Xanadu: The Trip

This isn’t going to be nearly as entertaining as the book, nor as exhaustive, but here’s our story of finding Xanadu!  Hang in there, it’s going to be on the long side.

The Narrative:   

We met up with our driver, Mr. Xu at the Lido Holiday Inn on Tuesday morning and set out, opting for the northern route that would take us up and over the mountains to Duolun, a city in Inner Mongolia, due north of Beijing.  I had come armed with a good road map, but we had absolutely no idea what the roads were actually like.  A red line on a map isn’t all that much information.  It took us over an hour to get to the town of Huairou, just 20 miles north of Beijing (bad traffic).

At Huairou we started climbing, and pretty much didn’t stop until we hit the grasslands later in the afternoon. It was a crystal clear day (rare for around here) and as we climbed higher and higher we saw more and more fall colors.  It was gorgeous.  Our driver, Mr. Xu was a nice guy and a great driver, but he was directionally challenged and had no idea how to read a map!!  Fortunately, the four of us could do both, so we just kept encouraging him on, and stopped often to check our berrings.  I think part of it may have been his lack of confidence in the accuracy of the maps. 

When we hit Fengning (which looked to be about halfway on the map), we stopped for lunch and asked around as to which road led up to Duolun.  One guy told us to throw away the map, that there was a brand new road not on the map that we should take!  Of course, we didn’t know what "new" meant–completed, or under construction.  About 10 miles out of town, we spotted a sign pointing north to Duolun and figured that this must be the new road the man had told us about.  With a bit of nervousness about what was ahead, we decided to take it since it seemed like it might be shorter than our original route.

The first 10 miles or so were great…definitely a new road with newly laid pavement.  Then the the road started to climb up over a mountain, the blacktop ended–big time–and we found ourselves on a glorified path.  Hooray for the Jeep Cherokee!  Mr. Xu was excited to pop the thing into 4 wheel drive, and up we went, bouncing our brains out.  Our main concern at this point was how far the road was like this.  If this was the condition all the way to Duolun, we knew were in trouble.  We stopped and asked a peasant who assured us that once we were back down into the next valley, we’d find pavement again.  We made an executive decision to believe him, and kept going.  Fortunately, he was right, and hooked back up with a real road, albeit not a great one. 

It was a beautiful drive through mountain valleys dotted with villages, where everyone was busy preparing for the coming winter.  Driving through a village was always somewhat of an obstacle course as we dodged chickens, black pigs, children playing, corn and wheat spread out over the highway, and always the random person on a bicycle.  Good ol’ Mr. Xu never hit one of them!!  At one point on this  section, we thought we our journey might end when we came upon a pavement spreader that was covering the entire width of the highway, one with fairly steep embankments on both sides, and tall grassland beside.  Much sucking of teeth, then we thought, hey we’ve got 4 wheel drive, let’s go for it.  The four of us jumped out and sent Mr. Xu off the road, through the grass, and back up on the highway once he’d passed the spreader.  The highway construction workers had a good laugh watching the foreign women scampering around, and the city-slicker driver driving through the grass.  I’m sure it was the highlight of their day.  When Mr. Xu got the jeep back onto the highway, everyone cheered, and we were on our way again!

Soon after that the mountains fell away and we found ourselves on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, and even spotted a sign for Duolun (whew, at least we were on the right road!).  We pulled into town around 4:30, and stopped at the first hotel we say, the Duolun Guesthouse. The Duolun Guesthouse is a typical government-run guesthouse, with all of the standard features of such institutions:  rooms with a strange smell, poor lighting, bad plumbing, and the ever-present bright orange towels.  They are in nearly every single guesthouse or ‘budget’ hotel in the country, and have been for as long as I can remember.  It’s one of those few things that hasn’t changed in 20 years.  I think at one time there must have been a law here that guesthouse towels were to be bright orange.  Anyway, we could put up with all of that because they told us there was hot water for showers in the evening from 8-10.  We checked in, then headed out for our Mongolian Hot Pot dinner.

Ok, so now we’d made it to Duolun, but we still hadn’t reached our real destination, Xanadu.  And it wasn’t on a map, so we knew we were going to have to ask around.  Our presence in the restaurant (actually in the town) caused a stir, so the other patrons were quite eager to talk with us and wanted to know what in tarnation we were doing in Duolun at this time of the year.  We told them that we were looking for the ruins of the ancient Yuan Dynasty capital Shangdu (the name in Chinese), and asked if they’d heard of it, and if so, was it truly "round these parts?"  They assured us it was and told us which highway to take to get there.  They said it was about 20 minutes away, and that there was even a sign on the highway so we’d be sure to find it.

