A narrow valley just north of Changping is the final resting place for 13 of the Ming Dynasty's 16 emperors (the first Ming emperor was buried in Nanjing; the burial site of the second one is unknown; and the seventh Ming emperor was dethroned and buried in an ordinary tomb in northwestern Beijing). Ming monarchs once journeyed here each year to kowtow before their clan forefathers and make offerings to their memory. These days, few visitors can claim royal descent, but
the area's vast scale and imperial grandeur do convey the importance attached to ancestor worship in ancient China.
The road to the Thirteen Ming Tombs begins beneath an imposing stone portico that stands at the valley entrance. Allow ample time for a hike or drive northwest from Changling to the six fenced-off unrestored tombs, a short distance farther up the valley. Here, crumbling walls conceal vast courtyards shaded by pine trees. At each tomb, a stone altar rests beneath a stele tower and burial mound. In some cases the wall that circles the burial chamber is accessible on steep stone stairways that ascend from either side of the altar. At the valley's terminus (about 5 km [3 miles] northwest of Changling), the Zhaoling Tomb rests beside a traditional walled village that's well worth exploring.
Picnics amid the ruins have been a favorite weekend activity among Beijingers for nearly a century; if you picnic here, be sure to carry out all trash.
Shendao. Beyond the entrance to the Thirteen Ming Tombs complex, the Shendao ( or Sacred Way) passes through an outer pavilion and between rows of stone sculptures depicting elephants, camels, lions, and mythical beasts that scatter the length of its 7-km (4½-mile) journey to the burial sites. This walk is not to be missed and is a route that was once reserved only for imperial travel. Changping District, Beijing, 100007. Apr.–Oct Y35, Nov.–Mar. Y25. Apr.–Oct., daily 8:00–5:30; Nov.–Mar., daily 8:30–5.
Changling. The spirit way leads to Changling, the head tomb built for Emperor Yongle in 1427. The designs of Yongle's great masterpiece, the Forbidden City, are echoed in this structure. Changping District, Beijing, 100007. 010/6076–1888. Apr.–Oct. Y50, Nov.–Mar. Y35. Apr.–Oct., daily 8–5.30; Nov.–Mar., daily 8:30–4:30.
Dingling. Changling and a second tomb, Dingling, were rebuilt in the 1980s and opened to the public. Both complexes suffer from over-restoration and overcrowding, but they're worth visiting if only for the tomb relics on display in the small museums at each site. Dingling is particularly worth seeing because this tomb of Emperor Wanli is the only Ming Dynasty tomb that has been excavated. Unfortunately, this was done in 1956 when China's archaeological skills were sadly lacking, resulting in irrecoverable losses. Nonetheless, it's interesting to compare this underground vault with the tomb of Emperor Qianlong at Qingdongling. Changping District, Beijing, 100007. or 010/6076–1424. Apr.–Oct. Y65, Nov.–Mar. Y45. Apr.–Oct., daily 8–5.30; Nov.–Mar., daily 8:30–5.