The Ming Tombs

One of the main things to do in Beijing is to visit the Ming Tombs, so I went for the first time this weekend. Although there are 13 tombs, only three are open to the public as attractions, and the rest are relatively undisturbed. We visited all 13 tombs, plus some tombs of famous concubines, with a local man who has been researching the history of the tombs and visiting them for 30 years. Thirteen tombs is a lot for one day, but the history was really interesting and it was worth the visit.

The Ming Tombs are located about 50 kilometers north of Beijing, and are the final resting places of thirteen of the Ming dynasty emperors, plus a handful of concubines and eunuchs. The valley where the tombs are located was chosen for its excellent fengshui — it’s surrounded on all sides by mountains, and also has a river running through it.

The Chinese believe in ancestor worship, and respecting deceased relatives is very important to them. Accordingly, very few of the tombs have been opened to researchers and the public, as this would be a show of disrespect for the dead. The contents of ten of the tombs are a complete mystery — nobody except a few elderly caretakers are allowed inside the tombs.

But you can take a peek through the gates!

Today, the Ming Tombs are surrounded by small villages, and have even lent building materials to the villagers. Many villagers’ homes and gardens are situated in the middle of what was once a large tomb complex. Each tomb was built like a Chinese palace, with exterior walls for protection, gardens and several buildings, so in the intervening years villagers have actually settled within the walls of tombs.

Below is the outer most wall of the tomb of the emperor with the second-longest reign in the Ming dynasty. He was very concerned with safety, and commissioned his tomb to have two walls built around it. When the builders finished construction on the tomb, they didn’t dare tell the emperor, for fear that he would take it as a sign that they were just waiting for him to die. Instead, they built a third wall, the remnants of which you can see below.

It’s funny how Chinese people take the presence of such incredible history in stride. In order to see some of the tombs, we literally had to go into people’s backyards, where there would be 12-foot-tall marble tablets and the remains of tombs.

While on the tour, we learned about each emperor when we visited his tomb. The emperor with the longest reign (48 years) had a son whose reign was shortest in the dynasty (28 days). This particularly unfortunate emperor survived several attempts on his life, but died from a mysterious illness after swimming, just 28 days into his rule. Other accounts blame his early death on “too many women.” His grandfather had the second longest reign (45 years); I guess he just didn’t inherit longevity.

We also visited the site where several concubines and female servants were buried in a humble grave. They had died during the period in which all the emperor’s women were put to death when he died so that they could join him in the afterlife.

Not all women in the Ming dynasty were so helpless. One of the most interesting stories was of Wan Gui Fei. Wan Gui Fei, although never made empress, was probably the most powerful and feared woman of the Ming dynasty. She raised the emperor from when he was a child, later becoming his lover (paging Dr. Freud!). It is said that all the court feared Wan Gui Fei because of her incredible influence over the emperor. During his reign, she systematically aborted the children of all other concubines, ensuring that she would be the only bearer of his heirs. Although many knew of this, none dared to defy her. When the emperor turned 30, he was desperate for an heir, and loudly bemoaned his fate to the court. Risking death, a eunuch threw himself on the ground before the emperor, revealing that indeed, he did have a son, who had been kept secret for fear of Wan Gui Fei. From then on, the son was personally protected by the empress, and later took the throne at age 18.

Despite her little murderous character flaws, the emperor loved Wan Gui Fei until death, and erected a tomb for her in the same valley with the emperors’ tombs, bestowing great honor on her. We took a little peek at her tomb over the wall.

Here’s what we saw!

We had lunch at a village inn, which consisted of Chinese burritos. mmmm! The inn also had a caged squirrel, which is sadly the first squirrel I’ve ever seen in China.

After a long day of tomb visiting, we stopped by a nearby reservoir, where we inexplicably saw a bunch of cute animals!

It’s hard to get the kind of experience we did without a really good tour guide, but the tombs are definitely worth visiting if you bring along a little history book and check them out at a leisurely pace. It’s a good spot for an all-day, relatively easy hike, and many villages offer cheap and filling meals in country homes.

The Ming Tombs are easily accessible from Beijing by public bus (919 takes you to the tourist tombs, 345 takes you to the reservoir) and tour company.

Wild Wall

Everyone who comes to China has to visit the Great Wall, but few visitors get to see the real deal — the Wild Wall. 野城, as it’s called in Chinese, literally translates to “wild wall,” meaning sections of the Great Wall that have yet to be restored and commercialized for profit. The outskirts of Beijing have tons of wild wall sections accessible by moderately to extremely challenging and dangerous hikes, but the climb is worth it for sure.

