When anyone visits Beijing the first thing they rush to see is the The Forbidden City and of course the Great Wall. But something unusual happened to me which gave me some inspiration to to start with the Sacred Path(Shen Dao); A Mausoleum for the 13 Ming Emperors. I was in the process of moving and I came across an old National Geographic magazine article which my brother has lying around. On the cover was an article on "Great Khans". The spectacular article (not unusual for National Geographic) gave a good introduction into the line of Khans from Genghis, Kublai and Ogedei. The Mongol empire was never my fascination but when I opened up the article and I saw the lone sentinel "Guardian Tortoise" in their capital of Khara koum, something rushed over me. I can't explain what feeling it was and words cannot describe it. But as I saw the only remnant of that vast Empire; a stone tortoise, I was amazed but also a little frightened. I must admit I have never seen it myself but the stone tortoise reminded me what I saw earlier this year when visiting the Sacred Path; a 7 kilometer long path. A path that was believed to lead these Emperors souls to heaven.
To say the Sacred Path is beautiful, tranquil, sublime is an understatement. A word that comes to mind is "understanding". It must not have been easy for those Emperors to plan for their deaths and to plan how things would be designed after their deaths with such meticulous precision and carefulness. While not as famous as Tianamen Square or the Great Wall, Shen Dao or the Sacred Path has a quiet power beyond the others because it takes true power and self control to plan for one's own death and after it.
The guardian animals that lined the pathway were a true wonder. More than their artistic beauty was the the belief system behind it that leaves one in awe. The belief that these guardians would guide the deceased to the upper levels of heaven, stand guard and even switch places at midnight!
So what does the great tortoise guardian of the Mongol Empire have to do with the Ming Mausoleums of the Sacred path? There is no strong connection except that after walking down the path you are lead to a big Pavillion called the Shengde Stele Pavilion. Inside is a 100,000 pound stone tortoise with a mammoth size tablet with text reaching to the heavens. Both tortoises have a slab on them with inscriptions. One is beautifully housed in a stone Pavillion while the other lies naked outside in the outdoors. Both according to East Asian tradition symbolize eternity. The reverence for the tortoise as one the celestial divine animals is clearly seen here and elsewhere. I personally felt the tortoise at Karokorum and how it appeared to me by accident had a little more of an effect for me since it stood there as if Fate allowed it to stand there reminding all that all Empires and dynasties are wiped off the planet no matter how much skill your army has.
Everybody will have a different experience when visiting Shen Dao but like all fabulous mausoleums it reminds us about the shortness of time given to us. There are numerous sites that explain The Sacred Path or the 13 Ming Tombs in depth. I just mention the effect they had for me.