Interest in Chinese pyramids was greatly increased by the 1994 publication of Hartwig Hausdorf's Die Weisse Pyramide later translated into English under the revised title The Chinese Roswell (1998) in which he briefly describes his travels through China in search of the legendary great white pyramid of China. Hausdorf never locates his prize, but he did return from China with a series of photos of pyramid mounds that have been widely published in books and magazines and circulated on the Internet.
These photos sparked a renewed interest in a story that is over 50 years old, but has never been satisfactorily explained. Hausdorf cites very few sources in his book, but it is possible to track down where he appears to have gotten much of his material. The original source for Hausdorf's claims of a white pyramid apparently comes from Bruce Cathie's The Bridge to Infinity (1983), in which Cathie recounts the story of US Air Force pilot James Gaussman.
As Cathie tells it, during World War II, Gaussman was flying a routine mission between India and China when he suffered engine problems that forced him to descend to a lower altitude. In his report to an intelligence officer, he is quoted as saying:
"I banked to avoid a mountain and we came out over a level valley. Directly below was a gigantic white pyramid. It looked like something out of a fairy tale. It was encased in shimmering white. This could have been metal, or some sort of stone. It was pure white on all sides. The remarkable thing was the capstone, a huge piece of jewel-like material that could have been crystal. There was no way we could have landed, although we wanted to. We were struck by the immensity of the thing." 1
How Cathie came into possession of Gaussman's report is not indicated. In fact, there are no sources cited for Gaussman's story. This of course has not stopped numerous books and websites from quoting the tale as established fact. In an article for the December 2002 issue of Fortean Times entitled the "The White Pyramid," researcher Maoling MausoleumSteve Marshall poses the possibility that the Gaussman account may simply be an inaccurate retelling of a very real and well-documented sighting made by Colonel Maurice Sheahan, the Far Eastern director of Trans World Airline.
Sheahan's encounter was presented in 1947 in the March 28 edition of the New York Times, under the headline "U.S. Flier Reports Huge Chinese Pyramid In Isolated Mountains Southwest of Sian [Xi'an]." In the article, Sheehan is quoted as saying that the pyramid he saw seemed to "dwarf those of Egypt" and he estimates its height at 1000 feet and its width at 1500 feet. If these dimensions are accurate, this structure would indeed dwarf the pyramids of Egypt, the largest of which stands only 450 feet tall.
Sheahan places the location of the pyramid at the end of a long inaccessible valley at the foot of the Qin Ling Mountains about 40 miles southwest of Xi'an. Near the main structure he describes a smaller pyramid and at the near end of the valley are hundreds of small burial mounds visible from the Longhai railroad. In describing the structure he says, "I was impressed by its perfect pyramidal form and its great size." However, nowhere in the article does Sheehan describe the pyramid as being white, nor does he mention a crystalline capstone.
No photos accompanied the original New York Times article and photos were similarly absent in articles based on the same United Press story printed in other newspapers around the globe. Chinese pyramid photoA photo of the reported pyramid does not appear until two days later in the New York Sunday News for March 30, 1947. This photo has since been the focus of endless scrutiny and speculation. However, its origin and indeed what it actually shows has never been satisfactorily resolved.
Sheahan places the pyramid that he saw at the end of a valley within a mountain range. However, the published photo shows a structure lying isolated out in the open on a flat plain. Sheahan's description of the structure as having a "perfect pyramidal form" also contrasts with the flat topped appearance of the mound shown in the photo.
With these mysteries and tantalizing clues in mind, I determined to try to shed some light on this intriguing story. Through the wonders of modern satellite imagery it is no longer necessary to inspect a location in person, especially when searching for something as large as a 1000-foot tall pyramid. My search began with a visit to the Space Imaging website where it is possible to browse satellite photos from around the world for free. To see the full, high-resolution images one must pay several hundred if not thousands of dollars. However, because of the size of the target sought and its perfectly symmetrical form, high-resolution images were not necessary. If the pyramid existed, it would surely show up on the freely available satellite photos from Space Imaging.
I proceeded to spend several days downloading dozens of detailed satellite images and overlaying them upon a map of the region. Using satellite photos taken of the pyramids at Giza for size comparison, I sought pyramidal forms from the target region in China. What I found was quite startling. Spread across the landscape were scores of pyramids of varying size. One in particular seemed to closely match the size of the Egyptian pyramids, at least in its perimeter.
There was just one problem. These pyramids were in the wrong place. The pyramids I had located lay several miles northwest of Xi'an near the city of Xianyang. Furthermore, none of them appeared in the mountainous territory south of Xi'an. They all lay out in the open upon seemingly flat ground. I believed I had located the pyramid from the famous photo, but its location did not remotely match the description given by Sheehan.
I searched further among the hills and valleys of the Qin Ling Mountains southwest of Xi'an, but I could find no pyramids at all. In again referencing the target size of the pyramids at Giza, it soon became apparent that due to the strongly undulating terrain, there were simply no spots flat enough to even attempt construction of a pyramid of the size described. Clearly, something was wrong.
