Several months ago I was browsing through a list of China’s 41 World Heritage Sites that includes famous travel spots such as the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. I was surprised to see that most of the sites where travel spots I’d never been to and many that I had never even heard of. You can see that list here
I decided then and there to see as many of those sites ASAP starting with a site in the nearby city of Jian called “Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom”.
God must smile on fools, drunks and travellers because around 3 weeks ago a good friend of mine invited me go back to her home town with her husband and her to attend their wedding. Where was her home town??? The city of Jian. Honestly, I would have accepted her invitation no matter where her home town was!
A little background info on the “Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom”.
From 37 BCE to 668 CE there was a Kingdom called Koguryo with territory that covered modern day central and southern Manchuria and central and northern Korea. The founders of Koguryo are believed to have been refugees from Korea and people from local tribes and ethnic groups.
Through interaction with the Chinese Han and later Wei Dynasties, alliances and warfare, the Koguryo Kingdom reached its peak around 450 CE and ruled three quarters of the Korean Peninsula and China’s Manchuria. Internal conflict and hostilities with the Sui and Tang Dynasties weakened the Kingdom and it was finally destroyed by an alliance of the Tang Dynasty and the Silla, a Korean Kingdom to the south of Koguryo.
The legacy of the Koguryo Kingdom includes 40 tombs and the ruins of two capital cities at Jian.
The wedding was a smashing success. The bride was beautiful, the groom handsome, their union romantic, the speeches moving and profound, the food delicious and the alcohol plentiful. None of the wedding guests drank too much bai jiu (extremely potent Chinese white wine) and urinated in public, vomited outside the restaurant or made inappropriate gestures to other guests of the opposite sex.
The only drewback with the wedding is there were no kisses, hugs or emotional displays of affection between the married couple. A typical traditional Chinese wedding that was very business like and practical.
Visiting the Tombs and Ruins
With the wedding out of the way, I was free the following day to see the tombs and ruins. From talking to some other guests at the wedding that lived in Jian, I found out t hat there were only two sites worth seeing. They were the ruins of an ancient city to the north west of Jian and a General’s Tomb to the north east.
Every one I spoke to was surprised I was so keen to travel to these sites and told me the sites were nothing special. Fair enough. Different people like different things and not every one has the travel bug.
Had a ticket home on a bus leaving Jian 3:00pm that afternoon which left 4-5 hours to see the two sites. Just enough time if I go directly from the second site to the bus station. Armed with the names of the sites written in Chinese on a piece of paper and a rough estimate of a fair taxi fare I set out for site number one, the General’s Tomb or Jiangjunfen Tomb.
After 3 attempts I found a taxi driver who was happy with a 10rmb taxi fare and set out to see the first part of Jian’s World Heritage Site. The Tomb did not take long to reach and once there, the taxi driver asked if I wanted him to wait for me. Thanks but no thanks, this site would take an hour or two to see. Paid 30rmb for a ticket at the site entrance and set off down a clearly marked and well trodden path.
The first time I’ve seen a Chinese tomb with that structure and was surprised by the size. The sloping stone terraces of the tomb reminded me of the smaller Aztec Pyramids. Easy to see that the tomb architecture was not influenced by Han who are China’s dominant ethnic group.
The tomb is believed to be the burial tomb of King Gwanggaeto or his son King Jangsu. The tomb is made of 1,100 stone blocks and the tomb is 75 meters wide on each side and 11 meters high.
There was no access to the inside of the tomb so after several laps, it was time to move on. The next stop down the path was the No.1 subordinate tomb. This was a tomb for a member of the Koguro royal family. No where near the size of the General’s Tomb but fascinating. You can see from the picture below that the tomb has a very basic structure with a chamber surrounded by 3 huge stones, covered by a huge stone and blocked by another huge stone that has since been moved.
That was it. Nothing else to see or do at that site apart from browsing the obligatory gift shop near the site entrance. Next stop was the ruins of the ancient city.
Caught a bus back into Jian city then negotiated another 10rmb taxi trip to the site of the ruined city. At the ticket office and site entrance, there are two path ways to take. One pathway winds up into the hills and leads to the southern city gate. The other path heads into a field full of mounds (ancient tombs) that are clearly visible from the road. The mounds were not too impressive so I took the path to the ruined city.
The path went past a ruined western city wall and finished at a viewing platform overlooking a small structure called the watch tower. No ruined city so I backtracked down the path to see if I missed a turn. Nope. No turns or side paths. Just the one track from the ticket office to the viewing platform. . Bumped into a group of Korean tourists with a tour guide and followed them to see if they knew the way to the ruined city. Nope. They just went up to the viewing platform like I did.
The ruined city had to be there somewhere so I went back to the ticket office and spoke to one of the guides there asking where the ruined city was. She took me inside office to a room with maps and background information on the site(all in Chinese) and explained that there was no actual ruined city to see. All the surrounding land was heavily cultivated and all the ruins above ground on the surface had been gradually been taken way and used by local residents and farmers over the last 1300 years.
Piles of Rock
The only part of the site to see was the field of 40 tombs. The country was beautiful with the field of tombs surrounded by lush green hills. Very picturesque. I wish I could say the same about the tombs. The tombs were either grassy mounds or piles of rock. Very plain, ordinary and uninspiring and definitely not what you’d expect for a world heritage site.
I read a review online before going to Jian where a foreign tourist to the site called the tombs a pile of rock. At that time I just thought he was being excessively harsh and lacking in appreciation. After seeing the tombs I have to say I agree with him. There was only three things to see site. A ruined wall, a partially restored watch tower and a field of tombs that were either piles of rock or over grown mounds.
The two sites, the General’s Tomb and the ruined city and tombs took less than 2 hours to see and thoroughly explore. With nothing left to do I headed to the bus station where I had three hours to ponder what makes a site eligible for inclusion on the list of world heritage sites. The weather was outstanding I really enjoyed getting out and visiting the sites but I expected a little more from a world heritage site.
Some world heritage sites like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City are worth flying half way around the world to see. Other sites like the “Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom” are great to see if youare you are already in the area but I would not recommend travelling long distances to see them.