It’s important for tourists to realize that unlike other tourist sites, you can’t just visit one part of the Great Wall and check it off your list. There are thousands of kilometers of the wall, and each section has something special to offer. I’ve been hiking to the Great Wall many times, visiting the most wild of the wilds and the most commercial of the commercial sites. Badaling is the easiest section to get to from Beijing, and also one of the most commercial sections. Jinshanling, though commercially opened, is a lovely hike, and features some wild sections. The Shanhaiguan (山海关) section is neat because it extends into the ocean. Gubeikou (古北口) is probably the most wild section I’ve been to, with perilous rubble-covered tracks over staggering cliff sides, and it’s located above a small, remote village. This weekend I visited the Changyu Cheng (长裕城)section in Changping.

The drive to the wall took about two-and-a-half hours due to traffic, and wound through gorgeous green mountains. The hike started from a small village and rose to 1400 meters above sea level, about a 700 vertical-meter hike. The tower we hiked to is the highest Great Wall tower in Beijing.

From the top we could see the wall extending out for miles around us:

In addition, this area has a round tower, which are quite rare:

This section was not only beautiful, but it also has an interesting history. During World War II, this section of the wall was the site of a battle against the Japanese, which China lost with a great number of casualties. Though there aren’t any placards proclaiming this history, the locals still remember it, and the wall still bears the bullet holes from that era.

There is so much to gain from hiking the wild wall sections. They are harder to get to, but most wild wall areas in the outskirts of Beijing are accessible by public bus. Alternatively, go with a tour group, or rent a small mini-bus for the day. Tours usually range from 150 to 200 kuai per person, including a guide, transportation and a meal. We went with our friend Heidi, who takes folks just about every weekend to see the wild wall. Heidi has made hiking her life, and has personal relationships with people at every site she goes to. She always manages to find remote and lovely hikes, and rewards her hikers with mouth-watering country-style meals in traditional village inns. Another hiking group that’s recieved praise is Beijing Hikers, though I haven’t gone with them yet.

Beijing’s “biggest” waterfall

This weekend I went with Jeff’s work to see Beijing’s biggest waterfall in Cool Valley (清凉谷), in the suburbs about two hours from Beijing. It was nice to get out of the city, but the waterfalls were hardly impressive.

We stayed at a resort, of which there seemed to be a few. The resort was nestled in a small town in the mountains, but apparently Jeff wasn’t impressed:

The hotel boasted a (very dirty) pool, billiards, ping pong, shuffle board, a children’s play area with a ball pit, karaoke, barbecues and banquet-style meals. It seemed fairly new and aside from the pool it was quite clean. If you’re planning a trip, here’s a thorough Chinese website with resorts (left) and country homes (right). Prices for resorts are usually a little above 100 kuai, often with meals, scenic area tickets and a driver included. Country homes have fewer amenities, more authenticity and cheaper prices.

The scenic area where the waterfalls are features many of the typical gimmicks of Chinese tourist sites. This was really fun for the Chinese tourists, who haven’t grown up river rafting, hiking and fishing, but for those of us who generally spent summers outdoors it was kind of lame.

A man-made, stocked fish pond, which we got to help stock:

Several rickety rafts floating by Styrofoam bottoms (note: life vests were not actually buoyant):

Ropes course-style challenges over the small fish pond:

The waterfalls and hiking were decent, but not amazing — although the trail was state-of-the-art.

The climate is dry and warm here, somewhat like the Sierra Nevada mountains, so the waterfalls were mostly pretty small. The summer is much wetter, so folks said it’s better to visit in summer when the waterfalls are apparently more impressive.

But a hike is a hike, and it’s always nice to get away from the city, breathe some fresh air and admire the mountains.

The deserted city

In the run up to the Olympics, the Beijing government did a whole lot of “restoration” of historic tourist sites. In the case of Qianmen (前门), this meant razing a large swath of historic hutong, building a large, historic-looking shopping street, and raking in large sums of tourist money.

Except that the money never rolled in.

Saturday I visited Qianmen for the first time since I was in the area visiting a museum. Of over 100 large, beautifully built shops and restaurant spaces, eight were open. Of course, there were still crowds of tourists, because if the government deems something a tourist spot, the tours companies are pretty much obligated to go. The result: hundreds of tourists wandering down a completely desolate street, all wondering “why am I here?”

Although some businesses had signed on to open up in Qianmen, almost all have pulled out and moved to other areas.

So, what was once a vibrant neighborhood with local homes, shops and historically significant buildings, is now a no-businessman’s land of empty buildings. Though these buildings are quite pretty, it doesn’t really justify the incredible waste and reckless prospecting by the government.

The only exception to the lack of notable businesses is the newly opened H&M store. H&M is pretty much my favorite store, but it doesn’t redeem Qianmen.

As I said earlier, the question on everyone’s minds was “why am I here?” A few years ago, the answer would have been that Qianmen is the historic business district of imperial times. Because it was located just south of the gates to the Forbidden City, it was the place where members of the court went to unwind, do some shopping, visit bars and frequent brothels. In later years, it housed some of the oldest stores in Beijing.

