The Ming Tombs (Shísān Líng; admission per tomb; 8am-5.30pm), about 50km northwest of Běijīng, are the final resting place of 13 of the 16 Ming emperors. The Confucian layout and design may intoxicate more erudite visitors, but some find the necropolis lifeless and ho-hum. Imperial shrines lack the vibrancy and colour of Buddhist or Taoist temples, and their motifs can be bewilderingly inscrutable.
The Ming Tombs follow a standard layout for imperial tomb design. The plan typically consists of a main gate (líng mén) leading to the first of a series of courtyards and the main hall, the Hall of Eminent Favours (Líng’ēn Diàn). Beyond lie further gates or archways, leading to the Soul Tower (Míng Lóu), behind which rises the burial mound.
Three tombs (open 8am to 5pm) have been opened up to the public: Cháng Líng, Dìng Líng and Zhāo Líng.
Líng (admission Y45), burial place of the emperor Yongle, is the most impressive, with its series of magnificent halls lying beyond its yellow-tiled gate. Seated upon a three-tiered marble terrace, the most notable structure is the Hall of Eminent Favours, containing a recent statue of Yongle and a breathtaking interior with vast nanmu (cedarwood) columns. The pine-covered burial mound at the rear of the complex is yet to be excavated and is not open to the public.
Dìng Líng (admission incl museum Y60), the burial place of the emperor Wanli, contains a series of subterranean interlocking vaults and the remains of the various gates and halls of the complex. Excavated in the late 1950s, this tomb is of more interest to some visitors as you are allowed to descend into the underground vault. Accessing the vault down the steps, visitors are confronted by the simply vast marble self-locking doors that sealed the chamber after it was vacated. The tomb is also the site of the absorbing Ming Tombs Museum (Shísān Líng Bówùguǎn; admission Y20).
Zhāo Líng (admission Y30), the resting place of the 13th Ming emperor Longqing, follows an orthodox layout and is a tranquil alternative if you find the other tombs too busy.
The road leading up to the tombs is the 7km Spirit Way (Shéndào; admission Y20;7am-8pm). Commencing with a triumphal arch, the path enters the Great Palace Gate, where officials once had to dismount, and passes a giant bìxì (a mythical tortoise-dragon-like animal), which bears the largest stele in China. A magnificent guard of 12 sets of stone animals and officials ensues.