The rugged countryside around the capital affords an easy remedy to the downtown blues and features a variety of attractions, the most obvious of which is the incredible Great Wall, which can be visited at a number of spots. Other sights include dramatic gorges, imperial tombs, prehistoric caves and charming temples, all of which are feasible as day-trips from Beijing.
There are tourist buses from Qianmen and westerly Fuchengmen to some of the more popular sights, as well as public buses from Dongzhimen, Deshengmen and Pingguoyuan. Alternatively, you can go on a tour from your hotel or hostel. Or, if you want to see things at your own pace, you could hire a car and driver for the day.
North of Beijing
♥♥♥ The Ming Tombs
(Daily ; see below for costs and transport information)
See Ming Tombs pictures
The Ming Tombs are 30 miles north of Beijing in a (once) peaceful valley and are the final resting place for 13 of the 16 Ming emperors – hence the Chinese name Shisanling, which means 13 Mausoleums. The scenic valley is on the way to Badaling, which has made it a popular tourist stop on day-trips out to the Great Wall, and, while it has lost some its tranquility in the process, it remains a worthwhile destination offering grand imperial mausoleums and pretty countryside. And there are still quiet nooks to be found if you head off the beaten track a little.
Emperor Yongle visited this valley basin nestled between the YanMountains in the 15th century and instantly knew this was where he wanted to be laid to rest. The valley has perfect natural fengshui and construction of his grand mausoleum began shortly afterwards.
Successive emperors followed suit, facilitating ancestor worship, and the tombs were tended for the remainder of the Ming dynasty. The Qing selected a different locale for their mausoleums and, while some emperors of this dynasty looked after the Ming Tombs, they were gradually forgotten and went to seed.
Gateway at start of the Sacred Walk
By the 20th century the Ming Tombs were overgrown and unkempt, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that anything was done about this and a few of the mausoleums were restored, albeit overzealously. Today, only the Sacred Way and three of the 13 tombs are open to the public, the grandest of which is Yongle’s, known as Changling.
Visiting the Tombs
Once at the tombs if you have enough time it’s worth visiting, not only the SacredWay and three open tombs, but also wandering around the grounds to some off the fenced-off mausoleum compounds that offer quiet picnic spots (despite signs forbidding picnicking) and more of a sense of what the area was once like – you can buy maps at the site that indicate the location of all 13 tombs.
The Sacred Way: Once actually at the site, the Sacred Way (¥30) is usually the first stopping-off point. This 4½-mile avenue was the route taken by imperial coffins and begins with a grand paifang (memorial arch), although the entrance brings you into its second significant gate, the triplearched Dahongmen.
Beyond here you’ll find the Shengde Stele Pavilion, which houses a grand stone tablet borne by Bixi, the hardy tortoise.
From the pavilion the way is lined by symbolic statues of humans and animals. Of the real and mythical beasts to be seen (lions, elephants, camels, horses, unicorns and qilin), there are four of each, two standing and two resting, while the humans represent servants, officials and generals.
The Sacred Way continues most of the distance to the tombs, but to confound evil spirits (who, it was believed, could only travel in straight lines), the mausoleums are placed at oblique angles to the avenue.
The Sacred Way
The Mausoleums: Yongle is remembered as one of China’s greatest emperors and his mausoleum, Changling (¥45), is fittingly grand. The mausoleum is laid out as a scaled-down version of Yongle’s most impressive creation, the Forbidden City, and its greatest edifice, the Hall of Eminent Favor, is supported by hefty wooden pillars brought all the way from Yunnan.
It now houses replicas of the emperor’s most treasured possessions, which were buried with him.
In contrast, the tomb itself is a simple treecovered mound. EmperorWanli’s mausoleum, Dingling (¥65), is less ostentatious than Changling, but offers the chance to descend into the burial chamber, which was opened up in 1956 and found to hold the emperor and his two wives, along with their most valued possessions, all packed neatly into 26 pieces of baggage for the trip to the afterlife!
Today, the musty stone vault resembles a disused subway as much as an imperial tomb, but it holds Wanli’s bright red imperial coffin and reproductions of the treasures he chose to take to the grave with him. On your way out, you can visit the museum at the main gate which has information about the restoration of the tombs and a model of the valley basin.
The last of the open mausoleums, Zhaoling (¥30), is the final resting place of Emperor Zhuzaigou (1567-72), and, although it is less impressive than either Changling or Dingling and you can’t access the vault, it is the most authentically restored of the three. It also sees fewer visitors, which makes it worth seeking out.
The other 10 tombs nestled around the valley are fenced off, but if you want a quiet spot for a picnic they offer more of a sense of adventure and discovery.
Getting to the Ming Tombs
If you’re on an organized day-trip to the Great Wall at Badaling, you’ll stop at the Ming Tombs, although these trips often leave scant time for any real exploration.
For a more relaxed trip, Cycle Chinarun trips that combine the tombs with the Great Wall at Huanghua (from ¥300).
Another alternative is to take tourist buses #1 or #5, which leave from Qianmen before , although once again you’ll only get around 90 minutes at the site.
For fuller exploration you can take bus #345 from Deshengmen to Dongguan in Changping and then bus #314 circuits the sites from there.
Or if that sounds like too much work, a taxi should cost around ¥400 for the round-trip. How ever you choose to come here, the journey will take at least an hour.
Statue on the Sacred Way
♥ Longqing Gorge
(Jan-Oct daily ; ¥40; bus #919 from Deshengmen to Yanqing and then a taxi; 90 mins).
Fifty miles from Beijing and close to Badaling, Longqing Xia offers scenery fresh from the Three Gorges and makes for a great afternoon pit-stop if you’ve had enough of braving the crowds at the wall. Even getting to the gorge is an experience and involves taking a seemingly never-ending escalator (covered by a model dragon …) to the largest dam in this part of the country.
Beyond here, the emerald green water gives way to craggy limestone peaks and there’s the option of taking a boat ride, bungee jumping or, if you come in January or February, Longqing holds a smaller version of the famous Harbin Ice Festival, complete with brightly lit ice sculptures and a frozen waterfall – which are worth enduring the cold for. Tickets for the festival are ¥70 and during the event the park is open from .
Getting to Beijing, Getting around Beijing
The Forbidden City
The Temple of Heaven
The Summer Palace
Tian’anmen Square and Hutong
Jingshan Park, Shichahai, & Tibetan Lama Temple
Other places of interest in Beijing
Around Beijing : The Great Wall, Great Wall pictures
The Western Hills
Zhoukoudian & Peking Man Site
The Qing Tombs
Chengde , Bishu Shanzhuang
Shopping in Beijing
Beijing Opera, Shows, and Nightlife
Beijing Travel Guide homepage
China Travel guide homepage