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The Site of Xanadu, Kublai Khan's Summer Palace

The Site of Xanadu (Shangdu,元上都) nestles in Shangdu Town, Jinlianchuan Grassland (Golden Lotus Grassland, 金莲川草原), Xilingol, Inner Mongolia. During the 13th to the 14th century, it was the first capital of Kublai Khan, the Summer Palace of Yuan Dynasty and the most splendid international metropolis in the world. Together with Dadu(Beijing), they form China's White House. Distinguished as the earliest, most ancient and best preserved city set up during Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), it is also a living example of how two total different cultures: agrarian culture and nomadic culture clashed before enriching each other. To the Mongolian people, this place evoking their sense of national identity, is holy and irreplaceable. To the world, this site embodying the co-existence of two cultures, is more than heaps of ruins. In 2012, the Site of Xanadu is enlisted as World Heritage Site.
map of yuan dynasty
 Map of Yuan Empire (click the photo to enlarge)

Construction of Xanadu began in 1251, a time when it was named as Kaiping and positioned as the basement to conquer the heartland of China by Kublai Khan. In 1258, it staged the biggest debate between Taoism and Buddhism in that era, which resulted in the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in North-east Asia. In 1264, with the capital moving to Dadu(Beijing), Xanadu was authorized as the Summer Capital of Yuan Dynasty, its spiritual anchor and backyard garden.
The Mongolians, the conqueror at that time, are invincible in terms of military forces, while the Han Chinese, the conquered, are peerless with their advanced culture. To run a country formed mainly by the Han Chinese, Kublai Khan did everything to break the ice and to minimize conflictions, and he did a great job. During its heydays, Xanadu was inhabited by over 110,000 regular residents and was interspersed with numerous mansions, pavilions and monasteries. Functioning as the folk residential area, warehouse and market, its outskirt is more vibrant, drawing a floating populating exceeding 1,000,000 from spring to autumn annually. Among which there are Mongols, Han Chinese, foreign travelers like Marco Polo, Persian traders, European businessmen and missionaries. During the market and fairs, exotic and extravagant goods flew in, while the diary and livestock churned out from this grassland flew out. The Site of Xanadu rose meteorically as a political and economy hub.
site of xanadumarco polo
Kublai Khan (1215-1294): the builder of Yuan DynastyMarco Polo

However, behind flourishing appearance of Kublai Khan’s reign, danger lured. When the first foundation slab was laid, no one can predict that one century later, this empire is doomed to fall. Among all the power-obssessed opponents, Zhu Yuanzhang surpassed the rest and besieged the Site of Xanadu in 1369, which marked the ending of an era: Yuan Dynasty, the eternal epic and legend of the Mongolian people.

Steeped in mysticism for centuries, the Site of Xanadu has been immortalized by poetries, fables, legends, travelogues and essays. Among which, Kubla Khan composed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a classic masterpiece:

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.

This pleasure-dome depicted by Samuel is materialized through The Travels of Marco Polo, which lavished many chapters to depict the fascinating traditions, luxurious lifestyles, the novelties within the as well as the anecdotes of Khublai Khan. Fascinated by the exotic grassland lifestyle, enchanting scenery and those barbarians out of the Great Wall, Marco Polo spent 17 years in Inner Mongolia as Khublai Khan’s honored governmental official. Though in the end, he was held as a “hostage” by Kublai Khan, who appreciated his talents so much that was reluctant to let him go. Thanks to his wittiness, this man succeeded in leaving this “savage and holy land” with an excuse. If you want to read the most vivid and miniature description of that era which has went into obscurity, this is a best reading, and if you want to see through your own eyes, half a day’s visit is necessary.
taian mansion xanadu
Tai'an Mansion(泰安阁): the most splendid architecture of Xanadu

In his book, Marco Polo mentioned that in a garden of the Site of Xanadu one can find almost all the four-legged animals and feathered creatures living in Inner Mongolia. Kublai Khan will ride to inspect the garden each week. Whenever a prey shows up, Kublai Khan will allow the leopard to embark on the hunting. He will stand by to observe the ultimate game of life and death. It is not surprising that the leopard will get all it wants, and all the unfortunate preys will end up with being the meal of over 250 hawks thriving there. As to the architecture complex, Marco Polo wrote that there erects a grand mansion, whose pillars and domes are made of bamboo and coated with golden painting. Fastened by robes, the whole architecture can survive gale and torrential rain. Inside of it is a world of wonder. Various life-size dragons are carved with vivid postures. Finished with eye-dazzling golden painting, these mythical animals symbolizing power are brought to life. One of the most incredible points is that upon the emperor’s order, this whole palace can be disintegrated immediately, like it never existed.

More records come from Han governors, and one recorded that there are four thoroughfares leading from Dadu (today’s Beijing) to the Site of Xanadu, which meanders from 375 km to 550 km. Along the way, numerous pavilions, corridors and mansions spring up. When April draws on, Khublai Khan will lead his chancellors, concubines as well as waiters head from Dazu to the Site of Xanadu. This team of ten thousand of people is a visual spectacle itself. This three-week journey will allow them to drink in the much longed-for and nostalgic grassland scenery.
site of xanadu

Though reduced to ruins and dilapidated remnants nowadays, the Site of Xanadu still possesses endless glamour which time fails to wash away. Lying under the eternal grassland silently, it serves to testify to the greatness of Yuan Empire whose legacy outlasts its short-lived existence.

What makes the Site of Xanadu special?

First, it mirrors the perfect blending of agrarian culture of the Han Chinese and the nomadic culture of the Mongols. Some historians also accredit it as “Oriental Pompeii”. Liu Bingzhong, the designer of the Site of Xanadu, endeavored to strike a perfect balance between traditional Han architecture, philosophy, tradition and lifestyle with its Mongolian counterpart. The result is that within the confinement, movable architectures like yurts rub shoulder with traditional Chinese gardens; Confucian Temple and Imperial Academy overlook the hunting enclosure typical of the Mongols. It is a perfect retreat for the newly enthroned royal class to indulge in all the pleasures that era can offer, and more importantly, feel at home. The fusion of two total contrasting cultures is strangely appealing and very satisfactory, at least before it was leveled to the ground in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang.
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 In July and August, Jinlianchuan Grassland will be carpeted with eye-dazzling blossoms.

Second, among all the ancient Chinese cities, it boasts the exact record of year of construction and the architecture designer.

Third, the Site of Xanadu is blessed with perfect orientation, which points to the Polaris exactly, which is unrivaled and rare-seen.
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pottery xanadu
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site of xanadu
site of xanadu
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Artifacts unearthed from Xanadu are displayed in Xanadu Museum
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 The Site of Xanadu in Winter
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 Tourism Car
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  Mural unearthed from Xanadu are displayed in Xanadu Museum
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 Aobao: the altar of the Monglolian people.
site of xanadu
xanadu travel festival
Since its debut in 2008, the annual Xanadu Cultural Travel Festival is warmly appauded by tourists
Author: Sophia    Posted on April 8, 2013
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