Yangshan Quarry is an ancient stone quarry on Purple Mountain near Nanjing, famous as the site of the Yongle Emperor's huge, abandoned stele. You might know your boy Yongle Emperor from such hits as the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum in Nanjing. If you're planning a trip to Nanjing, you can also visit the Nanjing's Yangshan Quarry, a shrine to "meh, blah, too hard, let's do something else". Here's what this is all about. Trains from Beijing to Nanjing leave basically every 10 minutes from the Beijing South railway station. Here's the schedule. Tickets are 417rmb and it's about a four hour trip.
The Yongle Emperor was a badass. You know him, right? The Yongle Emperor, given name Zhu Di, the great third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the builder of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the founder of a eunuch secret police and big boss of treasure fleet Admiral Zheng He (a badass in his own right). Ah, yes. The wonders of history. Have your eyes glazed over and rolled into the back of your skull? No? Okay, let's continue.
The story is this: Zhu Di paid his respects to his father, Zhu Yuanzhang, also known as the Hongwu Emperor (Chinese emperors always have a given name and an emperor name, like rappers or pro wresters) by finishing the massive mausoleum complex Zhu Yuanzhang had started to build on Purple Mountain in Nanjing. Because, after all, what's the fun in finishing a massive temple complex for people to worship you as a god while you're still alive? You can still visit the sacred site today, where you'll find scores of tourists meandering through its walkways of stone animals, slowing defacing them for the sake of a photo-op.
At the entrance to the complex, you'll also find an 8-meter tall bixi (赑屃), a giant turtle with a phallic plaque projecting out of the top of it.
These turtle dick statues are all the rage throughout Chinese history, used to commemorate sacred sites. This one's particularly interesting for several reasons. First of all, there's a faded, but still visible inscription of Zhu Yuanzhang's great achievements inscribed on it. Better still is the immense undertaking that this bixi inspired. Zhu Di wasn't satisfied to build a bìxì that was just 8-meters tall. He wanted to build one that was much bigger, almost 10 times bigger. Why is anyone's guess. It could have been due to some overwhelming sense of filial piety, just another of his grandiose projects, or perhaps it was just his way of keeping all those eunuchs in line by proving who the one with cajones really was.
Regardless, to build this much bigger bixi, Zhu Di “recruited” hundreds of people to head to a mountain outside of Nanjing called Yang Mountain (阳山) and carve it up. The exact number of people who worked on the project is a contentious issue. Even when you visit the site of the excavation today the plaque detailing the number of workers has been censored. Suffice it to say carving out a massive chunk of a mountain is arduous work, and the people who did it were little more than slaves. In fact, so many people died while working on the site that a nearby village is called Fentou (坟头) or “Tombstone”, allegedly because of all the workers buried there. Perhaps their relatives have a disagreement with the official figures.
And what really sucks is that they never finished it.
After slaving away for years, Zhu Di's engineers realized it was basically impossible to move these giant stones back to the Purple Mountain in Nanjing. So they were just left there in their unfinished state. To anyone who considers himself a master procrastinator, leaving half-finished projects in your wake, this place is your temple. You'll never do it better than Zhu Di did, and you can still make a pilgrimage there today.
The place is called the Yangshan Beicai (阳山碑材), literally “monument materials at Yang Mountain”. It's in some guidebooks and there's info about it online, but chances are that very few people you speak to in downtown Nanjing have ever heard of the place. When I tried to ask people, I was almost always directed to Purple Mountain to see the dinky bixi everybody sees.
Here's how you get there from Nanjing: You have to take one of the shittiest public buses in all of Nanjing: the Tourist Bus Number 5 (游5), which leaves from the east side of Nanjing Railway Station. It's green. The floors are made of bolted down plywood. The roof has broken escape hatches, which slam down constantly with every bump in the road. The back doors don't always close. And it's apt to be completely packed at the start. But one kuai and a 45-minute ride gets you out to the site. Well, almost. When we went, we found out that the Tourist Number 5 from Nanjing stops at a bus station about a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride away.
It'll cost you 15 kuai to go the rest of the way. (For the return journey, the Tourist Number 5 leaves directly from the site, one bus on the hour, every hour till 5pm.)
The area has been a designated tourist attraction for a long time, but few people make the trip out there. To try to stimulate interest in the place, the local government has recently built a Ming Cultural Village as part of the attraction. It's not much of an attraction, but you have to pay (50rmb) to walk through it to get to the quarry where the rocks are. There are some martial arts shows that are worth checking out.
There's also a haunted boat ride (10rmb), which is quite possibly the shittiest incarnation of “It's a Small World” ever, executed in a drunken fervor when somebody's mannequin factory went bust. When we sat down in our rusty dinghy to hell, the ticket taker said, “If you get stuck, just push yourself through”. Yeah, thanks.
From the village to the site there's a 15-minute walk through the surrounding mountains. It's a pleasant walk, but if it's a hot day, you might break a sweat. The hike to Yang Mountain, where the stones are, takes you over another mountain called Yan Mountain (雁山). You'll be able to see the first two of the pieces of the would-be monument from here, framed by a nearby pavilion.
China's immortal poet, Li Bai had a few words to say about this nearby mountain in his poem《金陵江上遇蓬池隐者》“Running into a Hermit at Pengchi on the Jinling River”:
Green waters flow towards Yan Mountain, yellow clouds cover Dragon Mountain
Oh, Li Bai! It's wonderful how you can take the most simple scenes from nature and make us all feel so stupid and uncultured! For the ignorant, Yan Mountain and Dragon Mountain are the same place. Chinese mountains are like Chinese emperors when it comes to names.
The site is divided into two areas: one area higher up the mountain with two of the stones, and one lower area with the final stone. The higher area is much prettier with a small field and trees surrounding it, making it a nice place for a picnic and taking photos in the joints where things were supposed to fit together.
The lower area feels more like an abandoned quarry, but this makes the remains of the monument-that-could-have-been look all the more striking.
It's massive. It's hard to believe that anyone thought they would actually ever think they could move the damn thing. But there it stands for all eternity.
Rock on, Zhu Di, you crazy bastard. Rock on.