Wednesday, July 4, 2007

China - My visit to the Great Wall and one of the Ming Tombs

Time flies…I’ve been extremely busy since I came home from China but here is finally one more of my planned reports from the China trip in May.

The Great Wall of China is in reality not one wall; it consists of a series of walls totaling some 6400 km, some of which date back to the 5th century BC! Wikipedia contains some great background info and history, so I will not try to pretend I know better…

I got help hiring a private driver for the day and set off to see the Great Wall. I really wanted to go to one of the older parts of the Wall to avoid tourists and be able to take in a more ‘genuine’ feeling of the ancient China. But according to the driver, the roads were very poor and he recommended the Wall at Badaling. The Badaling Great Wall is located in Yanqing County, 60 km northwest of Beijing. It took about 2.5 hours to drive there from my hotel in east central Beijing. It was a very hot summer’s day, around 35° Celsius.

As he dropped me off at Badaling I realized he had taken me to the most tourist-dense place imaginable. The Great Wall at Badaling has apparently been awarded Guinness records for the Great Wall scenic spot receiving the most tourists and the most state leaders, whatever that’s worth… There were probably thousands of tourists from all over the world climbing the sometimes quite steep wall and there was hardly a single square meter free from people. Sigh…

What’s more, the Wall was really fortified or even partly reconstructed in the last decades here at Badaling. However, the view over the green hills and surrounding mountains was absolutely breathtaking (see photos below). Despite the large crowds of tourists I thoroughly enjoyed walking around on the Wall and imagining historic times.

I attracted a small fan club of little old ladies that followed me around wherever I went. When I stopped to look at the view, they stopped. When I started walking again, they were always only a few steps ahead or behind me. It was slightly disturbing at first but then I saw that they were smiling and looking at me quite fascinated, so I found it kind of endearing. Then all of a sudden, they asked if they could take pictures of me. So I had to pose with each of them while the others snapped away on their cameras. My only guess is that they had never seen red hair before.

Two of my fan club

China’s hosting of the Olympic Games with the motto “One World – One Dream” was promoted also here.

After a few hours’ sweating and drinking lots of water in the heat, I was ready to head back to my driver. I decided to try the ‘Sliding Cars’ down the mountain, a form of plastic-seat rollercoaster which was operated with a man at the front with a manual break…

Sliding cars: “Here we’re coming down the mountains, here we come (toot toot toot…)” – remember the cartoon character Goofy (‘Långben’ in Swedish) in Mickey Mouse’s camping trip?! Our down-trip was just as bumpy and hazardous but the driver seemed blissfully unaware and relaxed...

I thought it would take me back to the Badaling center where I entered to climb the Wall but it took me to the other side of the mountain and I ended up next to a zoo with bears.

Visiting Ding Ling Tomb, one of the famous Ming Tombs
The Ming Dynasty had 16 emperors who reigned for a total of 277 years (1368-1644). All the tombs of the Ming emperors, except for that of Emperor Zhu Yunwen, are still preserved today. Together with the tombs for posthumously crowned emperors, there are 18 tombs altogether, scattered in Jiangsu, Anhui and Hubei provinces as well as Beijing’s Changping District. Read more here>>

Spread out over a total area of about 80 km² (click on the photo below for an enlarged map overview), located in a broad valley to the south of Tianshou Mountain (Longevity of Heaven) some 50 km from Beijing, 13 of these imperial mausoleums can be found, along with seven tombs for imperial concubines and one for a eunuch – together forming a complex called the Imperial Ming Mausoleums. Construction of the Imperial Ming Mausoleums began in 1409 and was completed more than 200 years later when the Ming Dynasty collapsed in 1644.

My driver took me to one of them, the Ding Ling Tomb, which was excavated and opened to the public in 1957. It is located just east of Mount Dayu. Here you also find the Ming Tombs Museum, which is one of the renowned ancient imperial tombs museums in China. Ding Ling is the first imperial tomb excavated so far in accordance with the state’s plan since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It’s the joint tomb, constructed in 1584, of the thirteenth emperor Zhu Yi Jun of the Ming dynasty and his two empresses.

Zhu Yi Jun (1563-1620) – see painting to the right (sorry, it's a little blurry) – came to the throne when he was only 10 years old and reigned until he died at the age of 58. Construction of the Ding Ling Tomb began already in the 12th year of his reign and was completed after six years. The Ding Ling complex covers over 180,000 m², see photos below. The models of the whole complex and the tomb, or Underground Palace, as it was called, gave a rather good impression of the size of these imperial mausoleums. It was widely held in the Ming Dynasty that although dead physically, a person's soul remained, still having human needs. Consequently, the 13 emperors' tomb complexes look like imperial palaces.

Model of Ding Ling Tomb

The Underground Palace

The Underground Palace was located inside a circular wall overlooking the valley and surrounding hills.

However, I must say that I was disappointed. I felt there was not much to see. The mausoleum compound looked rather colorless and dusty and the Underground Palace itself – composed of five halls which upon excavation in the 1950’s unearthed over 3,000 cultural artifacts (not sure where all of those are today but some of them were exhibited in the Ding Ling / Ming Tombs Museum on site, see photos below of the empress coronets) – more looked like a concrete bomb shelter about 25 m below ground. Maybe I’m being unfair, but it had little resemblance with what I in my imagination had compared to Pharaoh Tombs in Egyptian pyramids or Catholic crypts in cathedrals in Europe. Since I’ve been to Japan once and was extremely impressed with all their imperial palaces and temples, sadly many Chinese remnants are just dusty and pale in comparison.

Empress crowns with Phoenixes and in gold

If time had permitted, I would have liked to go the center of the valley where you can apparently walk down the Sacred Way (Shendao) or “spirit path” flanked by large stone statues of animals and humans on the Avenue of the Animals. If you want to find out more, there is a very interesting read about the architectural lay-out and spiritual meaning around the imperial tombs here>>.