Enamored by the mystery, I determined to visit China myself and attempt to reconcile some of these conflicting stories. To read Hausdorf's description of his journeys to China brings up images of a clandestine operation as he ventures secretly into China's "Forbidden Zone." The notion of the pyramids lying in a forbidden zone appears to have started with the publication of Robert Charroux's Masters of the World (1967). This concept has been repeated over and over in various publications with no attempt made to verify its veracity. In fact, none of the pyramids I had located resided within any such restricted zone.
With visa's in hand, my friend Eric and I traveled from Beijing to the ancient capitol city of Xi'an now most famous for the terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang on display just east of the city. aerial view of pyramidAs the plane descended low through the clouds I searched the smooth green landscape below and to my utter surprise I could make out pyramids already! I fumbled through my carry-on bag, searching for my camera and was able to snap off a few shots before we landed. Maybe these pyramids wouldn't be so hard to find after all I thought.
Our time in Beijing had taught us how few people in China actually speak English. Now, arriving in a much smaller city we were prepared for things to be even more challenging. After gathering up our baggage, I decided to purchase a map of the region. Maps of the area around Xi'an were virtually impossible to come by in America and while I knew the relative locations of the pyramids in relation to the main city, I needed a map that actually had street names on it if I hoped to describe my desired destinations to a cab driver or local guide.
As I unfolded my new purchase, I came across a small portion of the map devoted to an overview of the region with places of historical interest denoted. To my surprise, many of the locations were signified by small images of pyramids! I opened my bag and took out my photocopies of the satellite maps I had prepared. A quick comparison of the two showed an almost identical match.
While I could neither read nor pronounce the names written on the map, I now had a page I could use to show locals exactly where I wanted to go. My excitement was already building as we began our bus ride from the airport to the city of Xi'an. After the sighting from the plane, I kept a careful watch out our window on the bus and was soon rewarded with glimpses of dozens of mounds of varying shapes both distant and near.
Arriving at our hotel, we were greeted by a representative of the travel agency we had booked our room through. terracotta armyTourism in Xi'an has skyrocketed since the discovery of the terracotta army just outside the city with local travel agencies offering a variety of packages designed to suit most tourists' needs. However, we weren't normal tourists. Sitting down with our tour guide Daniel, I spread out before him the maps, satellite photos and information I had gathered. From the look of surprise on his face I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that Daniel thought I was some sort of spy.
He explained to us that tours around Xi'an are generally divided between an eastern tour that visits the terracotta army and a much less popular western tour that visits some of the burial mounds scattered throughout the region. Many of these mounds he explained matched the pyramids I wanted to visit. We tried to negotiate with him for a customized tour that would take us beyond the normal stops of the pre-planned western tour and while he tried to be flexible, Daniel admitted that he was not familiar with all the locations I wanted to visit. However, he would be happy to help us as much as he could.
The next morning, we met Daniel in the lobby and climbed aboard a small van that would finally take us to the pyramids I had sought for so long. Our first stop was the largest pyramid I had identified from the satellite photos and is known locally as Maoling Mausoleum. Maoling MausoleumIts shape is now somewhat obscured by a covering of young trees, yet the structure still makes for an impressive sight. Photo in hand, I quickly identified the burial mound before me as the same one depicted in the black and white photo from 1947.
Making the steep climb to the summit, I surveyed my surroundings. Both near and far were smaller burial mounds of differing shapes and configurations. The view was impressive, but I was struck most of all by the fact that I had made it. I had finally arrived at this place I had spent over a year researching and examining in satellite photos. After all the talk of forbidden zones and inaccessible valleys, here it lay out in the open for anyone to admire.
Looking around me, I saw no foreign tourists and Daniel assured me that most of the people he brought here never took the time to climb the mound, being satisfied with merely viewing it from a distance. But the pyramid was certainly well known to the locals. Atop the summit, a dozen people walked or sat leisurely and one family was even enjoying a picnic lunch.
I knew from the satellite photos, that this pyramid's measurements around the base nearly matched those of the largest pyramid in Egypt. Climbing Maoling MausoleumHowever, it was not until I climbed it and then researched it locally that I discovered its exact height. Unlike the 1000 feet that had been claimed, the burial mound actually measures a little less than 150 feet in height.2 This is about one third the height of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. I must say though, that after descending the mound and nearly losing my footing on the treacherous slope, I really can't imagine it being much steeper.
Unlike the pyramids of Egypt with their carefully carved and fitted stones, Maoling Mausoleum is composed of densely packed earth. It stands as the largest and most impressive of 11 Western-Han imperial mausoleums and is the final resting place of Emperor Liu Che (also known as Wu Di) who reigned from 157-87 BC, making the tomb over 2000 years old. Chinese history tells us the tomb took 53 years to complete and was filled with precious burial objects, some of which have avoided the plundering of grave robbers and are on display at a nearby museum.