These days, the answer to that ever-pressing question: To witness yet another prospecting failure of Beijing. Cheers!

The best museum in Beijing

I’m aware that Beijing is famous for its history, and yes, I know that most people would list one of Beijing’s art museums, 798 or perhaps the Forbidden City as the best museum in Beijing.

But they’re wrong.

Against all expectation and probability, the best museum in Beijing is the Exhibition Center for Urban Planning.

And here’s why:

1. On a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Spring, the centrally located museum had less than a dozen visitors.

The four-story museum was opened in 2004, but it’s gorgeous main entrance, seen above, is not in use. I’d hate to be the official who has to explain the surely astronomical building price to higher-ups for the technologically advanced museum with no visitors. But it’s great for the few people who do go! No crowds!

2. Interactive exhibits with flashy lights and little buildings

This shows a five square-foot, scale map of Beijing and the surrounding mountains. The different lights referred to different, no doubt educational features of Beijing. Mostly, it makes it look like I live in some kind of evil mastermind’s volcano lair!

3. The future

An entire floor of the museum is devoted to models and concept drawings depicting the future of Beijing. It’s actually really cool, and you don’t really need to read the accompanying placards to enjoy it.

The creepiest part of the museum has to be it’s future house:

On the incredibly large bed rests a very corpse-like, life-sized little girl doll. Nuff said on that.

However, no matter how futuristic China gets, the Chinese will always have a penchant for doilies and covering their household appliances.

4. 4-D movies

Ok, so I don’t have a picture of this, but it was like the ride at Disneyland where your seats tilt around and you fly through the city. Except that the employees, not realizing I spoke Chinese, had a nervous and protracted argument in front of us about whether to show the English or the Chinese version. It seems that although the English version was supposed to be shown at four, they had sold tickets to a Chinese group for the 4 pm showing, creating a conflict when two foreigners also bought tickets. I kept quiet and enjoyed the little panic attack they were having. Eventually they hustled us into the theater early, and we were out a little after four to let the Chinese group in for their Chinese showing.

5. Did I mention a scale model of the entire city of Beijing?

There’s my school, with the track.

Here’s where I intern at The Beijing! It’s the relatively short building in the lower center of the photo. In real life it’s 28 stories tall.

Mostly it’s fun for pretending to be Godzilla!

Even the things that are kind of sad about the museum are funny at the same time. Our favorite joke: Holding onto XYZ as hard as Beijing’s holding onto the Olympics.

Yes, that’s a countdown timer to the Olympics start date.

Jingshan Park

One of the up-sides to having a slow-down in freelance work is that I’ve had a bit more time to tourist around, so Thursday I went to Jingshan Park. Also know as Coal Hill Park, it is located directly behind the Forbidden City. On the four separate times that I’ve visited the Forbidden City, I’ve always thought I’d really like to visit the park, which has a striking pagoda on a hill overlooking the palace. But, seeing as the Forbidden City is incredibly large, I’m always too pooped to bother.

However, I finally devoted an afternoon to it, and it’s one of my favorite parks in Beijing. The entrance fee is only 5 kuai, and from the West Gate there are no rickshaw-driving louts or hordes of tour bus-driven, matching hat-wearing tourists — just old people and locals. It’s also relatively small, but it packs quite a punch, and you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed by its size.

As soon as I entered the park, the sounds of traffic and smells of pollution seemed to magically disappear from Beijing, and I was transported to another place entirely. The park was just beginning to bloom, and the whole park smelled sweet.

The peonies that cover much of the park have just started to blossom:

Now I don’t even need to go to Holland!

I feel like this should be a motivational poster — Dare to be different!/Always show your TRUE colors!

After wandering about for a bit, I began the climb to the top of the park, which is quite short and easy, but has great rewards. Beijing was meticulously designed so that the most important buildings were all aligned on its center line. So, from the top of Jingshan Park you can easily see many of the scenic spots of Beijing.

Here is the White Pagoda on the top of Beihai Park, west of the Forbidden City. In the distance, you can see the Lama Temple:

And here, of course, the obligatory Forbidden City shot. It’s so big, it’s impossible to get the whole thing in one picture though. It was actually really fun to admire how big it really is, and feel a renewed sense of wonder (after four visits it does get old).

I ended up leaving the park through it’s front gate, directly across from the Forbidden City, which unlike the gate I entered through, was swarming with annoying tour groups, rickshaw peddlers, acrobats show peddlers and the like. And since I have a white face, I got to talk to all of them.

I really need to invest in a hat that says “I speak fluent Chinese, and I know better than to ride four blocks in a 200 kuai rickshaw,” and a T-shirt that says “Leave me alone, I live in Beijing.” Maybe even a flag that says “I’ve been to the Great Wall, and those Chinese tourists over there in matching hats are way more likely to buy your crap.”

