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Smashed marble columns and broken glass. Exploring the ruins of Xanadu

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan the legendary warlord who subjugated China from his Mongolian stronghold, built the Xanadu palace complex as a summer retreat from the heat of the Forbidden city in Beijing. The palace is arranged in a pattern of three concentric walled circles. Standing on the outer crumbling wall little remains of the buildings that once stood inside, only the odd column base, and linear foundations are visible amongst the plains of grass. When the Khan lived here many of the buildings were temporary, large tents were erected on arrival and taken down on departure.

Walking in the palace grounds I was struck by the volumes of broken pottery, small shards of coloured glass, and exquisite painted marble that littered the ground. Crossing the remains of a moat and walking into the inner most circle, what was once the Forbidden city of Xanadu, the number of fragments increased, indicating the richness of the buildings that had stood here prior to the ransacking and destruction, first by the red turbaned bandits in 1358, and then by the forces of the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang in 1369. That was the end of Xanadu as an important palace with the Ming emperors retreating back to Beijing, and behind the Great Wall.

Walking around the remains of the city I could only guess what the foundations represented. Were these the pools where the Great Khan bathed, or was this the remains of the gold and marble encrusted throne room where foreign diplomats, maybe even Marco Polo, paid their respects? So far only limited excavations have taken place and no detailed plans of the city are available for the rare visitor.

Mr Wong, our emergency vehicle driver from Beijing, was disappointed, for although he had never heard of the city that had rivaled Beijing in stature, and was once a byword for opulence, he had hoped to see restored buildings with guides eager to take your money and conjure up images of palace life. For me the romance and isolation of the pleasure dome, in its beautiful Mongolian steppe background, had made the visit extremely worthwhile. I have little doubt that, over time, the Chinese authorities will realize the tourist value of Xanadu and will “restore” it by rebuilding it with modern materials, as they have done to many ancient sites in China, but today in its emptiness and solitude it retains much of its mystery and is well worth the journey to get there.



Profile photo of Simon Proudman

Has a travel addiction, loves history, geology, punk, and sampling local food and beer. A bottle of wine and fresh bread & cheese on a beach is luxury travel.

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