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A day in the country

A visit to the Ming Tombs offers a break from city life and a perspective on China's past

Kennedy By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive
Soul Tower
Come this Way: Kiosks line one side of the walk up to the Soul Tower  

BEIJING (CNN) -- The Chinese capital is beginning to prepare in earnest this week for the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic. Even the austere form of the People's Military Museum has been outlined with lights.

Traffic, not good in recent years, apparently is getting worse. I am told police are setting up new road restrictions to control the crowds expected for the October 1 festivities in an already crowded city.

The weather, overcast and rainy the past several days, has become positively crystalline. It seemed the right time to get out of town and explore the famous Ming Tombs, if only for a couple of hours.

nature walk
Nature Walk: The beauty of the mountains combines with history at the Ming Tombs  

My taxi clawed its way north, passed police at several minor accident scenes and miraculously avoided a fender-bender ourselves. Less than 30 minutes after we departed from downtown, the city's apartment blocks and Domino's Pizza shops began to give way to distant power plants, small farms and lumber yards. We even passed the occasional horse-drawn cart risking disaster beside the highway.

Looming ahead were the Jundu Mountains. They are like a child's drawing of what a mountain range should look like -- sharp peaks sloping into steep ravines softened by deep green cover.

September 20, 1999

  • China's new spirituality
  • Returning to a Beijing transformed
  • September 21, 1999

  • A visit to the Ming Tombs
  • September 22, 1999

  • Tiananmen Square preps up for the big day
  • September 23, 1999

  • Is China's health care system heading for a crisis?
  • September 24, 1999

  • A virtual tour of China's Aviation Museum
  • A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China
  • September 27, 1999

  • Surfing in Beijing
  • September 28, 1999

  • Railway journeys: On the Red-Eye to Shanghai
  • September 29, 1999

  • Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
  • September 30, 1999

  • A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple
  • October 1, 1999

  • Watching China's celebrations...from the sidelines
  • October 4, 1999

  • Window-Shopping on Nanjing Donglu
  • October 5, 1999

  • Royal Real Estate
  • The Ming Tombs sit on a plain at the foot of Tianshou Mountain. Thirteen of the Ming Dynasty's 16 emperors were buried here -- along with their empresses, princes and favorite concubines -- and prepared for the afterlife with an amazing display of wealth.

    Once forbidden territory

    We passed cornfields as we approached the entrance to the tombs, the shucked corn drying in the sun beside the road. There also were peach and apple orchards.

    A moment, please, about the peaches. Perhaps I was intoxicated by the sunlight, but they were beautiful -- each as big as a prize fighter's fist and tastefully stacked for display by the locals, who called out, "Hello!" as we entered what was once forbidden territory.

    The grounds, which cover 16 square miles (40 square kilometers), are linked by what is called the Sacred Way. Construction on the first mausoleum began in the early 1400s, during the reign of the Yongle emperor.

    The Ming Tombs

    It was during this time that the emperor sent Chinese fleets under the command of Cheng Ho on missions to display China's naval prowess. Some of Cheng Ho's ships made it as far as the east coast of Africa. But the death of the Yongle emperor in 1424 brought an end to China's age of ocean exploration.

    A window to China's past

    Many Han Chinese have a soft spot in their hearts for the Ming. It was the last of the "true," or native Chinese, dynasties, the one that ousted the Mongol intruders, then established a far-reaching and influential empire famous for its art and political structure.

    japanese tourists
    This Way Please: Japanese tourists enter the Changling complex of the Ming Tombs  

    That affection is obvious at the Ming Tombs, where the atmosphere is part archaeological dig, part Sunday afternoon walk. Ice cream, soft drinks and souvenirs, both elegant and tacky, are available nearly everywhere. Tourists from a babel of countries come and go. People are animated, interested, here to savor this fascinating window to China's past.

    We venture three stories underground into the massive burial chamber of Emperor Shenzong and his two empresses. The chamber was first excavated in the late 1950s and yielded thousands of imperial relics. Some of these embroidered silk robes, elaborate crowns and belts of perfect jade are on display in several exhibition halls above ground.

    please touch
    Please Touch: Placing your hand on this mythical beast is supposed to bring good luck and longevity  

    On a rise above the burial chamber, which we reach after a walk through forests of cypress and pine, is the Soul Tower (Minglou), a testament to the departed emperor. A huge monument stands inside the tower, open on all four sides.

    A lesson for the present?

    The Ming collapsed in 1644, overtaken by Manchu forces from the north that established the Qing, China's last dynasty. The Qing died out in 1911, replaced by an attempt at a Republic. That attempt soon degenerated into chaos and war, ending with the emergence of the People's Republic 50 years ago.

    Commercial District: Shops like these can be found all over the Ming Tombs complex  

    Will people centuries from now venture to the historic sites of revolutionary China? Most likely. And some Chinese are concerned about how their legacy is being managed.

    A Beijing weekly cites a report from the Beijing Daily that decries the total commercialization of places such as Yan'an, where Mao Tse-tung established himself as leader following the fabled Long March in the mid-1930s.

    According to the report, televisions running taped advertisements have been placed on either side of the podium where Mao convened the 7th Party Congress. Party faithful are also complaining about a commercial billboard, nearly two stories tall, blocking the view to some sites.

    Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.

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