Satellite TombContinuing our tour, we visited several other burial mounds, but none were as impressive as the first. Some of the mounds could be entered after paying an entrance fee and many of them had small museums available onsite displaying artifacts recovered from the mounds. It struck me as odd that the grandest burial mound of them all required no entrance fee. In an area where tourism is so active it seemed strange that such an impressive site was left out of the agendas of most visitors to the region.
Over the next few days we took time to visit the other sights in the area, including the burial mound of Emperor Qin Shi Huang who unified the country in 221 BC. Emperor Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum has been the subject of endless speculation in its own right due largely to legends of the unimaginable wealth it is reputed to contain. In Records of the Historian: Biography of Qin Shi Huang, Han historian Sima Qian describes a burial chamber containing miniature palaces and pavilions with flowing rivers and surging oceans of mercury lying beneath a ceiling decorated in jewels depicting the sun, moon and stars.
Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum
Indeed the burial chamber was built as a miniature replica of the emperor's expansive empire complete with five holy mountains. History tells us that all the artisans who worked on the construction of the tomb were murdered in order to protect its secrets. To this day, the burial chamber remains unexcavated and continues to hold its secrets.
It is believed that Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum once stood almost 330 feet in height although the ravages of time have decreased these dimensions considerably to just 150 feet. From north to south, the burial mound measures almost 1700 feet and from east to west it has a length of just under 1600 feet.2 These measurements give the tomb a volume exceeding that of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, making it an awe-inspiring sight to behold. Qin Shi Huang's mausoleumStill because of Qin Shi Huang's tomb's gently sloping sides now distorted by a dense covering of trees, Maoling Mausoleum remains the more impressive of the two mounds for anyone searching for true pyramids in China.
While in Xi'an, I also visited as many bookstores as I could in search of any information available on other pyramids in the area. While books are plentiful in Xi'an, English books are relatively rare. I was able to dig up a few pieces of useful information however. Confirming my original identification of the pyramid from the 1947 photo, I found this item in the English tourist book Xian: Places of Historical Interest (2002), under the section describing Maoling Mausoleum: "In the 1930's, an American pilot, taking photos in the air, took Maoling Mausoleum for his discovery of a 'pyramid' in China." Despite listing an incorrect decade (dates and numbers are often mixed up in this English translation), this book would appear to offer the final bit of proof in offering a conclusive identification for the 1947 photo.
However, one mystery remained. Did the photo printed two days after the publication of Sheahan's original account actually depict the pyramid identified in his sighting? Colonel Sheahan was an experienced pilot and in his account he places the pyramid he saw as lying 40 miles southwest of Xi'an. Maoling Mausoleum lies about 25 miles northwest of the city. Even a casual visitor to China will notice that even the simplest English is often misspelled and words are often omitted, switched around or used improperly. Is it possible that southwest and northwest were merely mixed up?
In a private correspondence with bible student E Leslie Carlson in 1961, Sheahan admitted that the original published height of the pyramid he saw was incorrect. He gives the correct height as being closer to 500 feet tall and not 1000 feet as originally published. The discrepancy occurred, he explained, during the conversion from the Chinese li to meters to feet.
But if Sheahan was able to clarify this error later on, wouldn't he have also pointed out any mistakes between northwest and southwest? Also, Sheahan places the location of the pyramid at the base of the Qin Ling Mountains. These mountains lie approximately 30 miles south of Xi'an. The only way to reconcile the story as reported with the published photo is if the photo shows a structure distinct from the pyramid Colonel Sheahan reported.
Is it possible that somewhere among the remote valleys of the Qin Ling Mountains a pyramid does indeed lie virtually unknown to the outside world? My intensive search through satellite imagery indicates that this is not the case. At least not in an area approximately 40 miles southwest of the city of Xi'an. While in the city I spoke with Daniel about the possibility of renting a helicopter or small airplane to Qin Ling Mountainsfly us out over the Qin Ling Mountains, but he assured me that such a thing would be impossible. I knew that I would have to leave Xi'an with only half of the mystery solved.
After Xi'an, our next destination was Chengdu, a city that coincidentally lies southwest of Xi'an. As our plane flew up above the Qin Ling Mountains I strained my eyes for a glimpse of the landscape below me. Even from several thousand feet the steepness of the mountains was apparent and I could make out no valleys wide enough to build a pyramid of the size reported. It's possible that something still lies out there among the formidable peaks, but the Qin Ling Mountains won't give up their secrets easily. As our plane rose up above the clouds, obscuring my view of the terrain beneath me, I was left with only fantasies of what might lie undiscovered below.
Further Reading: Die Weisse Pyramide
The Chinese Roswell
The Bridge to Infinity
Lost Cities of China, Central Asia and India
David Hatcher Childress
Xi'an: China's Ancient Capital
Cao Lei, Ying Ren (Editor)
China's Lost Pyramids