Xanadu (4 of 5)



It is however, no ordinary embankment, but the remains of the walls and towers that girdled round twice five miles… Yes… this is the place. I go out into the bitter wind, and besides the track are stone pillars on which I recognize both Mongolian, and the ideograms for Shangdu. So here we are.


The outer embankment
with the stone posts bearing inscriptions

There are no gardens, no streams, no river, no forest (ancient or not), no trees at all, incense, blossom-bearing or cedarn, no chasm, no caves of ice, no caverns, no ocean nor lake, no fountain nor dancing rocks, no damsel nor dulcimer nor music, and the ground doesn’t look very fertile at all. Just a wide brown plain between low brown hills with thin yellow grass swept by a chill breeze under a big sky, and this embankment, about fifteen feet high. I contemplate preparing a poster for the English teachers of my old high school, showing a collage of this scene, Coleridge’s poem, and some pointed remarks about poetic license.

On a bit further to the inner embankment, and within that at the very center is a fenced-off enclosure containing some half-excavated stonework, part of a paved foundation. Here no doubt, Kublai’s tent would be pitched: being of the nomad tradition, stone palaces would not be constructed, especially for a summer retreat in the field. So I declaim a certain poem, and take a sample of dirt from the excavation’s spoil heap. Who knows: perhaps one morning the Khan stepped outside for a piss, and a few atoms that were once a part of his presence might yet linger.


The inner embankment looking to the very centre

Righto, time to get out of this wind! And I manage to rip my trousers in clambering through a barbed-wire fence, so additional flesh cringes at the direct chill. The ride back takes half an hour, during which the sun sets with a sun dog indicating ice crystals in the air.

On arrival in Lanqui I’m not allowed out, instead I’m taken to the driver’s home and requested to wait. His sister turns out to be an English teacher, and another person is amazed by a foreigner visiting… here! Much discussion. The taxi ride was priced at Y100, which is what I was contemplating paying: good money for definite results.

Now comes the question of how I’ll return to Peking. There is of course no direct service. Further, in these communities, everything leaves at dawn with no onward connection until the next dawn. Two, maybe three days will be required to get so far as Peking. Urk! Even going back the way I came would be slow, as the first departure for Duolun was said to be at 10am, necessitating an overnight stay, and so on. Alternatively, I could continue eastwards to Chengdu (as had been suggested this morning) then south, but that way also, days are thought necessary.

There is some confusion over me wanting to go to Chengdu for its own sake, but no, I simply wish to get back to Peking by the most expedient route. If there is no direct transport, then recursive logic has me seeking transport to place(s) from which there is, train or bus, but this isn’t easy to convey. In the end I agree to another taxi run, to Duolun, fifty miles and two hours away for Y150 so as to be placed for the morning’s surge.

Now, I must join the teacher for her weekly dinner with some friends at a restaurant. But I had a big lunch! Even so. So yet another group of locals is surprised by the apparition of a foreign devil in their midst. All are teachers, of chemistry, physical education, political science(!) and of course, English. We’re in a small room off the main dining area, a private party. As usual with Chinese style eating, the food grows cold while all poke about with chopsticks. I make attempts, but have little room available. There are many toasts with Chinese ‘wine’, in this case definitely spirits, then the host looks in and insists on the proper Mongolian greeting for a guest, a triple toast. Fortunately, these are only thimble-sized glasses, but they’re not small thimbles, and have to be drained. He returns with a plate of beef, and carves off a chunk for me. Yum! To general approval, I don’t mess about with nibbles. In the gob and chew. But alas, no room to do his hospitality justice. Truly, I can eat no more.

At nine it is time to go; my taxi awaits. After arranging that the postcard will be sent from the town’s Post Office there is a further delay as we detour to fetch a coat to help keep me warm then we’re off into the night, full moon to the right. We drive for only an hour, not two, on an unsealed road all the way instead of half the way: the arrival was by one hour sealed than one hour unsealed after a junction. Nor do I recognise the street we stop in as being that of the Duolun I’d departed with its restaurant, hotel, bus terminal fronted by shacks and opposite a Post Office. Here there is a bus terminal, no sign of any such shacks, and a three-storey hotel across the road. Still, the driver and his friend deals with the hotel receptionist and see me to my room before heading for home. This room is much nicer than last night’s, and warmer, but also there is no hot water besides that in the thermos. Y50 for the night, no city prices here.

Read Part 5

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