The Great Wall and Ming Tombs

On my first full day in Beijing, my guide picked me up at my hotel (point A on map below) at 7:30 a.m. for our drive to Mutianyu (point B), about 45 miles due north of Beijing. While there are parts of the Great Wall that are closer to Beijing, e.g., at Juyongguan (point C) and Badaling (point D), I was advised to go to Mutianyu because it would be less crowded since it is further away and there is no expressway to it. After visiting the Great Wall, my guide and I went to see the Ming Tombs (point E) and then the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest venues from the 2008 Summer Olympics (point F).

The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China was a series of fortification that ran east to west along the northern portion of China to protect China from nomadic groups and military attacks from its neighbors, e.g., present-day Mongolia. The oldest portions of the wall date back to the 7th century BCE, although almost all of the ancient wall has eroded over time.

The current wall was originally built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Guinness Book calculates that the Great Wall is over 2,100 miles long with an additional 2,200 miles of branches and spurs. Some archaeological surveys, however, conclude that the wall and its branches were over 13,000 miles in length with between 25,000 and 40,000 watchtowers. No matter which measurement is correct, the Great Wall is truly impressive since 2,100 miles is longer than the distance from the southern tip of Texas to the Canadian border.

Not surprising given the length of the wall, its age, and the lack of maintenance for the past several centuries, much of the Ming-built wall is in disrepair. Wind, rain, and sandstorms over the centuries have ravaged the wall, particularly the portions that were made of simple tamped earth or mud bricks. Among the sections made of stone, many of the largest stones were taken to build homes and roads, and other parts of the wall have been demolished to make way for construction.

We reached Mutianyu about 9 a.m. This section of the wall was originally built in the 6th century and it was rebuilt by the Ming Dynasty beginning in 1568. The granite wall is 23 to 28 feet tall and 13 to 16 feet wide at the top. The walls, or parapets, along the top passage have battlements on both sides so that soldiers could fire on the enemy on either side of the wall. Twenty-two watchtowers stand along this 1.5 miles stretch of the wall, or roughly one every 100 yards. Along this stretch of the wall is the Zheng Guan Tai gate, a pass that allows people to move from inside to outside the wall (and vice-versa); this gate is easily identified by the large watchtower flanked by two smaller ones.

The Great Wall is typically built on the ridge of the mountains and that is the case at Mutianyu. While I am told that one can walk up the hillside to the wall in about 45 to 60 minutes or so, this didn’t seem to make much sense to me. I instead chose to ride a chairlift from the foothills to the top of the wall, and I am glad that I did because I climbed up and down hundreds of stairs on the wall itself as I went from one watchtower to the next. I walked from watchtower 6 (the terminus of the chairlift) to watchtower 1 (the end of the restored section of the wall) and then back, less than a mile round-trip and I was exhausted. At the end of my two-hour hike, I rode a toboggan-like sled down a mile-long, curving metal track to get back to the parking lot.

Chair lift to the Great Wall

Portion of toboggan run back to the parking lot

I marveled at both the wall itself and the beauty of the surrounding countryside. The surrounding area is nearly 100% forested and when you look at the wall it seems to just go on and on forever. What is truly impressive is the effort that went into building this structure nearly 600 years ago. Without power equipment, everything had to be moved and placed manually, with the aid of animals and with rudimentary tools.

The tree interlinked watchtowers at the Zheng Guan Tai pass

Exit to the countryside at Zheng Guan Tai pass

The last set of stairs to Watchtower #1

The view from a window in Watchtower #1

The Zheng Guan Tai gate from above

The ride back to the parking lot!

Ming Tombs

The third Ming Emperor, Zhū Di or the Yongle Emperor, began constructing the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1406 in order to move the capital back north from Nanjing. His wife, Empress Xu, died the following year so he asked his fortune tellers to find an auspicious spot to build the imperial burial grounds. After a long search they found the site with the right Feng Shui, a 15 square mile plot of land 25 miles north-northwest of Beijing that is surrounded by an arc of mountains on the West, North, and East. The Feng Shui is apparently very good since the mountains keep out the bad spirits that come from the north, the land’s Southern exposure is open to Beijing, and there are several streams that run through the property.

