All of life is a dream walking, all of death is a going home.
The 13 Ming Tombs (明十三陵) are a series of elaborate mausoleums that hold the majority of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty of China. Near Beijing and conveniently located along the route to the Great Wall of China at Badaling, the tombs are wonderful additions to a day trip at Badaling!
While the tombs are not universally recommended, they do provide insight into Ming culture and the extravagance of the ruling elite during that time. Each tomb has a museum collection of related artifacts and they tend to have much fewer people than other large attractions in Beijing.
What are the UNESCO Ming Tombs?
The Ming (明) Dynasty lasted from 1368-1644, and is the second-most recent dynasty of China. During that time, the capitol of China moved from Nanjing to Beijing after the completion of the Forbidden City. For that reason, the first tomb was built in Nanjing, but subsequent tombs were gathered in the northwestern Changping District of Beijing.
The Yongle Emperor, the third of the Ming Dynasty (the first was buried in Nanjing, the second disappeared after being overthrown), decided to move to Beijing and chose the location 42 km from Beijing, in the valley of Tianshou Mountain. The location fits fengshui principles, and the location stuck. The 13 separate mausoleums are collectively known as the Ming Tombs, and were designated UNESCO in waves starting in 2000 under the name Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Ming Dynasty saw a total of 16 emperors, most of whom were buried in this Tianshou Valley (the last one chose to lie in West Beijing instead).
The tombs are actually giant structures. They are surrounded by tall walls and look like mini cities, with a ground floor and the main attraction underground.
|Imperial Tomb||Emperor||Year Buried|
How and When to Visit the UNESCO Ming Tombs
Out of the thirteen, you can expect to visit just a couple for several reasons. The first is that not all tombs are even open for tourism. Only Changling Tomb, Dingling Tomb, Zhaoling Tomb and the Sacred Way are open to the public. Depending on your schedule, you may be able to visit just one or two. In my opinion, this is enough because the tombs look very similar. My recommendation is to visit Changling and Dingling, and the Sacred Way.
When to Visit
As with any accessible, interesting and historical place in China, there are often many, many visitors at the Ming Tombs. At any time of the year, try to avoid weekends and national holidays whenever possible. If you have no flexibility in when you go and have to visit on a weekend, expect large crowds and try to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the tours are least likely to be around.
Weather in the greater Beijing area can be fickle, and hot in the summers and cold in the winters. During summer months, temperatures can reach 90+°F or mid-30s°C. Combined with the sun and crowds with families on vacation, that can make for an uncomfortable visit. Winter snows and winds can be very cold, but the snow can also make a gorgeous picture.
The best time to visit and get good weather is on a weekday March to May or September to October.
|Dingling||Changling||Zhaoling||Sacred Way||Combo Ticket|
|Apr. – Oct.||60||45||30||30||130|
|8:00-5:30||8:00-5:00||8:30 – 5:00||8:00-5:30|
|Nov. – Mar.||45||30||20||20||100|
|8:30-5:00||8:30-4:30||8:30 – 5:00||8:30-5:00|
Half price for seniors 60+ and Chinese students with ID, Children under 1.2 meters (3’10”) are free.
Ticket prices and opening times are subject to change! Unfortunately, I do not yet know of a Ming Tombs website with updated information.
How to Visit The Ming Tombs from Beijing
If you want to see them all on a day trip, you have several options.
- Car. Each tomb has a large parking lot and road signs are clear in both English and Chinese.
- Go to Deshengmen Bus Station (one of the remnants of the ancient wall around Beijing, located near Exit A at subway station JiShuiTan on Line 2). It’s near Deshengmen Arrow Tower (德胜们箭楼).
- Take the 872 bus to Dingling and Changling between 7am and 8pm. It will cost around 8 RMB.
- OR Take the 345 Express or 886 from Deshengmen West Station to Changping Dongguan Station. From there, the 314 bus goes to the Sacred Way (get off at Nanxin Village Station) and Dingling and Changling.
- Take the subway to Changping Dongguan(昌平东关)Station on the pink ChangPing line at the city’s northwest.
- Take bus 314 to the Sacred Way (get off at Nanxin Village Station) and Dingling and Changling.
