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Our days here are winding down.  Yesterday we went outside of Beijing a little ways to see the Ming Tombs. The guide book I have really kind of panned it, saying all the other outlying tombs in the area are better (Qing dynasty and some other one) and that most Western tourists find it boring and many tour companies don't put it on their itineraries.  Well, I could have gone to the better-rated ones which are twice as far away from the city as the Ming ones, but I was just curious about this place that was so scorned by tourist and guide book.  It, admittedly, isn't the most spectacular or heart-thumping attraction, but we found it to be interesting and worthwhile, and indeed, there were not too many people there, so just the peacefulness was pleasant. Also, if you have a thing for visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Ming Tombs is among them.

If for no other reason, it's worthy solely on the merit of including the tomb of a titan of Chinese history and culture -- perhaps second only to Emperor Qin, founder of the Chinese empire -- Emperor Zhu Di, who came to be known as the Yongle Emperor, third ruler of the renowned Ming Dynasty. Zhu Di should be revered by tourists for having built the icons of imperial Beijing -- the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, and numerous smaller temples. For that matter, he is the one who moved the capital of China to Beijing in the first place. He expanded China's boundaries in numerous well-executed military campaigns. He sent major naval expeditions across the oceans and established not only trade but a perception of global dominance, almost an awe and respect, across Asia and into east Africa ... this was really an interesting undertaking and feat, I read a book about these adventures, led by Admiral Zheng He, titled When China Ruled the Seas. The Yongle Emperor was also a great patron of arts and literature, and compiled what amounted to an astounding encyclopedia of knowledge in all scientific and philosophical fields. 

Below is the mausoleum of Zhu Yijun who became known as the Wanli Emperor, and was the longest reigning ruler of the Ming dynasty, holding his throne for an impressive 48 years. Check out how the trees are growing out of the walls. It's called the Dingling Tomb.

The Dingling tomb, the mausoleum of Emperor Wanli (Zhu Yijun), at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.The Dingling tomb, the mausoleum of Emperor Wanli (Zhu Yijun), at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.Entrance to the Dingling tomb, the mausoleum of Emperor Wanli (Zhu Yijun), at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.

There are three separate locations open to public viewing within a couple miles of each other -- there are 13 Ming dynasty tombs in total. The Changling Tomb is the name of Zhu Di's mausoleum and leading up to it is a beautiful path, the Sacred Way, flanked by stone statues of civil officers and military officers, and a bunch of animals both real and mythical, kneeling and standing, and the path is lined all along with large weeping willow trees. You'll find it referred to as a "Sacred Way," as well as a "Spirit Way." I like the latter name. These spirit ways are, as is implied, the path for the deceased's spirit to follow back to heaven. Even in the little village of Dang Jia Shan, when someone dies, their family makes a spirit path with little flags put temporarily into the ground leading from the person's house to their grave. This imperial spirit way to the Ming tombs is purportedly the best preserved sacred way.   

The Sacred Way, or Spirit Way, leading to the Changling Tomb. The Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.Stone statues of military officers line the Sacred Way, or Spirit Way, at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.Stone statue of military officer along the Sacred Way, or Spirit Way, at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.Stone statue of civil officer along the Sacred Way, or Spirit Way, at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.Shara nestled in an elephant's trunk on the Spirit Way, or Sacred Way, at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.Stone statue of lion along the Sacred Way, or Spirit Way, at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.Stone statue of the mythical beast known as a qilin along the Sacred Way, or Spirit Way, at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.Stone statues of camels along the Sacred Way, or Spirit Way, at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.

A number of the items found in the tombs that have been excavated are on display in on-site museums. Some of the head gear the emperor and empress wore are quite over the top ... not with jewels like in a Western kingdom's jeweled crown, but just the design, though impressive with its intricate gold working. For example, this one below for the empress just makes me chuckle to imagine someone wearing it. I guess I don't know why I find it amusing to my sensibilities ... I think something about it looking like little Mickey Mouse ears in the back. 

Imperial gold crown on display at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.In a courtyard at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, China.

Perhaps the most interesting items on display, though, were photographs blown-up and framed of some of the excavation process and what the tombs and the skeletons of the occupants looked like in situ.  The marble doors to one of the tombs are giant ... what a thrill it must have been to have finally cleared away the earth (deep down underground) to be able to push open these mammoth doors into a great mystery. I told Erik that if I'm good in this life, maybe I can come back as an archaeologist in the past and be the one to make all these cool "first" discoveries.  I wouldn't be just any archaeologist, mind you, but somehow I'm the one who's there for all the good stuff all over the world, you know, in Egypt, China, Central America, etc.  Actually, it ultimately comes down to my interest in archaeology way back when I was about 16 years old that eventually brought me on the cultural expedition to Dang Jia Shan 20 years later, and subsequently sightseeing around China to places such as the Ming Tombs. But that's a story for another time. 

Coming back to Beijing, we putzed around the Back Lakes area in the afternoon and evening.  Had an absurdly overpriced beer at a rooftop bar.  Admittedly, the view was nice,  looking down on the most crowded part of the area where the two lakes meet at a bridge.  The people-watching was at its finest here.  It was funny to us that even on a leisure lake, there was a huge traffic jam under the bridge of rented “personal-sized” boats trying to get through. There was a particularly picturesque old man with the iconic Confucian beard who was begging.  He was walking around slowly, but walking just fine at any rate.  Then we saw him again at night on a different stretch of sidewalk that is particularly "happening" at night.  We was lying down on a blanket acting like he was a cripple who couldn't walk.  He's got this begging business really sussed out.  I chuckle to think about a daily work schedule ... 10 am: get up, go to X street and hold out yellow cup; 12 pm: go to bridge and meet friend with the banjo on his back and hold out red cup;  3 pm: nap;  6 pm: cripple act on sidewalk, red blanket and pink cup, one crutch on ground;  10 pm: go to next lake, complete invalid act, work up drool for corners of mouth, yellow blanket, green cup. Oh anyway. I shouldn't be snide; my life is hardly more productive at times.

Crowded bridge at the Back Lakes in Beijing, China.

We eventually rented one of the little boats ourselves.  An electric motor-driven boat.  Takes about an hour to skirt around both lakes.  Was really nice and relaxing, despite the occasional traffic jam. It's interesting to see the sidewalks that line the lakes, full of cafes, restaurants and public tables where people play cards and mahjong, and just gather to chat, it seems. But lots and lots of game playing. Funny note about the first pic below ... when Chinese people first meet Westerners, they have typically been struck and highly amused by our "hairy arms" and "large noses." In the village, women often stroked my arms ... I am a particularly hairy little beast, taking after my dad, so they were really fascinated with my arms. I inadvertently caught Erik's nose on the left side of the picture ... it makes me laugh, and I didn't crop it out because it just seems so appropriate in China to have his large Western nose, so large it butts into my picture. haha.   

Erik's nose, plus restaurant tables lining the sidewalk and small boats on the Back Lakes in Beijing, China.Locals playing games at tables on the sidewalk along the Back Lakes, Beijing, China.

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