"The greatest palace that ever was … The walls were covered with gold and silver and the Hall was so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people."

Even though Marco Polo tends to exaggerate in his reports – we’re not even sure if he ever really made it to China – still Xanadu, or Shang-tu on this map, the palace of Kublai Khan where Polo arrived in May 1275, seems to have made a serious impression.

The perfectly rectangular walls of Xanadu, lightly etched in the grasslands.

Apart from being Polo's benevolent host, Kublai Khan is an exceptional figure in both Mongolian and Chinese history. Building on the astounding military successes of his grandfather Genghis, Kublai Khan institutionalized Mongolian rule over China and became the most important ruler of the Yuan Dynasty.

While Genghis, with his flexible army of superbly co-ordinated cavalry, destroyed hundreds of cities across Asia and Eastern Europe, Kublai built cities. Khanbilaq, established by Kublai as the central power base for the Yuan Empire, would develop into Beijing, the capital city of China, the heart of China's institutions until today. Ironically, the capital of the Wall Builders was founded by the grandson of the most famous nomad ever.

Even after Kublai moved to Khanbilaq, he returned to Xanadu during the summers - closer to home... "The palace of Sheng-tu was made of cane supported by 200 silk cords, which could be taken to pieces and transported easily when the Emperor moved …”

The Yuan Dynasty remained an uneasy marriage between two diametrically opposed cultures. Despite Kublai's efforts to leave his nomadic roots behind, he and his successors kept on being regarded as foreigners. Too Mongolian for the Chinese, and too Chinese for the Mongolians, the Yuan Dynasty only lasted for one hundred years.

Not really surprising for a palace of cord and silk, the Rough Guide notes that today "virtually nothing of the site remains”. That's still enough to set out on a side excursion today.

construction of a new trian line outside of Zhangleanqi

Unfortunately I have no characters for Xanadu, but some directions from a shopkeeper instead. A little later, shepherds point in the same direction. And after turning north, in the distance… a palace! A bright white one, with domes, dramatically approaching on the axis of the road. Is this what Marco Polo saw seven centuries ago? Would it have been reconstructed since the Rough Guide passed here? Has it turned into a Marco Polo amusement park? Where are the busloads of Chinese tourists?

Once I pass through the gate and come to a halt, there's no time left for those questions. Soon I'm surrounded by the Mongolian republican guard, and surrender immediately – this time my face definitely at least as astounded as the ones around me. There we stand for a while, silently gazing at each other, some of the warriors casting jealous glances at my horse… A crew member breaks the spell, confirming they are shooting a “moving” there.

After wandering around the movie set for a while, suddenly I remember what brought me here. From the same crew member, I understand these white domes serve as a 'Mongolian style' tourist village outside the movie making season.

No remains, I find out after some wandering around, no greatest palace that ever was...

So I take off, kind of disappointed yet happy with the surprise, waved off by the colorful circus.

But another surprise is waiting ahead. While bending north and trying to reconnect to the road to Sanggin Dalai, all of a sudden, I come across a loosely closed metal gate blocking the road. RIght next to the gate, an abandoned ‘museum’, and a shack with remains of archeological activity: some books and drawings, even some clothes and a bed, with the wind blowing through. No one around.

And then, a little further down…

What I see are two huge rectangular mounds – grassy remains of the walls Polo talks about – the outer one enclosing nothing in particular but the inner one, and the inner one enclosing some scattered stones. Still no one around, Calvino’s Città Invisibili blowing in the wind.

Wandering around the grassy, eerily empty rectangle enclosed by gentle earth mounds I think of what became of Kublai's new home in Beijing. Based on a similarly rectangular layout, the Forbidden City developed into the largest palace complex in the world, into a grid of... walls.

I wonder if anyone ever comes here. Fortunately, Xanadu has not been discovered (yet) by the Chinese authorities. A little too remote and too modest probably to be turned into official heritage, into the next Mongolian attraction. And teams of foreign archaeologists are still busy searching for Genghis Khan's tomb. Mongolian visitors have left banners on a small stupa.

Leaving Xanadu behind, again trying to reconnect to the road to Sanggin Dalai, I get lost in the maze of thinly outlined tracks across the grasslands.

The dirt road I choose crosses a couple of sandy valleys, and eventually narrows to a double track, going up a recently reforested hillside. Some drops of rain pour down along with doubts if there is a connection to the main road north...

Finally the track fades and stops before the pass. I decide to drag my bike up the slope, and hike the last stretch up to a stupa (Mongolians share Lamaism with the Tibetans) on a what looks like the ridge of the range, for an overview.

From the stupa, stunning 360° views, displaying more sandy scars ahead, along with an idea on how and where to hoist bike and household over the grassy ridge.

On the other side, I make a soft landing in a tree nursery and get picked up by two farmers on a motorbike. They look bewildered (just like me wondering how I got into their plantation) but later they ask if I had been praying at the stupa, laughing… I show them the kanji for Sanggin Dalai and they point west. "How far?" Showing 6. "6km?" Yes showing 6 again. It turns out to be 60...

A decimal misunderstanding that turns out to be a blessing – instead of pulling into another dusty town’s cabbage room, tonight I sleep on a haystack of a beautiful family on the countryside. Father, son and daughters are collecting hay and mom is herding back the cows as I pass their farm at sunset. They smile, take me in, yet hardly interrupt their daily lives (without electricity) for the stranger. What a relief. Being ‘stuck’ in the middle of nowhere feels surprisingly relaxing and comfortable.

my hosts for tonight...

For dinner Mom dishes up a thick and tasty noodle soup (with beef, ginger, and cilantro), Mongolian milk tea, and fruit, to which I add a packaged pasta quattro formaggi – not a stunning success, but recipe for intercultural fun, as I make them eat it the same way they relentlessly refill my cup. Later, the girls take out an English textbook, with a small dictionary in the back, from English to Chinese only. So they have to run through the whole list for every English word they want to ask me, by pointing. But it works. Under the light of one candle, we exchange words about their farm, my trip, the price of my camera, dairy products, a dollar bill. Dad silently flips through all the pictures on my camera – he’s never been to Beijing – and Mom gets openly embarrased he's taking so long. In the end, they point at the heartbreaking combination of "back” and “again” and a question mark...

October 2004

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