December 02, 2013

Getting to Xanadu, Via a Peking Duck restaurant. Beijing, China

"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 the miles of fertile ground
with walls and towers girdled around"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1798.

Xanadu has always been a fascination for me, an exotic far away place, rarely visited and not widely written about by modern writers. The Lonely Planet has only a cursory paragraph on it, helpfully pointing out it is hard to get to, and rarely visited. Ancient Chinese history fascinates me, and after having traveled to various parts of the Great Wall and sites near Xi'an, I wanted to see something different, and not something that had been recently reconstructed either.

Kublai Kahn's pleasure palace has inspired many others, from MOR rock bands such as Rush and ELO to disco diva Olivia Newton John, albeit with a lot less imagination in the lyric department than Coleridge. Ask most people, and they see it as a mythical place, similar to Shangri-La, deep in the mysterious east. But unlike Shangri-La, whose existence and location is argued about constantly by both historians and tourist boards, and is claimed by several locations in China and Thailand, Xanadu (or Shangdu to the locals) actually exists. It is located in Inner Mongolia, in China, close to the border with Mongolia. I wanted to go there.

From Australia arranging transport was all but impossible. No airports nearby, crazy two day bus trips from Beijing requiring constant bus changes in out of the way places (not a good idea if your Mandarin is limited to a few phrases relating to ordering food and beer). This was one of the reasons so little information on Xanadu was available, it is just so hard to get to. It was also not promoted by the Chinese authorities, being part of the 'Autonomous' zone of Inner Mongolia it had been off limits to tourists until ten years ago, and there were still lingering fears of the site becoming a focus for claims to nationhood.

So I had to go to China to organise visiting this far flung place. The first thing to do when in Beijing is to go to a Peking Duck restaurant and order a delicious Duck, preferably cooked on apple tree branches, with pancakes and fresh Tsingtao beer. This first stage was accomplished with ease.

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