Friday, May 27, 2005

China | Inner Mongolia | Shangdu | Xanadu

The old Mongolian city of Shangdu is located some fourteen miles north of Dolonnuur. Despite the fact that the site is quite well documented numerous people in Dolonnuur claimed not to know where it was. The director of the Shanxi Province Merchant’s Hall Museum first gave us detailed directions and then at Mr. Li’ s prodding finally agreed to come along for the ride, which was fortunate, for without him we never would have gotten to see the ruins. About a mile off the main road is a new ger camp which the director says stands on the site of a pavilion where Khubilai Khan would often stop for tea and refreshments while outside the city. All traces of the pavilion are now gone. About a mile further a long black line can be seen stretching across the steppe. These are the ruins of the outer wall of Shangdu city. About half a mile before the ruins a construction crew is building what appears to be a gateway to the ruins area. The road is blocked by construction equipment and piles of sand and gravel. A sign announces is the area is now officially a tourist attraction but that a restoration project is progress and the ruins are temporarily closed to visitors. It looks like we will only get a chance to see the ruins from afar. Then the museum director has a word with the construction chief. The latter calls over a few workmen with shovels to clear a path for our car between two piles of sand. The construction guy asks for forty yuan and even produces a ticket of the kind used at all Chinese tourist attractions, with the price printed on it.
The Wall around the outer city, from the inside looking out
The ancient city of Shangdu is located on the Yellow Liles Plain, or the Golden Lotuses Plain, as Mr. Li poetically translates it. This refers to the yellow flowers which bloom here profusely in late summer. The city lies just north of the Luanhe River and the fengshui of the area is said to be excellent. According to Chinese historians, the construction of the city began in 1252, when Khubilai was the khan of Kaiping Prefecture, and was completed in 1256. At first the city was known as Kaipingfu (Kaiping Prefecture Government Office). When Khubilai officially named the Yuan Dynasty in 1271 and established his capital in Dadu (now Beijing) the name was changed to Shangdu, which can mean in Chinese both earlier and northern capital. Apparently Khubilai still retired here in summertime, when the weather was much cooler than in Beijing. Shangdu became a storied place, in large part perhaps because of the lengthy account Marco Polo gives of his visit there.

“A city named Shangdu was built by the Khan who is now in power. There are a lot of beautiful palaces built out of stone in the city. All the houses are covered with gold and decorated with the pictures of birds, animals and flowers. These buildings and patterns are so beautiful that they are pleasing to the eye," noted the Venetian gadabout in his account.

It is also the inspiration for Xanadu in Samuel Coleridge’s famous poem:

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 there 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.

The wall around the outer city is square with a total length of 5.46 miles. Inside this is another rectangular wall around the Imperial city, and yet another wall around the palace city.
The wall around the outer city
The wall around the outer city
The palace city wall is a rectangle measuring 1985 feet on two sides and 1780 feet on the other two. In the middle of the palace city was the palace where the khan and his wives lived.
The Palace City wall
Remains of palace in the center of the Palace City
Palace ruins: the walls are reconstructions on the old foundation, using the original stone and brick from the site
Looking north from the palace
Section of wall around the Palace City
Section of wall around the Palace City
Looking south across the outer city
The city was destroyed in the so-called “Red Turban Rebellion” of 1358, a precursor to the upheavals which led to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. The Red Turbans were an offshoot of the White Lotus Society, a militant group of Buddhists who believed in the imminent appearance of Maitreya, the future Buddha. The fall of the Yuan Dynasty did not, however, augur the appearance of Maitreya but instead the rise of the Ming Dynasty, whose first emperor promptly outlawed the White Lotus Society. Today the city is still known to some as the Xiancheng, or “Apparition City,” since at certain times people have claimed that the old city as it was in the days of Khubilai appeared suddenly before their eyes and then disappeared just as quickly, leaving only the ruins as we see them today. For more photos see Shangdu.
Stone pillar from the ruins