Thirteen of the sixteen Ming Emperors are buried in this area. The three that are not buried here are Zhū Yuánzhāng, Zhū Yǔnwén, and Zhū Qíyù. Zhū Yuánzhāng was the first emperor of the dynasty and he established his capital in Nanjing, in southern China, and is buried there. Zhū Yǔnwén, the second emperor, was deposed by Zhū Dì and he too is buried in southern China. Zhū Qíyù, the seventh emperor, ascended the throne after his brother, Zhū Qízhèn, was captured by the Mongols. Upon Zhū Qízhèn’s release, he was placed under house arrest for seven years by Zhū Qíyù. Zhū Qízhèn ultimately overthrew his brother and upon Zhū Qíyù’s death, Zhū Qízhènhe refused to allow him to be buried in the Ming Tombs; he was instead interred as a prince, not an emperor, in the hills west of Beijing.

Only three tombs are open to the public — Chang Ling Tomb of Emperor Zhū Di (the third Ming Emperor), the Zhao Ling Tomb of Emperor Zhū Zǎihòu (the twelfth Ming Emperor), and the Ding Ling Tomb of Zhū Yìjūn (the thirteenth Ming Emperor). Ding Ling is the only tomb from the Ming Dynasty to have been excavated, and many of the artifacts from this tomb are now on display in Chang Ling.

I visited Chang Ling, the largest and most well-preserved of the Ming tombs. Chang Ling was built in 1409 and it is situated on 30 acres of land. Like the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, it is square in the front and round in the back, symbolic of the ancient Chinese belief that earth was a square and heaven a circle. Zhū Di is buried with his wife, Empress Xu, in Chang Ling; his 16 concubines were required to commit suicide on his death and they are all buried nearby.

It took five years to build this grand mausoleum. While the layouts of the 13 mausoleum are different, I am told that they follow a common arrangement. First is the Front Gate to the tomb, followed by the Gate of Eminent Favor, the Hall of Eminent Favor, the Heavenly Gate (also known as the Gate of Dragon and Phoenix), the Soul Tower, and finally the a large earth mound that covers the tomb. The tomb area is encircled by a large wall.

Chang Ling, source:

Front Gate to Chang Ling

Gate of Eminent Favor

Chang Ling’s Hall of Eminent Favor sits on a triple-tier base of white marble with intricately carved marble on the ramp that leads to the central main door and on the balustrades. The building is constructed of nanmu, a wood that does not react to changes in temperature or humidity and thus is excellent for building. The inside of the hall is supported by 32 pillars, each from a single tree, that stand 41 feet tall; the pillars are about 3 feet in diameter or about 7 feet in circumference, so large that one person cannot completely encircle one with his arms.

Hall of Eminent Favor

Ramp to Hall of Eminent Favor

Carved Marble Balustrade

Golden Crown Excavated from Ding Ling

Nanmu Pillar in Hall of Eminent Favor

Statue of Zhū Di, Yongle Emperor

Silk Burner

Heavenly Gate or Gate of Dragon and Phoenix

Chang Ling’s Soul Tower

Sacred Stele in Top of Soul Tower

I guess that it must be Thanksgiving because there is still a turkey in the White House.

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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5 Responses to The Great Wall and Ming Tombs

  1. Steve says:

    Hi Kurt,

    Another fascinating trip captured in some terrific pics!

    BO is visiting Bangkok today! Please give him my regards, congratulate him on the decisive victory, and thank him for bringing our boys back from Iraq.



  2. Joe Z. says:

    Thank you for sharing this great experience.
    I have been to the Great Wall many times and your pictures reminded me of those beautiful places. Did you enjoy the sled ride? Wish they could put more of those in Beijing and solve their traffice problem.
    You look good in the picture. I guess all these exotic trips have kept you energetic.
    Take Care,


  3. Rita Markle says:

    This looks like a fascinating trip. My friends just booked the same trip for next year, so I will share pictures with them. Have a great Thanksgiving, Rita

  4. kt says:

    Hey, no fair just throwing in something without an explanation!! What’s a silk burner?

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