Once you've seen the Forbidden City, where all but two of fifteen Ming emperors lived, take a trip out to their final resting place, the Ming Tombs, or "Thirteen Tombs" (Shísān Líng, 十三陵).
The third Ming emperor, Yongle (1402-1424), chose the site based on its excellent feng shui and the harmonic balance of wooded mountains to the north, rich dark earth and calm waters is as pleasant today as it must have been when chosen as the last resting place of emperors.
Only three of the tombs are presently open to the public, though plans are afoot to excavate and open others. Covering a huge area, the tombs are located some 50 km (30 mi) northwest of Beijing.
The approach to the tombs, known as the Spirit Way (Shén Dào, 神道) presents visitors with the first of numerous gates and arches that comprise the Confucian design. Each of the thirteen tombs follows a standard layout consisting of a main gate, sequential linked courtyards, halls, gates and arches leading to the Soul Tower (Míng Lóu, 明楼) and burial mound. Stylized statues of various animals, mythical and actual, along with those of imperial officials line the Spirit Way and approaches to the individual tombs.
The overall effect of this sober Confucian design is subtle, lacking the concentrated grandeur of the Forbidden City or the color and vibrancy of Daoist and Buddhist temples, but if you visit on the right day the site's combination of natural beauty and carefully measured design can charm, and even mystify.
As for the individual tombs, Chang Ling, the earliest and largest of the tombs, dates from 1413 and houses the remains of Yongle himself. Ding Ling, constructed in the 16th century for Emperor Wanli, was excavated in the 1950s; visitors can descend into the burial mound's vault and view many of the treasures buried with the emperor. Zhao Ling (Zhāo Líng, 昭陵), the least visited among the three, houses the remains of Emperor Longqing and can make for a quiet alternative to the more popular Chang Ling and Ding Ling.
Note that most visitors come to the tombs on day trips with tour groups, usually combining tours of the Great Wall at Badaling and the Ming Tombs. This works out well for many, but those who prefer not to be herded through the sites on a schedule are advised to arrange private transportation.
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