My favourite place: Xanadu, China

For the latest in our historical holidays series, John Man explores a lost Mongolian palace, still untouched by tourism...

A relief at the World Heritage site of Xanadu in Inner Mongolia, China. (Photo by Dreamstime)

Most people, surely, have heard the name Xanadu: the 1980 film starring Olivia Newton John; the acclaimed Broadway musical (also in London last year); a night club; a hotel; the mansion in Citizen Kane; or perhaps a school memory of Coleridge’s 1797 poem Kubla Khan:

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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.

It all sounds very surreal, very magical. And that’s precisely why Xanadu appeals: magic, the magic being that Xanadu is a real place. I fell in love with the idea of it, then with the place itself, when researching Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai. It all started with Genghis, as so much does in central Asia.

In his youth (late 12th century), Genghis was a down-and-out from nowhere: father dead, mother abandoned. A leader of genius, he built a tribal federation, a nation, and, by the time he died in 1227, the greatest land empire in history.

The empire was divided among Genghis’s descendants and his grandson Kublai emerged as supreme. Under him the empire doubled again. At its peak in 1294, it incorporated a sixth of all humanity, including all of China. Kublai’s first capital was Xanadu, named when he made Beijing his main base. Beijing was Dadu, ‘Great Capital’, while Xanadu was Shangdu, ‘Upper Capital’. We call it Xanadu thanks to Marco Polo, his English populariser, Hakluyt, and Coleridge, who was reading Hakluyt when he fell into a drug-induced sleep and dreamed of Kublai.

Xanadu was destroyed by rebels when the Mongols were thrown out of China in 1368. No visitors arrived here for almost 600 years until the 1930s when the Japanese took an interest after they had seized Manchuria – Xanadu was right on the border. Then came communist rule and another period of limbo. British writers Caroline Alexander and William Dalrymple visited briefly, but only in the 1990s did the site open up, along with China itself.

When I first arrived in the summer of 1996, there was rolling grass, wildflowers, low walls and distant hills. Not even a fence. I wandered alone over the earth base of the palace where Marco Polo met Kublai Khan in 1275 – a ridge of rammed earth about 50 metres long, standing 6 metres above the grass. I picked up bits of stone and pottery as if they were sacred relics. I’m still wondering what to do with them.

At the time, Xanadu was on the verge of change. Half a dozen men were measuring off squares with posts and string – archaeologists starting an excavation. My next visit in 2004 revealed a tourist camp and small museum.

Outside, a glass cabinet contained an immense pillar of white marble, 2 metres high. I tried the door and to my astonishment, it opened. Feeling as privileged as a prince and as guilty as a schoolboy, I ran my fingers over marble that might have been touched by Kublai and Marco – brilliantly carved bas-reliefs of intertwining dragons and peonies, symbols of both war and peace. It was evidence of the skill of Kublai’s artists, and the labour involved, for the closest source of marble was 400km away.

By 2008, the tourist camp and marble pillar had gone, but there was a grand 4 metre portico, with two copies of the marble pillar for supports, a fence and a ticket booth. Alongside was a large bas-relief of armies and courtiers crowding in on an enthroned Kublai holding an impressive pose. By 2012, Xanadu had become a Unesco World Heritage Site.

By now the enigmatic ridges had begun to make sense. You can see the town’s structure on Google Earth (42˚21’37”N / 116˚11’06”E, with lots of pictures): three sections, all squares, nested inside each other. In the northern section was a grassy park where (in Marco’s words) deer, hares and rabbits wandered until they were shot by Kublai and his courtiers. In the south-east corner was the imperial city, with mud brick houses for workmen, craftsmen and officials, and several temples. Inside this, the palace city of royal residences, meeting halls and the palace itself, the Pavilion of Great Peace. Xanadu was once home to about 120,000 people.

Coleridge knew nothing of Xanadu’s landscape, of course. There are no rivers (though there is a meandering stream, the Shandian), no caverns, chasms, caves of ice, incense-bearing trees or sunless sea. Coleridge’s Xanadu owes more to Somerset than China.

But there is something in the schoolroom poem. I became intrigued by the “stately pleasure dome”, because Marco described what he called the “cane palace” in detail. A CGI of it suggests a bamboo structure that was Chinese in materials but Mongolian in shape. I believe it to be a symbol of Kublai’s two great cultures. If so, it was an astonishing and original creation, an essential part of the magic that is still part of the Xanadu we know today.

John Man is a historian and travel writer. He will be leading a tour to Xanadu with Steppes Travel in September 2016.

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This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine