March 13, 2011

Journey to the Eastern Tombs

A group of friends and friends of friends assembled at the Sihui subway station in Beijing on a Sunday morning. They were eager to begin an arduous journey to the Eastern Qing Tombs. The final resting place of members of China's last imperial dynasty was located near the town of Zunhua. The bus heading there was supposed to leave from a depot across the street from the Sihui station. As is often the case in fast growing China, the bus station was now the former site of the bus station, as heavy construction work was already underway on something new. We walked in the eastern direction until stumbling upon a station which had a bus leaving for Zunhua from it. Our fellow passengers were auditioning for the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra, regaling us with sounds of singing, eating, burping, loud speaking and nail cutting throughout our bus ride.

We were dropped off at a fork in the road, the bus continuing towards Zunhua while we rented a van that took us to the tombs. Spread apart over several kilometers, vehicular transport from one tomb to another proved handy. The van had one less seat than the number of passengers, so the men alternated sitting on the floor. At one point, the driver found some cardboard boxes on the street, flattened them, and provided that as a cleaner option to sit on rather than directly on the floor.

The sky was blue and the sacred burial grounds were devoid of tourists, making it a perfect day to explore the tombs of emperors, empresses, princesses, and concubines of times past. As we walked along the main courtyard leading to the entrance, a sudden gust of wind churned the dust on the grounds into a miniature hurricane that whirled past us. "That's actually Bruce Lee!" punned one of my fellow travelers.

Xiaoling, the tomb of the first emperor of the Zing dynasty, and Dingdongling, the tomb of notiorous empress dowager Cixi, were the most fascinating complexes. The exteriors were much more colourful and ornate than the interiors of the tombs. A diorama explained how an adult Cixi had drunk breast milk from her attendants to maintain her youthful skin complexion. The coffins could be reached by climbing the stairs to the main entrance of a tomb, and then descending down a pathway until we were underground. One particularly productive emperor had 35 hut style tombs belonging to his concubines adorning the grounds around his magnificent resting place.


“Our deeds still travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are.”
- George Eliot -