The next morning we set off at 8:30, on the final leg of our quest for Xanadu.  Sure enough, about 20 miles out of town, we saw the sign, and headed off deeper into the grasslands, the excitement building.  Even though we’d seen the sign, we still had to stop and ask every peasant we saw if the ruins were this way.  They all assured us that we were going in the right direction.  The local tourism bureau has obviously figured out that this is a potential destination, and have now built an entrance gate to the site, and collect tickets.  Of course the ticket-taker didn’t actually have tickets to give us, but she collected money from us anyway.  Mr. Xu didn’t want to pay her unless she gave us tickets (he knew she’d pocket the money), but since she was the one with the power to open the gate (or not), we just gave her the money.   We hadn’t come this far to be thwarted by a ticket-lady. From there it was about a half mile to the actual ruins of the city.   

The surrounding scenery was spectacular, and it was amazing to imagine what the city was like in it’s day.  Today it is located on what seemed to be free range pasture area, so we saw herds of sheep and cattle wander through. We spent about 3 hours there scampering around, taking pictures, looking for pottery, and just soaking it all in.  I had brought along a copy of the Coleridge poem, "The Ballad of Kublai Khan", so I whipped it out and did a dramatic reading, which convinced Mr. Xu that I was certifiably nuts!!! I think Jenny got it on video, which is a scary thought!     [go here to read the poem]

After taking in all we could, we headed back to town for lunch.  Our goal for the afternoon was to find a place to go horse-back riding, but since the tourist season had ended, we never succeeded.  Instead, we headed off towards some sand dunes, and hiked to the top, and enjoyed the scenery.

We left Duolun early the next morning, heading home another way, on more main highways.  We had expectations that it would be a faster drive home, but since these roads took us around the mountains, it ended up being an 8 hour trip as well.  We descended back into the smog of Beijing around 4pm, and promptly hit a traffic jam, Beijing’s way of saying "welcome home!"


For a Chinese history buff like me, Xanadu did not disappoint, even though the only things we actually saw were mounds left from the walls, and a few buildings. From this spot on the grasslands in the late 1200’s and early 1300’s, the Mongols had swept south and west, and nearly conquered the world on horseback.  They brought China under their control.  They tried to take Japan, but their ships sank (they were better riders than sailors). They took India.  The sacked Baghdad.  They subjugated all of the Central Asian peoples, and they even made it to the gates of Europe, stopping at the Danube River. They established the most extensive dynasty the world has ever seen, all from right here!  Their method was terror.  If cities did not surrender to them, everyone in them was slaughtered.  The story is that as their brutal reputaion preceeded them, subjucation became easier and easier.  They would show up at the gates of a city and demand surrender or suffer the fate of the previous city that had not surrendered (a fate which all were aware of).

It’s one thing, however, to conquer the world on horseback, but it’s another thing to rule it.  The Mongols were good at conquering, but they didn’t know how to govern.  In other words, once they’d taken over the world, they didn’t know what to do with it.  Having built their main capital city on the north China plains (Dadu, which is modern-day Beijing), they tried to assume the trappings of Chinese dynastic rule.  That didn’t work either, and they soon fell into corruption and weakness, and by the late 1300’s were overthrown by the Ming, who set up another dynasty in China.  Their inability to govern also meant the loss of the rest of the empire, and the Mongols retreated back to the steppes, where they live today in Mongolia and China’s Inner Mongolia.

As we were wandering around this once proud city, from which a nation ruled the world, these words (from two different verses) kept running through my mind:  "He makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away…..[but] Your throne, O God, is forever and ever!" (Job 12:23/Psalm 45:6)

To Xanadu

A number of years ago, I read a  book called "In Xanadu:  A Quest," written by travel writer William Dalrymple , in which he recounts his attempt at retracing the footsteps of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan (who, at that time was the emperor of China.  It was one of the funniest books I’d read in a long time, filled with stories of sneaking across Iran and Pakistan, and eventually into China without a permit (no small feat, especially in the 1980’s).

The city has been best memorialized in Samuel Colleridge’s poem "The Ballad of Kubla Khan," in which he uses Marco Polo’s description of the summer capital of the Mongol emperors to paint a picture of unbridled beauty, a veritible paradise.

Ever since reading that book, I’ve had it in my mind that I’d like to visit this "Xanadu" as well, and when I discovered that the city is not all that far from Beijing, I decided that getting there was most likely going to be feasible. 

Tomorrow morning (Tuesday), I and 3 friends will set out from Beijing on a 3-day trek to find Xanadu, which is near the modern day town of Duolun, in the Chinese Autonomous Regions of Inner Mongolia.  It’s basically just up and over the mountains that lie to the north of Beijing.  We have hired a jeep and a driver to take us.  From what we’ve heard, there’s not much left of the city except for ruins in the desert. 

Never mind.  That’s what we’re going to see.  Something tells me we’re in for an adventure.  Stay tuned…..