“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.”
If mention of Xanadu evokes these opening lines of Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” our photos may fall short of mythical expectations. Samuel Taylor Coleridge 柯勒律治 penned the poem in 1797, on awakening from an opium-induced swoon. He had never been to Xanadu, nor had the cleric Samuel Purchas, from whose travel tales Coleridge borrowed heavily. Purchas published his popular imagery of Xanadu in 1619, drawing directly from descriptions by Marco Polo, who was received there by Kublai Khan 忽必烈 in 1275. It’s a convoluted travel tale!
Xanadu too, is a derivation of Shangdu 上都, meaning ‘Upper Capital.’ It was the seat of power of Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty in China before he moved the throne to Dadu = 大都 = Big Capital (present-day Beijing.) Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) then used Shangdu as his summer capital. From here, he issued orders across his vast empire and Tibetan Buddhism was further disseminated. The city was a unique fusion of nomadic Mongolian and Han Chinese cultures and Marco Polo described it as an incredibly beautiful place.
I have to admit that the Mongolian grassland setting in a gentle summer breeze, really is quite breathtaking. Xanadu’s verdant pastures, fields of meadow flowers and distant rolling hills are interrupted only by the grassy ruins – city walls that once encircled Kublai Khan’s legendary palace. By all accounts it was impressive. Marco Polo waxed lyrical about fine marble rooms “executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.” He was also intrigued by Kublai Khan’s “mobile cane palace” – a Mongolian yurt.
Sadly, little remains of the “pleasure dome” of Marco Polo’s memory. It was completely destroyed by the Red Turban 红巾军 peasant army, less than a century after it was built.
Today, Xanadu lives on as UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site. Curiously it’s better known in the West than in China because of romantic poets like Coleridge. Although few know where it is, movies like Orson Welles “Citizen Kane” (1941) add to the fantasy, as does the 1980s flop “Xanadu,” starring Gene Kelly and Australia’s own Olivier Newton-John. I’ve also found it hard to shake that movie’s theme-song from my mind. It was a huge international success…the likes of which Kublai Khan would have been proud.
Xanadu, Shangdu, Inner Mongolia, China…is just 400kms north-west of Beijing.