I was puzzled.
I knew that Xanadu was somewhere in Inner Mongolia, but
had no idea where.
writings of Marco Polo offered a few clues. Mr Polo had visited the city around 1275, after a "three-day ride" from
modern day Beijing
[which was then called Dadu, or big capital]. He wrote
that his patron, Kublai Khan, the first emperor of the Mongol-controlled Yuan
there for the summer.
I also found out that he went there by the
"eastern road", and returned by the "western" of the only two roads.
these clues in mind, and after finding out that the city was called Shangdu in Chinese (Shang means, upper, first, or
perhaps also meant preferred; du means capital), I was
able to locate the site of the city on Google Earth.
Pouring over the terrain maps, I noted that, more than seven hundred years
after Mr Polo's travelogue, a third road from Beijing has
not been added. After much deliberation, I decided to follow the anti-clockwise
route of yore.
Three days out, three days back. Except,
on this occasion, pedal power would replace horse power.
I also noted that Xanadu had recently (in June) been
designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, but thought it strange that no
reports about its opening could be found.
I did, though, discover a good deal about the history of the city that had first captured my imagination on reading
Coleridge's Kubla Khan.
What impressionable youth who yearned for travel and discovery would not have been stirred
by the opening lines:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Down to a sunless sea.
And so, inspired, but
with only the faintest idea of what might lie ahead, I mounted my bike at 9am on Sunday 30th September
and headed north to Huairou and north from there to the mountains.
for the day was Fengning in Hebei province, 185 km north of Beijing, which I had estimated I would reach at 6.30pm.
gradients... not just up and down, but up, down, up, down and up some more to over 1000 metres above sea-level (masl)...
had taken their toll. I was in the middle
of nowhere and it was getting dark.
I had bought many things at the bike shop the other day, but I hadn't bought
a light (on the ironic basis that it's dangerous to cycle at
night in China). Stopping at a xiaomaibu (small
shop), I asked the owner if he knew of anyone who had a room to let.
"No, not around here,"
said Mr Lin, who then asked me where I was from.
"You're British?!" He exclaimed.
"You lot bullied us... burnt the Summer Palace... took away our land...".
that Mr Lin was having a laugh at my expense (sensing the vulnerability of a lone cyclist perhaps).
"Things have changed a lot these days," I offered.
"Too right they have!"
shouted Mr Lin.
"These days it's Japan that's trying to bully us; but they don't
stand a chance... if they go too far... we'll crush them."
Time to change the subject,
I thought. "How far is it to Fengning?" I asked.
It was 30 minutes after sunset
and I was struggling to see the white lines on the road; 30 minutes later it was so dark I had slowed
to a crawl. Where was
the moon? I hadn't been too concerned about the night-time ride because the sky was clear and tonight the moon
would be at its brightest.
But where was it?
Just as I had dismounted and had begun to push my bike, the Moon rose
above the mountains in the south-east, lighting up the road
ahead of me. Moon shadows flitted past as I increased my speed before
cresting the ridge and hurling downhill to Fengning. Thank you
Chang'e, the goddess of the Moon.
second day's cycling was much slower than the first. The mountains got higher (above 1,500 masl), and the climbs were
never-ending and always more up than down. There's nothing more disheartening than cycling uphill
for half an hour and recording only
a 30 masl increase. The road became narrower, before disappearing
and being replaced by a rutted track.
This was northern Hebei province, one of the poorest
places within a day's drive of Beijing, so places to stay were few and far
between. After last night's experience, I
vowed to find a bed before dark. Problem was, there were only mountain villages in this area.
I had, though,
been told that there was a place to stay "about 20 km" up the track.
looked pleased to see me. He confirmed that it was indeed his place that the people in the village south of there had
I would find a bed. Maybe they had misheard and thought I had said "shed" not
"bed", because that's exactly what I was showed.
Thankfully, the shed had a
bed, and also a couple of thick quilts (the temperature at night in these parts was already below freezing).
was also a pillow that felt like it had been filled with small, rough pebbles. But I was a grateful.
Mr Liu guided me to his friend's restaurant, a short distance away, where I enjoyed an excellent meal.
Returning to the shed,
I placed one of my T-shirts against the window to block out the courtyard light, wrote
a few notes in my e-diary, and in moments I was
dreaming of Xanadu (without the opium that had famously fuelled Coleridge's
dream of the place, I hasten to add).
The Shed provided a great night's sleep (maybe
the 10 hours in the saddle helped a bit). Whatever, at 40 yuan (less than a
pint of Guinness in Beijing) per night, The
Shed is a great place to stay on the way to Xanadu. Refreshed, and freshly powdered
(Johnson's Baby Powder is
not only for nappy rash), I continued northwards at 7am.
Thoughts that the high-point of yesterday would
be the highest of the trip were scuppered when my altimeter registered
1560 masl. The roads got worse. I
crossed the border into Inner Mongolia, and they worsened still. The entire road from here
to Xanadu (except
roads in the urban area of Duolun) had been ripped up and been replaced by a cratered track (in these parts,
roads are not laid in stages).
