Once Xanadu, Now Duolun
In some ways Duolun is a typical Chinese city of the north. Clusters of old men in dark blue casual suits sit around basking in the sun. The younger men stand on the main streets with their carts, waiting for work to come along. Meanwhile, in front of the bus station the sidewalk pool tables are abuzz with chatter.
It is the beginning of April and the days have almost become warm. There are still a few patches of ice and snow in shady spots. This morning the streets are clouded with dust.
There are only a few towns between Duolun and the provincial capital of Hohhot, a six-hour bus ride away. The countryside is a blend of parched flatland and hills etched with fissures.
In a country where cities of one million are small, Duolun is decidedly tiny, with a population of only 130,000. Though not far from the border of Hebei province, Duolun is part of Inner Mongolia, one of China’s special autonomous regions. All signage must include Mongolian script along with Chinese characters.
In actuality, though, there are few ethic Mongolians in Duolun. Most – about 70% - are Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group of the country. The rest are Hui, a Muslim minority group identifiable by the embroidered white caps of the men and the silk head shawls of the women.
There are no tourists and the city is not mentioned in popular guidebooks. The appearance of a foreign visitor is a cause of great wonder.
And yet a short distance from Duolun, and some six hundred years in the past, once sat a world capital. For centuries this lost city has thrived in the popular imagination of the west alongside obscure, half-legendary destinations like Timbuktu and Shangri-la. The famous traveler Marco Polo knew it as Shangdu, but it was in a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that it received the name we recognize it by today - Xanadu.
In 1260, near present day Duolun, Kubilai - grandson of Chinggis (or Genghis) - was declared Grand Khaan by his followers. This made him supreme leader of the Mongol empire when it was at its peak. Mongol territory extended from Korea to Eastern Europe, and had engulfed the whole of China.
Marco Polo’s account begins (in the Henry Yules translation), ‘There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.’ Very little is left of the summer palace complex except some remains of the inner and outer city walls.
Coleridge’s version of the city, meanwhile, has proved more enduring. His poem ‘Kubla Khan’ offers an armchair view of Shangdu from thousands of miles away, and through the prism of an opium dream: ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree.'
The hotel I stayed at was not a ‘pleasure-dome,’ though it was comfortable and the staff made outstanding efforts. Assorted fruit and incense were laid out in the lobby - not to mention a statue of Kubilai and the far more ancient general Guan Yu, wielding a buckler in one hand while holding the end of his beard with the other. The bellboy wore jungle fatigues, and the hallways seemed worthy of a David Lynch film.
In my room I found a coffee table book titled Beautiful Duolun. I leafed through it greedily, looking for sites to visit, but the pictures were scenes of hills and lakes. My confusion only increased with such captions as, ‘Xishan Gulf of drunk people,’ ‘Lovesickness red bean,’ and ‘Be produced violently for nothing.’
Having set out to explore the new Xanadu, I discovered a huge bank of coal on a sidewalk. When I tried to take a photograph, a concerned resident waved me off. I met greater success at a market alley of fruit vendors and fried bread stands, where I was able to charter a motorcycle cab. Like many of the women in Duolun, the female driver wore a facemask to protect herself from the dust.
We left the tractors and mule carts behind and crossed a bumpy dirt road to reach a section of back streets. Here, the three and four story concrete buildings gave way to humble brick hovels, stone walls, and crumbling layers of dirt and straw plaster. After passing through a herd of cattle we reached our destination, the Shanxi Guild Hall.
Built in 1745, long after the heyday of Kubilai’s palaces, the paintings under the eaves were still faded and worn. Upon entering the main hall, I was astounded by a set of wall paintings. Covering the left wall was a tiger in midstride, represented in detail down to the last hair. The other side wall was filled with the writhing of a serpentine dragon. Though the paint was chipping away from under the tiger’s feet, the paintings were remarkably well preserved. The center statue of the hall was, again, General Guan Yu.
In the courtyard another statue gleamed white in the sun. This was Ji Hongchang, a resistance organizer who took Duolun back from the Japanese during their occupation of Manchuria. Ji Hongchang was turned into a martyr when he was betrayed by the Kuomintang, then executed.
Next we visited Huizong Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist temple built in 1691. Here the weathered vermillion buildings were stark and simple. Among the Tibetan elements were tall prayer wheels in the entryway and a parti-colored strip of prayer flags running the breath of the courtyard.
This temple was rather empty, especially compared to the Tibetan temples of Hohhot. The heavenly king statues guarding the threshold and the Buddhas in the main hall were relatively new, raising the question of Cultural Revolution losses. While Marco Polo attested to ‘immense Minsters and Abbeys, some of them as big as a small town, with more than two thousand monks,’ I found only two monks hanging around Huizong Temple.
There are no museums in Duolun. Its main symbol is a bull statue in the expansive main square. There is also a Bull Market Street, suggesting that - for now - cattle seem to be much more crucial than the city’s potential for history-driven tourism.
By the evening, the dusty wind had died down and the air had become fresh and wholesome. As I traversed the boardwalk across the great field that cuts through the city, I was astounded by the immensity of the twilit prairie sky. I was also surprised by the clusters of brand new hotels and businesses. With nightfall, the park spaces and buildings became lit up with bright draping of LED lights.
In a way, the supplanting of Xanadu by Duolun is cosmic humor at its best. But though I had expected to find Kubilai’s old summer capital eclipsed by an up-and-coming Chinese city, I found an unexpected richness in my encounters and sightings. But these sites were all founded after the Yuan Dynasty.
Duolun seemed to be a lesson in the wild shifts of history, as well as in China’s headlong rush to develop. Except for one or two public monuments, Kubilai and his unprecedented empire have been completely swept away. The techno remix I had heard blaring on the street that morning seemed fitting - ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’
Illustration by Bob Veon
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