to order it “bing.”
- Fewer people speak English than you might expect. It’s not like traveling in Europe. Younger people are more likely to understand English than older people. Some younger people may want to practice their English on you. Enjoy that – unless they’re trying to sell you something.
- Stay calm. If things go wrong, it won’t do any good to raise your voice. If people don’t understand you, it won’t help you to get agitated.
- Go to the most popular tourist attractions during the week. Earlier is better for places like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the National Museum. They can get very crowded by midday, particularly on weekends or holidays.
- Use the subway. Because of surface traffic gridlock, the subway usually is the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B in Beijing. It is clean, efficient and cheap, in addition to being crowded. Relax and enjoy it.
- If you are taking a taxi, make sure somebody writes down your destination in advance IN CHINESE. Do not assume that you will be able to communicate with a cab driver by trying to pronounce a location in Mandarin. You’re probably mispronouncing it, or worse, saying something embarrassing that you don’t mean to say.
- Try to find a good street map in English (or at least in Pinyin).
- Use Google Maps online to get an idea of where you’re going and a sense of how far it is from the nearest subway stop.
- Make sure you have your passport with you when checking in to hotels or on plane or train journeys. Carry a photocopy of your passport ID page and your visa with you at all times.
- Get ready for slow, unreliable Internet and spotty WiFi. Do not expect that you will have working Internet 24/7. Internet and WiFi can stop working at any time.
- If you want to use Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or other blocked sites, you will need to have working VPN service before you arrive in China. (Email me if you need information on VPNs.) You also will need a VPN to access the New York Times, Bloomberg and some other news site.
- Bring an electrical converter or a couple of converters designed for use in China. (Not Hong Kong.)
- Bring a multiple-USB recharger for your electronic devices such as cameras and smartphones. You will need an electrical converter for this, along with one for your laptop.
- It may be very expensive to use your U.S. smartphone for calls and data. Check in advance before you leave the U.S. You can always disable the data and use it via WiFi. That’s what I do, which allows me to use email, social media and the Internet for free. I also use my U.S. cell phone for text messages with friends and family in the U.S. (at a cost of 50 cents per text sent and 5 cents per text received).
What to pack
- Dress in layers. Be ready for wind gusts.
- Bring disposable 3M anti-pollution masks. They aren’t very expensive and they can make your life more enjoyable on dangerously polluted days. Don’t be self-conscious about using masks. It’s for your own health.
- Bring toilet paper, napkins, tissues and hand sanitizer. You often will not find these products in public places.
- Make sure you have plenty of prescription medicine and vitamins. It will be hard to find, if you need it, and it may be expensive and questionable in quality.
- Make sure you bring extra medication to combat stomach ailments and flu-liked symptoms such as Pepto Bismol, cold medicine, DayQuil and NyQuil.
- Check in with your credit card companies and banks before you leave to let them know you will be making purchases in China.
Feel free to offer suggestions to make this guide more useful. I will update it with your ideas.