Thoughts that I should have come on my mountain bike were
further confirmed when I began to climb to a point somewhere in the sky.
After an hour of climbing,
I was getting a strong, not to mention disturbing sense of déjà vu. Several cars, silver mianbaoche (bread
vans) and lorries that I had seen an hour before were streaming past me in the opposite direction. One car
had the decency to stop to
explain what was happening.
"The road up ahead is blocked,"
said the driver.
"You'll have to go 'round".
I remembered from my research that "'round"
would have been an additional 4 hours at the very least. It was 3pm. Sunset would
be at about 6pm.
happened?" I asked.
"Landslide," said the driver, "It'll take days
to clear". With that he was off.
I reasoned that it wouldn't be too difficult
to carry my bike around or over the landslide, so carried on nevertheless.
I was wrong.
The mountainside on both sides of the pass had collapsed onto the road. There was no way up, there was
no way around.
The only way was over the rocks that had fallen. 20 minutes later,
I had managed to carry my bike over the top of the huge pile
of rocks by using them as giant stairs, some
of which were three or more feet higher than the next.
All was well, until I got close to the earth-moving
vehicle, whose operator was loading rocks into the back of a lorry on the other
side of the pass. I was worried that the
activity might dislodge more rocks from the mountainside, sending them hurling towards me.
I shouted and waved.
After a wait that seemed longer than the few seconds that had actually elapsed, the operator looked up from his
on seeing me, switched off his engine. The next challenge was to get down from the newly-formed
rock face; not an easy task
given that the ledge I and my bike were resting on was more than six
feet higher than final "step" to safety.
I waved to the lorry driver, a local chap who'd spent the last three
days collecting rocks from the jaws of the earth-mover.
He very kindly got down from his truck took hold
of my bike with his outstretched arms, as I lowered it down from the ledge.
With my bike
now safe, I was free to rock-climb down to collect it.
One hour later, I spotted the track I had been
looking for, and headed north towards Xanadu. As the distant hills became
less distant, the north-westerly wind increased
and the sky became darker. The mysterious mounds, the hills just to the south
of the site of the city, were
still over a mile away when the first dust-storm enveloped me.
I lowered my head, gritted
my teeth, and cycled on. I at last reached the hills, and began cycling up the track.
a short distance, the track was too rough to cycle on, and so I went ahead on foot. As I climbed the hill,
wind speed increased to gale force, as if conjured by the ghosts of Xanadu in a final effort to a stop
this intruder defiling
their sacred ground. I lowered my head still further, crouching into the teeth of the
gale, and moved step by step while dodging
the debris that a new, even angrier dust storm was hurling at me.
At last, I reached the hills, and began cycling up the track.
the top, I filled my lungs with the fresh mountain air and expelled a triumphant,"Yes!!"
And thanks to improving visibility I was able to survey the antique land
I was also able to examine the building site that had been hidden until then.
I'm not a student of Yuan dynasty history, but I guessed that concrete did not feature as a building material
for the city that was
designed by Liu Bingzhong, Kublai Khan's chief city-planner and architect.
To be fair, the concrete visitor centre is "landscaped"
against the hill. And, according to the information
board in the construction site, the building replaces an old iron ore mine that had
been responsible for carving away
a large slice of the north-eastern hillside.
But I couldn't help feeling that the 48 million yuan for
the project (36 million of which is being spent on the concrete museum),
would have been better spent on reshaping the hillside and on constructing a fitting
tribute to the once-glorious city of Xanadu.
What better tribute than to reconstruct the "Palace
built of cane" that Marco Polo had seen there, and what he described in detail.
This cane palace was the "Pleasure-dome"
that so inspired Coleridge.
What's more, the reconstructed "Pleasure-dome" would be there for the tourist
season, and taken away when the season ended,
leaving Xanadu exactly as it has been for several centuries... at one with the surrounding grassland.
sympathetic architect could work wonders with Marco Polo's detailed brief:
"It is gilt all over, and most elaborately finished inside. [It
is stayed on gilt and lacquered columns, on each of which is a dragon all gilt,
the tail of which is attached to the column whilst the head supports
the architrave, and the claws likewise are stretched out right
and left to support the architrave.] The roof, like the rest, is formed of
canes, covered with a varnish so strong and excellent that no
amount of rain will rot them. These canes are a good 3 palms in girth, and from 10
to 15 paces in length. [They are cut across at
each knot, and then the pieces are split so as to form from each two hollow tiles, and with
these the house is roofed; only every
such tile of cane has to be nailed down to prevent the wind from lifting it.]
In short, the whole Palace
is built of these canes, which (I may mention) serve also for a great variety of other useful purposes.
The construction of the Palace is so devised that
it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity; and it can all be taken
to pieces and removed whithersoever the Emperor may command. When
erected, it is braced [against mishaps from the wind]
by more than 200 cords of silk."
"...When the 28th day of [the Moon of] August arrives he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace
is taken to pieces."
all, "In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome [not a concrete-monstrosity] decree".