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China: Ming tombs

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Ming tombs > China > Asia

[Visited: May 2019]

Things change fast in China: my ten year old travel guide tells me how to reach the Ming Tombs by bus from the city, while I discover there now is a Ming Tombs station on the extensive subway system. Since it is still quite far from the tombs, I decide to get off before, and take a bus from a suburb, which takes me directly to the Dingling mausoleum complex. After buying my combo ticket, I walk to the entrance of this tenth tomb. The general layout, I will learn today, is a wide entrance gate in a wall encircling the complex, then a Gate of Eminent Favour, a Hall of Eternal Favour, and a Soul Tower, behind which is a burial mound; all aligned along a central axis. The entrance gate is the lowest point: after that, every next hall is a slightly higher level. The stairs are adorned with sculpted dragons. The Hall of Eminent Favour is the most exquisite. behind it, the Ling Xing Men is a decorated gateway to the Soul Tower.

Picture of Ming tombs (China): Overlooking the Changling complex from the Soul Tower with the Hall of Eternal Flavours in the background

What makes Dingling stand out, is its underground palace. I descend the stairs that take me deep below the Soul Tower. The palace consists of several chambers. The hallways are decorated by stone carvings, where marble doors once locked the chambers off. In the rear chamber, I find copies of the coffins of Emperor Zhu Yijun and his two empresses, flanked by a collection of red cases in which burial articles were found when the palace was excavated. Next, I climb the stairs out of the palace, back to the heat, and up the stairs to the Soul Tower which, being the highest point, offers great views of the mausoleum complex that was built in 1620. The burial mound behind the tower is covered by trees. A small museum has some of the 3000 objects on display that were found in the underground palace. After walking back to the entrance, I find a stone turtle carrying a stele; it is fascinating to see how people flock around its head to touch and caress it. Turtles are the symbol of longevity.

Picture of Ming tombs (China): Close-up of sculpted guardian standing on the Spirit Way

A twenty minute walk brings me to the entrance of Zhaoling, one of the other two tombs open to the public. Convinced that I can enter with my combo ticket, an unpleasant interchange starts when the staff tells me to buy a new ticket. I end up just walking in. The good thing about Zhaoling is that it is by far the least visited of the tombs. Built in 1570 for Emperor Zhu Zaihou and his three empresses, it lies at the foot of Da Yu mountain which rises behind it. After crossing the stone bridge, walking through the complex and climbing the Soul Tower, I walk around the burial mound. To my surprise, I find a side door open, and leave the complex without any troubles with the staff. Since I do not see any bus, I decide to walk to Changling, which turns out to be more than half an hour away. A parking lot full of tour buses and cars tells me that this is the most visited of the thirteen tombs (of which only three are open). Indeed, it is the most beautiful, and also the oldest of the Ming Tombs, built in 1424. Apart from the conventional buildings, I find small Paper and Silk burners. The Hall of Eternal Flavours is especially impressive with its huge cedar wood columns. Despite the crowds, still a must-see. In fact, almost all visitors are in groups, so between small waves of tour bus passengers coming in, I find the place for myself. A bus ride takes me to the Sacred Way - several kilometres south of Changling mausoleum. It was believed that emperors came to earth along the Sacred Way, and used it to return to heaven again. After passing through the Dragon Phoenix Gate, I walk the tree-lined, slightly curved wide path, lined with stone sculptures of officials or guardians, and elephants, camels, horses, lion, xiezhi, and qilin. The Stele Pavilion, surrounded by finely carved columns, houses a giant stone turtle with a stele on top of it. After walking through the Great Red Gate, I decide to walk through a village to the subway station, buying tasty cherries from farmer ladies on the way. After the solemn atmosphere of the Ming Tombs, I am back in the bustle of modern-day China.

Picture of Ming tombs (China): The underground palace of Dingling
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Looking up the Soul Tower of the Zhaoling mausoleum complex
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Stele mounted on turtle in the Stele Pavilion at the beginning of the Spirit Way
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Hall of Eternal Favours in the Zhaoling mausoleum complex
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Stele in the Soul Tower of the Changling mausoleum complex
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Stele pavilion and stele at the entrance of the Changling mausoleum complex
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Sculptures of officials flanking the Ancient Sacred Way
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Close-up of sculpted dragon in the Dingling complex
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Palace of Eternal Favour with its massive wooden pillars and beams is the highlight of the Changling complex
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Inside the underground palace of Dingling: coffins where the emperor and empresses rest, flanked by cases in which burial articles were found
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Stone turtle sculpture with stele at the Dingling tomb complex touched by worshipers
Picture of Ming tombs (China): Stele Pavilion in the foreground at the Zhaoling tomb complex
Picture of Ming tombs (China): The Spirit Way, or Sacred Way, leading from the Stele Pavilion to the Dragon-Phoenix gate, lined by sculpted animals and officials

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