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

China | Inner Mongolia | Dolonnuur#2

I asked our informant at the Janja Khutagt residence if he knew anything about the San-kuan-miao Temple mentioned in Podzneev’s 1892-93 account. He knew of no temple by this name but he did direct us to some ruins about half a mile from the Yellow Temple. One gateway building seemed to be in fairly reasonable shape, and just behind it was another very dilapidated gateway building which was being used as a storage shed. A guy was sitting on the steps of the first gateway building, but when we questioned him he launched into some convoluted nonsense about the Three Kingdoms period. From the glazed look in his eyes he may have been under the influence of some locally produced narcotic. Mr. Li quickly dismissed him and turned to a woman slopping down a pig in the courtyard in front of the second temple. She knew nothing, but directed us to a nearby house where Mr. Li roused an old man who appeared to be in his eighties.

Gateway to the Central Temple of the San Yin Si Complex

This old man claimed that the remaining temples here were once part of a large temple complex known as the San Yin Si which dated from the period of the Emperor Kangxi. Kangxi himself, according to the old man, had once visited here. According to the old man the remaining two buildings were the gateways to the Central Temple complex. There was also a East Temple and a West Temple on either side of it. According to the old man the feng-shui of temple was very auspicious, with the West Temple built on the tail of a large dragon, the Central Temple on the back of the dragon, and the East Temple on the head of the dragon. The old man says that the main temple of the central complex was huge and contained “thousands” of statutes of what he termed Buddhas. Both the East and West Temple complexes were totally destroyed by the Soviet Red Army, again according to the old man, as well as the main temple of the Central complex. No one knows what happened to the statues.

Second Gateway to Central Temple now used as a storage shed

Podzneev claims that the San-kuan-miao Temple complex was at the time of his visit the grandest building in town and that the bell tower was the town’s highest structure. He also notes that according to local tradition Kangxi visited the temple in 1691 when he came here to met Zanabazar, so apparently it existed by then. No one has any idea what happened to the San-kuan-miao Temple and indeed no one even recognizes the name. So it seems quite possible that the San Yin Si was what Podzneev called the San-kuan-miao Temple. After perusing Podzneev’s account, Mr. Li opined that most of the Chinese names he used for local landmarks are now unrecognizable. In any case, as mentioned nothing now remains of the San Yin Si / San-kuan-miao Temple except the two aforementioned buildings.

Our elderly informant also told us we should check out the Shanxi Merchant’s Meeting Hall, which had now been turned into a museum. This was news, since up to then everyone had said there were no museums in Dolonnuur. The Meeting Hall or more properly complex of buildings was surrounded by a high wall and very similar in appearance to a monastery. Created in 1745, it served as a meeting place for merchants and traders from the province of Shanxi, who apparently dominated the commercial life of the town. The complex had been heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution but has now been restored. A sign at the complex says that by the late nineteenth century there were over 4000 merchants in Dolonnuur and that fifty percent of them were from Shanxi Province. The complex featured an outdoor stage on which operas were performed and a variety of meeting and eating halls.

Stage of the outdoor opera

Newly carved wooden door on the opera stage

One of the meeting halls

More meeting halls

We were fortunate enough to met the director of the museum, a man in his thirties, who agreed to guide us to our next stop, Khubilai Khan’s capital of Shangdu.

Monday, May 23, 2005

China | Inner Mongolia | Dolonnuur

The next morning we drove sixty miles north into the province of Inner Mongolia and on to the town of Dolonnuur. The country got drier and more desert-like as we proceeded northward. On the outskirts of Dolonnuur several forestation projects have been started in an attempt to halt the encroaching desert. The town itself is set among low sand dune covered hills. At one time there was seven lakes spread out in the depression here, giving the place its name (in Mongolian dolon = “seven”; nuur = “lake”).

