Xanadu – an oasis in the Mongolian desert

In 1613 a man called Thomas Purchas published a travel book embroidered with tales and legends from many sources, including Marco Polo. It mentioned exotic Xanadu, which captured the imagination of an age.

Called Purchas His Pilgrimage: or Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present, the book was based on stories told by sailors returning to England from long voyages. In the first edition of his book Thomas Purchas wrote: “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 sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.”

The story goes that in 1797 the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was reading this book when he fell asleep. Under the influence of an opium-inspired dream he later wrote the poem “Kubla Khan”, whose first lines are some of the best known in the English language:

“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.”

Xanadu was the summer capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty in China, before he decided to move the seat to the Jin Dynasty capital of Zhōngdū, present-day Beijing. Xanadu was in what is now called Inner Mongolia, 275 kilometres north of Beijing. It consisted of an “Outer City” and an “Inner City”. The palace, where Kublai Khan stayed in summer, covered an area about half the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The most visible remnants are the earthen walls though there is also a ground-level, circular brick platform in the centre.

Xanadu is the best-preserved among the Yuan dynasty’s capital cities and has lasted the longest. Six of 11 Yuan emperors ascended to the throne in Xanadu, but the city was eventually abandoned after being destroyed in fires over the course of a decade starting in 1358. When the Yuan Dynasty moved its capital to Beijing, it built the Forbidden City in a position aligned with Xanadu.

The Venetian explorer Marco Polo is widely believed to have visited Xanadu in about 1275. He later dictated an account that is one of the most complete descriptions of the city as it used to exist. It begins:

“And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between north-east and north, you come to 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.”

UNESCO has recently placed Xanadu on its World Heritage List, giving added protection to the little that remains.

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