Beijing’s Yuan Da Du Park

Beijing has finally shed its winter coat, and it looks gorgeous. The long, sooty winter had almost entirely erased from my memory how pretty it can be even in the heart of the city. Needless to say, I’m ecstatic about spring.

On Monday, which was Tomb Sweeping Day, a national holiday, Jeff and I went to a FREE park. Yuan Da Du Park (元大都公园) spans a long east-west stretch of Beijing along a lovely little canal parallel to the Line 10 Subway. We started from惠新西街南口station and walked west, passing the Olympic stadiums along the way to 牡丹园station.

The cab shyster

Today Jeff and I decided to go to the park after work, so I met him at his office and we took a cab uptown. It was a lovely, hot day, the first real day of spring, and a national holiday.

As we were riding, I noticed that the driver was taking a slightly inefficient route to get to the park, but it wasn’t an egregious case of fare inflation so I didn’t worry about it. I figured he’d possibly make a few extra kuai, but with the traffic slow on more traveled roads, it’d be more or less even.

At any rate, just as we were entering the on-ramp to the second ring road — it functions like a freeway within the city— he slammed on his breaks. We weren’t going too fast, but it caused the car behind to rear-end us. This is the first car accident I’ve been in in China, so I was mildly excited and a little worried it’d delay us.

He hopped out of his car, exchanged pleasantries with the other driver, who was a young army official driving a rather nice look sedan, 200 kuai exchanged hands and in less than a minute we were driving along as before.

The thing is, the taxi driver had no reason to stop, and our slow speed insured that little damage would be done. I’m pretty sure he did it on purpose. I wonder how often he gets in accidents…

Jiangxi, Day 3

On the last day of our trip, we went to Jingdezhen, the capital of Chinese porcelain. The weather was beautiful, and we mostly went to museums.

One of the coolest things we saw was a porcelain workshop where they make porcelain the old-fashioned way. Unlike most “workshops” and “factory tours,” this was not just an elaborate ploy to sell stuff, it was actually really neat!

This man was throwing bowls, and he taught some of the people on our tour how to do it. The wheel is hand-powered.

This man was trimming the bowls. There were more steps before and between these two, but I didn’t take pictures of everything. First they throw the bowl, then let it dry. After it dries it’s put on a stone mold and beaten to unify the shape. Then it’s trimmed, glazed and fired.

The designs are incredibly intricate and all hand-painted here. This man said it takes him about two weeks to finish each piece, and he copies famous vase designs.

This pot is also hand carved. It was about the size of a 20 or 30 gallon pot, and the man working on it said it would take about a month to complete the designs. After that, it would be painted as well.

Some of the items were really, really ugly. I think my dad would like these though.

The workshop was surrounded by beautiful gardens and outdoor kilns that we could walk into.

We also saw some other porcelain museums, but were a little rushed because we wanted to eat lunch. However, I thought this guy was worth capturing and sharing:

What do you think he’s thinking about? Feel free to leave a comment. Every time I look at his face I laugh.

After lunch we went to a porcelain market with nice enough pieces for really good prices. I don’t really want any porcelain, so I didn’t buy anything, but if you’re into porcelain at all or want a new teaset, go to Jingdezhen, it certainly earns its title as the capital of porcelain.

Jiangxi, Day 2

After spending a night in the village, we hopped on the bus early the second day and headed three hours out to Sanqing Mountain.

Sanqing Mountain is one of the important Taoist mountains in China, although today it’s more of a non-religious tourist spot and nature preserve.

In the interest of time, we rode a tram up part of the mountain. Sadly, it was really foggy, so we couldn’t see the view. It was foggy enough that you really couldn’t see much more than 50-100 feet away. After our tram ride, we continued hiking up to the summit, where we ate lunch.

The hiking trail was actually a concrete walkway attached to the side of the mountain, which was prety mind-boggling because there are no roads and the mountain is incredibly steep and densely wooded. I can’t figure out for the life of me how they got gigantic concrete slabs up there to build it. Even today, all the food and supplies at the top of the mountain are brought in on the backs of poor laborers.

We hiked all the way to the bottom of the mountain, which was gorgeous. My legs and feet were pretty displeased though, since the entire hike was pretty much steep, old, uneven stone stairs, not hiking trails. Thousands of stairs make feet and muscles very unhappy — I’ve been walking like a robot all week!

The mountain was really beautiful, with lots of trees, bamboo, flowers, moss and small waterfalls all around the trail. There were very few tourists on the mountain as well, creating a rare and peaceful atmosphere.

This is part of a small guesthouse on the mountain, where some of the people who work there live.

After we had hiked down to the bottom it was already past 6 p.m., so we all got on the bus for another long ride, off to our next destination and a good meal and clean sheets.