It was here that the Qing Emperor Kangxi met with Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegen of Mongolia, in 1691, after the invasion of Khalkh Mongolia by Galdan Bolshigt, and where Zanabazar acceded to the suzerainty of China over Mongolia which lasted until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. In honor of this event Kangxi built the so-called Shar Khiid, or Yellow Temple, which eventually become the center of one of the most important monasteries in the region. I had, however, checked numerous books and resources on the internet and was unable to discover whether this monastery still existed, nor could the estimable Mr. Li discover anything from his innumerable tourism contacts in Beijing. Also, Dolonuur during the nineteenth century was a major center for the production of Buddhist art, producing statues sold not only in China but also in Mongolia and Tibet. There is a “Dolonnuur-Style” of Buddhist art often mentioned in Buddhist art history books. I seriously doubted if any Buddhist art was still produced here, but again no one could say anything for sure. In short, no one seemed to know anything about Dolonnuur. It appeared to be a town that time forgot.

The ethnographer A. M. Podzneev visited Dolonuur in 1892 or 1893. He was by that time a very seasoned traveler in Mongolia and China but even he was shocked by conditions in Dolonuur: “It would be hard to imagine anything dirtier and in greater disarray than Doloon Nuur’s street and alleys. The streets in all Chinese cities are normally narrow and dirty, but here they are even narrower and dirtier mainly because all the street in the city for vehicular travel are worn so far down in the loess that they look like channels of streams, with the buildings and sidewalks sometimes [up to forty-two inches] above the street level. In the rainy season these ditches used as thoroughfares are so full of water and mud that some of the streets become iiterally impassable.”

Now the broad sun-drenched thoroughfares running through the center of town are the equivalent of eight or ten lanes wide.

This is a side street in Dolonnuur, for God's sake!

We are directed to what is reportedly the best hostelry in town only to discover that all the rooms on all four floors, the restaurant, and the reception hall have been booked by a wedding party. “Must be the richest people in the county to book a whole hotel,” groused Mr. Li. The second and only other hostelry was not that bad at all and the comfortably appointed rooms were only 150 yuan a night, cheap compared to the resort we had stayed in the night before. For lunch we retired to a private room with a small covey of young serving ladies in attendance. By now I realized there was no holding back Mr. Li. He always ordered at least five or six dishes regardless of how hungry anyone was.

After lunch we made some inquires and discovered that restoration work was going on at a temple on the outskirts of town but no one could say for sure if this was the temple built by Kangxi. We arrived to find an ambitious restoration project in progress. A brand-new engraved stone outside one complex of temples announced that this was the Hui Zong Si, which as Pozdneev noted was the Chinese name for the Yellow Temple built by Kangxi for Zanabazar.

New stone in front of the Janja Khutagt’s Residence, announcing that it is now the Hui Zong Si, or Yellow Temple

Mr. Li was finally able to track down the manager of the restoration project and get more details. It turned out that the complex with the sign in front was not in fact the Yellow Temple but the residence of Janja Khutagt, which had stood right beside the Yellow Temple. The Yellow Temple had been almost completely destroyed, according to this informant, by the Soviet Red Army in 1945. I had no idea the Russian Soviet Red Army had been in this area, but according to Mr. Li, between the surrender of Nazi Germany and the surrender of Japan the Soviets had make a quick thrust into this area in an apparent attempt at a land grab or at least to improve their bargaining position after the final cessation of hostilities. In the process of they destroyed most but not all the Buddhist temples in the area. The Janja Khutagt temple complex was heavily damaged but not leveled.

Main Temple in the Janja Khutagt’s Residence

Side Temples in the Janja Khutagt’s Residence

Restoration work in progress in the interior of the Main Temple

The Yellow Temple was leveled, except for two gateway building in front and one small temple located behind where the main temple once stood. But the Yellow Temple built by Kangxi is the most famous temple in the area so now they are simply going to call the Janja Khutugt’s residence the Yellow Temple. It was after all right next door, and few people keep track of these details.

