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In Xanadu, with Kublai Khan 和忽必烈汗在元上都

Mention the word Xanadu and what pops immediately into your head?

If you say ‘Kubla Khan, Mongol Empire, and ST Coleridge’ then I absolutely take my hat off to you. Read no further.

However, if like me, your first spontaneous thoughts on hearing the word ‘Xanadu’ are
Olivia Newton John, purple and mint-green legwarmers, and rollerskating, then read on, you may learn a thing or two.

I always thought Xanadu was a mythical, magical place, the kind of place people wrote poems about while intoxicated by opium, poems which other people read and were then inspired to write even more fanciful poems and songs and movies. I never for a second considered it might be a real place.

Imagine my surprise then, when during a moment of intense and uncharacteristic scrutiny of the map this week I noticed a small dot marked ‘Ruins of Xanadu’ not more than sixty kilometres from our current position on the road between Ulanhot and Hohhot. Really? Xanadu was a real place? In Inner Mongolia? With ruins to prove it?

We decided immediately we had to go and see Xanadu, whatever was left of it.  After all, it would only delay us for three or four hours on our onward trip to catch the Naadam Festival of Mongolian sports in Gegentala.

On the map it is marked as Shangdu 上都, its proper name, built in 1252 as the opulent summer palace of the great Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis, leader of the Mongols and Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and all of China. 

Every July Kublai Khan’s court would decamp to Shangdu to spend the hot summer months in the cool grassland meadows, and this annual pilgrimage continued for one hundred or so glorious and legendary years until 1369 when Shangdu was burnt to the ground by the Ming Army. 

(That last sentence makes it sound like I actually know who the Ming Army were and why they were inclined to burn things down. I don’t. Copied it straight from the interweb. I’m hoping on our travels I might come across the Ming Army ruins, and then I can enlighten you.)

By all contemporary accounts it was an extraordinary place deserving all its mystery and fame. The best descriptions of it in the west come from the recollections of Marco Polo, who visited in 1275 and wrote of:


‘….a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning. There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

Round this Palace a wall is built,inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured.
 
The Khan himself goes every week to see his birds sitting in mew, and sometimes he rides through the park with a leopard behind him on his horse’s croup; and then if he sees any animal that takes his fancy, he slips his leopard at it, and the game when taken is made over to feed the hawks in mew. This he does for diversion.’



From Shangdu Marco Polo derived Chandu, which in 1614 became an even more romantic sounding Xandu, transformed by a fanciful English clergyman – Samual Purchas – who had never visited the place but wrote a detailed description in his book ‘Purchas’s Pilgrimage’, based on Marco Polo’s writings.

It’s worth reading Purchas’ account, if only for the remarkable association it has with Coleridge’s later poem:


‘In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.’


Samual Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic poet, had likewise never visited Shangdu but imagined it in a fantastical opium-inspired dream that occurred when he fell asleep while reading Purchas’s Pilgrimage. Purchas’s words echo in the opening lines of his famous 1797 poem Kubla Khan below.

Coleridge, like many who wake feverish from dreams filled with inspiration, claimed he would have written hundreds more lines of the poem if he hadn’t been disturbed by a visitor ‘on business from Porlock’ who ruined his chances of getting it all down on paper. 


Kubla Khan
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

There’s much, much more which you can read here.

And what of Xanadu today?

Well, the road to Xanadu was rough and long. Our side trip to Xanadu eventually cost us twenty four hours, and because of it we almost missed Naadam altogether.

You see, Xanadu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site just four weeks ago, and in a headlong rush to prepare it for the thousands of daily visitors who will come to see it, every road leading into Xanadu is closed so it can be rerouted or upgraded, leaving only a donkey track to drive along for sixty kilometres at donkey speed.


At times the donkey track, pitted with potholes the size of cow, widens into a broad expanse of mud, deep pockets of water and intertwining side tracks, which seems to inspire a wild episode of off-road rally driving in the vehicles around us as everyone spreads out onto nearby fields in the faint hope of overtaking the car/minibus/6 tonne truck in front. It’s complete mayhem. 

