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