Two gateway temples in front, and in the back a temple that apparently stood behind the main Yellow Temple. The main Yellow Temple, between the second and third buildings, was completely leveled and there are no plans to rebuilt it.

Since the Shar and Khokh temples are gone we have to rely on Podzneev’s description:
The facades and architecture of these temples struck me as strongly reminiscent of the tsokchin in the Khalka Amur-bayasqulangtu (see Amarbayasgalant), except that the latter is made of wood, while the Doloon Nuur temples are of masonry and are ornamented in an incomparably more delicate, elegant, and lavish style than the Amar-bayasqulantu one. The designs of their cornices, the abundance of the most fantastic sculture, marvelous reliefs, and the graceful tapering, polished, and gilded columns—all this is really strikingly lovely and cannot fail to cause no small wonder in any beholder.
For more photos see Shar Khiid.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

China | Hebei Province | Mongolian Plateau

Popped into Beijing and headed north by car to Dolonnuur in Inner Mongolia. On the edge of the Yan Shan Mountains north of Beijing we got several good views of the Great Wall. This section of the Wall has not been restored and is not open to the public. My informant, the estimable Mr. Li, the Chinese translator who accompanied me on this trip, said that the wall here is very unstable and unsafe on walk on. The southern ranges of the Yan Shan are extremely rugged and heavily vegetated. The farther north one goes the more desert-like the terrain becomes. Finally we climbed through a number of switchbacks and emerged on a pass whose name as I understood it was Qian Song Bai Lin Chang, although it might well of been the name of a nearby place instead. Mr. Li was the the moment immersed in one of his interminable mobile phone conservations and could not explain the matter fully. In case the elevation was a surprising 5991 feet, some 5300 feet above Beijing. As if to officially mark the entrance to the Mongolian Plateau (although we were still in Hebei Province) there was also an ovoo, the first I had been on the trip.

Ovoo at the 5991-foot pass at the southern edge of the Mongolian Plateau

On the hilltops on either side of the pass were scattered patches of snow. Mr. Li, clearly more at home guiding tour groups through the Forbidden Palace than on the Mongolian Plateau, insisted that these patches were white rocks, although after finally ducking back into the car to escape the frigid wind (he was clad only in a snazzy and if I am not mistaken custom-tailored tweed blazer) he finally admitted that they could well be snow. A hotel located right on the pass, closed now but according to a caretaker having a smoke in the parking lot quite popular in summertime, has constructed a large statue of Khubilai Khan, son of Tolui, Chingis Khan’s fourth and youngest son, and of course founder of the Yuan Dynasty. To examine the ruins of Khubilai’s first capital, Shangtu (the inspiration for Coleridge’s “Xanadu”) is one of the reasons for this trip.

Statue of Khubilai at the Pass

From the pass onward for the next thirty or forty miles extends the well-known Bashang Grasslands, identical in appearance to the steppe in Mongolia itself and at about the same altitude as Ulaan Baatar. This is a very popular place for Beijingers escaping the summer heat and humidity of the city, and there are many ger camps with faux Mongolian gers made from sheet metal.

Faux-Mongolian Gers at a Ger Camp

All these however are closed now and won’t open at least until the first of June. Just beyond the dusty little town of Bashang we stopped at a hotel complex which someone in town told us was open. There was not a soul in sight, but after yelling down a few hallways Mr. Li finally rousted the the hotel receptionist, a young woman who seemed very surprised to see us. A room in this place were a preposterous 475 yuan a night. We finally talked the woman down to 300, but this was still outrageous, considering that I stay in a very nice hotel in the heart of Beijing in a king-sized room with free high speed internet access for 275 yuan a night and of course there are even cheaper places available in the capital. But according to our informants this was the only place in the area open at this time of the year, so we did not have much choice. Mr. Li was not the kind of guy who slept in the front seat of cars. I noticed he was applying cold cream to his face to protect it from the ravages of the wind and sun at this altitude. Asked by Mr Li if this place was busy in summertime the receptionist said it was packed out the entire summer and if you wanted a room it was necessary to make a reservation several weeks in advance.

