I kept pushing further west and further north, more and more out of town. It helped that the Beijing city council had been actively extending its metro system (apart from the local high-speed rail network). Last year, the metro system had covered some 500 kilometres, with about 6 billion passenger rides per year. The aim was double its reach by 2020 to 1000 kilometres. Again, only a stable, communist local government can achieve such tasks.
One line went quite a way out of town, almost to the Great Wall. A stop on this line had intrigued me: Ming Tombs (ming shishan ling). I had to go, even if it took almost an hour to get there.
I emerged from the newly minted station into – a Manzu village! No tombs to be seen anywhere. What to do? I shrugged off the willing locals offering me a ride for 20 RMB (cheap by any standards) and set off to walk the distance. After getting lost in the village, I gave in and forked out the aforesaid amount for a 5-minute drive to The Sacred Way.
The Sacred Way? It was a five kilometre hike along ‘the way’ to get to the first of the tombs, all of which are set into the mountain side in a studied effort at Feng Shui (wind-water).
But let us pause for a moment and ask what the Ming Tombs are. The dynasty itself lasted from 1368 to 1644 – almost 300 years. Construction at the foot of Tianshou mountain began in 1409, when the Ming dynasty moved from Nanjing to Beijing. Over the next 230 years more were constructed over an impressive era. In all, 13 emperors are buried there, although only 3 of the tombs are open to visitors (the rest remain to be excavated).
A little unlike most of my previous walks, I actually paid for a ticket and went inside this park – or at least, the Sacred Way part. Not as popular as the Place Museum (‘Forbidden City’) or the Great Wall, it did have its fair share of foreign visitors and their expected tour guides. But the day was overcast and cool, so fewer than usual were actually there. The Sacred Way itself is simply a straight line, running from one massive portal – or gate – to another. Along its way are gardens and statues, of exotic and mythical animals, and also of various figures from Ming times. While the massive guards were fearsome looking, evoking the mythical warriors of Chinese folklore, the scholars and courtiers were more intriguing.
I was quite taken with one, who not only sported the moss of hundreds of years in the open, but also the intriguing hu. This was a ceremonial tablet, made of bamboo and held by the scholar (or indeed other officials) before the breast when seeing the emperor in person. Even though this one held the hu as required, he seemed to lost in thought and gazing into an infinite distance – as one should even when seeing an ancient Chinese emperor.
The Sacred Way might be what it is, but I enjoyed more the few kilometres back to the metro station in the village. I passed farm gates and fields on the way, dodged the occasional delivery motor scooter (even out here) discovered – at the village gate – that it was indeed a Manzu village. Inside, I was able to lose myself among the alleys and markets and solid homes, until one of the alleys took me out to the field where the metro station could once more be found. By now, 16 kilometres of walking felt like a normal pastime.