Soon after we’re all nose-to-tail again on the donkey track, having the bones shaken out of our bodies and the teeth shaken out of our heads by the endless bumps and ruts.

My husband, patient driver that he is, is heard to mutter darkly that Xanadu ‘better be a bloody good ruin’ under his breath.


When finally you arrive you can see why Kublai Khan chose this site. A broad expanse of flat meadow is circled by distant low mountains, and overhead reaches a vast blue sky. You pass along a long narrow road surrounded by fields of orange and white wildflowers before arriving at the outer gates of the former summer palace of the immense Kublai Kahn.


What remains now are the ruined outlines of the city walls, outer and inner, where 100,000 lived at the city’s peak. There is some evidence of the glory that once was – a single golden marble pillar carved all over with dragons, and the foundations of what would once have been a grand pavilion.






Now you must use your imagination, standing where Marco Polo and Kublai Khan met, and rebuild the fantastic and awe-inspiring palace in your mind as you stand under the enormous blue sky and look out over Kublai Khan’s meadows, gazing north, south, east and west over his empire.






和忽必烈汗在元上都


我一直认为元上都是一个神秘奇幻的地方,这里的人们抒写出令人沉醉的诗歌,别人从这些诗歌中汲取灵感从而创作出更富有幻想色彩的诗歌和影片。我从不认为元上都是一个真实存在的地方。

当我在乌兰浩特和呼和浩特间的公路上,看到地图上显示元上都遗址就在离我六十公里不到的地方时,你想象得到我有多惊讶。是真的吗?元上都是一个真实的地方吗?的确有遗迹证明它的存在吗?


我们马上决定不论那里还留下什么,我们都得去看看。毕竟,只要绕道三四个小时就到了,不会影响我们赶去葛根塔拉草原参加那达慕大会的行程。
我错得太离谱了!这趟顺道旅程花了我们二十四小时,而且我们还差点错过了那达慕大会。

元上都在四周前才被联合国教科文组织列为世界遗产,很明显,当地匆忙准备着迎接即将到来的日均几千人的客流量,所有通往元上都的道路都被关闭整修,只剩下一条仅能单向行驶的骡道,我们以骡子的速度,行驶了六十公里。

抵达目的地时,由于之前三小时的颠簸,我们浑身骨头散架,上下齿也不住打颤,你会经过一段被桔子林和白色的野花包围的狭窄的道路,之后你会到达元朝开国皇帝,成吉思汗的孙子——伟大的忽必烈汗昔日的夏季行宫。

宫殿始建于1252年,马可波罗于1275年拜访了此地,并将其描绘成一座绿草如茵,遍地珍奇异兽的公园,还是一个由大理石建造的绘有人类、走兽、飞禽以及无数树木鲜花的镀金宫殿,建造精妙绝伦,令人赞叹不已。

现今遗留下来的是城市的外城墙,在这城墙的内外城市鼎盛期的人口达到了100,000。有些证据能证明曾经的辉煌——一根雕满龙的金色大理石柱,以及曾是巨型大厅的地基。

现在你必须发挥想象力在你的头脑中创造一个无与伦比的令人叹为观止的宫殿,就站在蔚蓝的苍穹下,极目远眺忽必烈汗的大草原,凝视你延绵四方的帝国。



Ruins of Xanadu

Known as Yuanshangdu 元上都 Relic Site, Inner Mongolia

Approximately 460km from Beijing, and 260km from Xilinhot

Co-ordinates: Lat 42.338777 Long 116.193498

Reached by heading east from Zhenglanqi township on the S308 and turning left onto the X517 (total 25km). Can also be reached by heading west from Duolun village (37km).


Site open 7 days
Admission: 30 yuan adults, children free, electric car from carpark area to site 10 yuan per person.