The restaurant on the other side of the vast parking lot was a huge affair with round banquet tables seating up to fifteen or twenty. Again there seemed to be no one at home. After shouting for ten minutes a girl who had obviously just gotten dressed appeared. She assured us the restaurant was indeed open. We took a seat and Mr. Li, who obviously knew his way around a Chinese menu, imperiously ordered five or six different dishes. We sat back for what I assumed would be a long wait. Amazing the first dish appeared in about five minutes and the rest followed in short order. We were the only customers the restaurant was expecting that day—maybe even that week—so it was a mystery, to me at least, how and why they had all the ingredients on hand and were able to russle them up in such short order. And the food, especially the leg of lamb, was excellent. Even Mr. Li allowed that it was “not bad.”

Waiting outside for us after the meal was a local man wondering if we wanted to rent horses. At the moment we did not, but told him we might later. Questioning this guy we discovered that some twelve miles away was a interesting building dating from Yuan Dynasty. Following this man’s directions we finally tracked it down. The square building turned out to have a remarkable resemblance to a small mosque.

The Make-Up Building

A sign posted out front said it was the Shu Zhuang Lu, or quite literally the “Make-up Building.” According to the historical signpost it was built by the Mongol aristocracy during the Yuan Dynasty as a place where woman could stop and fix their makeup, in short a kind of glorified powder room. The ideograms on the front of the structure identified it as the “Make-up Building” are said to be the touched up originals.

”Make-Up Building" Ideograms at the entrance

Later three Mongolian noblemen were interred under the floor of this building. They were buried in hollowed-out tree trunks, said to be the only known examples of this kind of burial among Mongolians.
The compound is surrounded by a chain-link fence and the gate is locked, but an old couple cutting dried grass nearby show me where I can crawl underneath the fence for a closer look at the building. The coffins are on display inside the building during the summertime when a caretaker is in attendance but at the moment the door to the building is locked.

We went back to the hotel only to find the local horseman still waiting for us, hoping we would rent some horses. I normally take eight or ten day horse trips in Mongolia and at first was not disposed to hire a horse for an hour, but when Mr. Li announced that he would like to try riding a horse I changed my mind. This, I thought, might be amusing. Besides, a brisk horseback ride might sharpen our appetites for dinner. The horseman, who according to Mr. Li was a Han Chinese but who had a distinctly Mongolian look about him (he did not, however, speak Mongolian), lived in a small fenced in compound about a mile from the hotel. His wife and father quickly appeared appeared to help saddle up the horses. He had both Chinese and Mongolian horses. The big stocky Chinese horse were at least two feet higher at the withers than the lean Mongolian mounts. He gave us three Chinese horses (the driver had decided to come along) but he himself rode a palomino Mongolian. I expected an leisurely trot across the steppe but the moment we leave the compound the herdsman broke into a full gallop and we followed behind. After about a mile I was already a couple a hundred meters behind. My big clumsy Chinese horse clearly did not want to gallop. We stopped for a moment and the horseman and I switched horses. The Mongolian horse was a different story, and after another mile’s gallop I was several hundred yards ahead of the pack. The others stopped for some reason and I rode ahead and climbed up a steep knoll for a view of the countryside. The others stopped and dismounted about half a mile away. After about fifteen minutes it did not appear they were going to continue so I rode back to where they were. It seems Mr. had strained a muscle in his back. We decided it might be better to head back. Realizing we were heading back to the compound my Mongolian horse hit a full-gallop with the rest of the group foilowing. Poor Mr. Li was barely able to fold himself up to get into the car for the ride back to the hotel. He did rally for a five-dish dinner, including some excellent sheep ribs. To me five dishes seemed a bit excessive for three people but Mr. Li assured me that normally he would order seven or eight.