Note that the subway station Ming Tombs (十三陵景区) is over 2.5 miles away from the actual tombs and not recommended.
How to Visit The Ming Tombs from the Great Wall at Badaling
Take the 879 bus from Badaling to the Sacred Way (get off at Nanxin Village Station), Dingling, and Changling. You can walk to Zhaoling from there with a map.
I spent more time on the Great Wall than at the Ming Tombs on my day trip, so I did not see the Sacred Way. The above is a Sacred Way-esque statue, with a turtle shouldering the burden of the large stone on top of it. The Sacred Way leads to the tombs with large statues of lions, camels, elephants, and other important guardians of the emperor bodies.
The name Sacred Way literally translates to the road leading to heaven. In ancient folklore, the emperor was said to be the Son of Heaven, using the Sacred Way as a gateway to and from the heavens to his people.
Dingling (Tomb of Stability)
If you only visit one location and you have no mobility concerns, visit Dingling, literally the Tomb of Stability. It’s the home of the Wanli Emperor, and is the third largest of the Ming Tombs. You may walk down the equivalent of about 8 flights of stairs to the actual burial tombs themselves, and make a wish with an RMB or two.
You can expect to spend at most an hour or two here.
When you get to Dingling, you’ll see this main gate. The ticket office is on the left, and you should be able to buy what you need and enter right away.
That will take you to the Ling’en Gate and Ling’en Hall. Ling’en means eminent favor, so stay a while on a little elephant stool like the one below to increase your luck!
As you continue walking, you’ll see two exhibition rooms (First Exhibition Room and Second Exhibition Room) that are not that interesting. However, you will be able to walk through the Lingxing Archway. It has a lot of symbolism, so read the plaque on the side!
Right behind the Lingxing Archway are the Five Stone Sacrificial Vessels. These are stone statues that aid in the honoring of the emperor’s lives, and guard the entrance to the Soul Tower that sits on the tomb itself!
From the Soul Tower, you should see signs to enter the Underground Palace. The entrance should look like this.
Take the stairs down. They should be one-way and the environment gets slightly damper and cooler as you go down, so be prepared for the change. This is the only burial tomb that has been open to the public. At the bottom, you’ll see old relics in the tunnel, like the Empress’ Throne below.
As you can see, there are many elaborate carvings on the throne, as well as several vases and small ornamental items surrounding it. For good luck, some people throw small bills (the green ones are 1 RMB) and coins, the way Westerners throw pennies into a pond or fountain. This area used to contain many more artifacts, such as silks, textiles, wood, and porcelain. However, the excavation was rushed and lacked technology and resources to properly document and preserve the artifacts that were found. As a result, the area is now much less elaborate than it used to be. However, the glass and metal barriers do protect the original structures from further damage.
Keep walking and you’ll see the highlight of Dingling – the tombs themselves!
The emperor had two empresses. He is buried in the middle coffin, while the two women are on either side of him. The smaller boxes on the sides contain some of their most prized and valuable possessions, which is meant for them to take to the next world. The red represents luck in Chinese culture, so you can see their entire landscape is covered in red.
A visit to Dingling includes admission into their small museum near the entrance. Inside, you will find several artworks and recovered artifacts or their replicas from Dingling. You can visit it in 5 minutes, or spend a maximum of about 25-30 minutes there.
Changling is the tomb of Emperor Yongle, or eternal joy. He ruled China between 1402 and 1422 and built the largest of the 13 Ming tombs. It is wheelchair friendly.
Though it is the largest, archaeologists decided against excavating it and kept Dingling as the only excavated Ming Tomb open to the public. However, it does have a large museum that is open for you to visit. You can see all sorts of jade, jewels, and imported cedar trees to show the extravagance of the time.
Here, the stone designs are one of the best things to see! The yin and yang of the phoenix and the dragon show the balance of the universe, and life and death.
Climb to the top of the Soul Tower to see this large stone stele standing on top of the Changling tomb.
From there, you can look down to see the gorgeous trees!
And the small altars of the tomb.
That’s it! While the Ming Tombs are not as well-known as the Forbidden Palace, Temple of Heaven, or other Beijing attractions, they round out a day trip to the Great Wall nicely!
What’s your favorite part of visiting these extravagant historical buildings?
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