10,000+ MILES by TRAIN
Messages & Sausage dogs
Rolls-Royce in a cycle lane
Zola and retail marketing
The county not on a map
Riding the Water Dragon
Chinese luxury brands
China's sweet spot
London calling
Red, red wine
2001 to 2007

Cycling to Xanadu... and back to Beijing

Cycling to Xanadu via the ancient routes

I was puzzled.

I knew that Xanadu was somewhere in Inner Mongolia, but had no idea where. 

The writings of Marco Polo offered a few clues. Mr Polo had visited the city around 1275, after a "three-day ride" from modern day Beijing [which was then called Dadu, or big capital]. He wrote that his patron, Kublai Khan, the first emperor of the Mongol-controlled Yuan dynasty, travelled there for the summer.

I also found out that he went there by the "eastern road", and returned by the "western" of the only two roads. 

With these clues in mind, and after finding out that the city was called Shangdu in Chinese (Shang means, upper, first, or perhaps also meant preferred; dmeans capital), I was able to locate the site of the city on Google Earth.

Pouring over the terrain maps, I noted that, more than seven hundred years after Mr Polo's travelogue, a third road from Beijing has not been added.  After much deliberation, I decided to follow the anti-clockwise route of yore.   

Three days out, three days back.  Except, on this occasion, pedal power would replace horse power.

I also noted that Xanadu had recently (in June) been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, but thought it strange that no reports about its opening could be found.

I did, though, discover a good deal about the history of the city that had first captured my imagination on reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan.

What impressionable youth who yearned for travel and discovery would not have been stirred by the opening lines:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Down to a sunless sea. 

And so, inspired, but with only the faintest idea of what might lie ahead, I mounted my bike at 9am on Sunday 30th September and headed north to Huairou and north from there to the mountains.

My destination for the day was Fengning in Hebei province, 185 km north of Beijing, which I had estimated I would reach at 6.30pm.


The steep gradients... not just up and down, but up, down, up, down and up some more to over 1000 metres above sea-level (masl)... had taken their toll.  I was in the middle of nowhere and it was getting dark.

I had bought many things at the bike shop the other day, but I hadn't bought a light (on the ironic basis that it's dangerous to cycle at night in China).  Stopping at a xiaomaibu (small shop), I asked the owner if he knew of anyone who had a room to let.

"No, not around here," said Mr Lin, who then asked me where I was from.

"You're British?!" He exclaimed.

"You lot bullied us... burnt the Summer Palace... took away our land...".

I gauged that Mr Lin was having a laugh at my expense (sensing the vulnerability of a lone cyclist perhaps).

"Things have changed a lot these days," I offered.
"Too right they have!" shouted Mr Lin. 
"These days it's Japan that's trying to bully us; but they don't stand a chance... if they go too far... we'll crush them."  
Time to change the subject, I thought.  "How far is it to Fengning?" I asked.
It was 30 minutes after sunset and I was struggling to see the white lines on the road; 30 minutes later it was so dark I had slowed to a crawl.  Where was the moon?  I hadn't been too concerned about the night-time ride because the sky was clear and tonight the moon would be at its brightest.  But where was it?

Just as I had dismounted and had begun to push my bike, the Moon rose above the mountains in the south-east, lighting up the road ahead of me.  Moon shadows flitted past as I increased my speed before cresting the ridge and hurling downhill to Fengning. Thank you Chang'e, the goddess of the Moon.

The second day's cycling was much slower than the first. The mountains got higher (above 1,500 masl), and the climbs were seemingly never-ending and always more up than down.  There's nothing more disheartening than cycling uphill for half an hour and recording only a 30 masl increase. The road became narrower, before disappearing and being replaced by a rutted track.

This was northern Hebei province, one of the poorest places within a day's drive of Beijing, so places to stay were few and far between. After last night's experience, I vowed to find a bed before dark. Problem was, there were only mountain villages in this area. I had, though, been told that there was a place to stay "about 20 km" up the track.

Mr Liu looked pleased to see me. He confirmed that it was indeed his place that the people in the village south of there had told me I would find a bed. Maybe they had misheard and thought I had said "shed" not "bed", because that's exactly what I was showed.

Thankfully, the shed had a bed, and also a couple of thick quilts (the temperature at night in these parts was already below freezing). There was also a pillow that felt like it had been filled with small, rough pebbles. But I was a grateful.

Mr Liu guided me to his friend's restaurant, a short distance away, where I enjoyed an excellent meal. Returning to the shed, I placed one of my T-shirts against the window to block out the courtyard light, wrote a few notes in my e-diary, and in moments I was dreaming of Xanadu (without the opium that had famously fuelled Coleridge's dream of the place, I hasten to add). 

The Shed provided a great night's sleep (maybe the 10 hours in the saddle helped a bit). Whatever, at 40 yuan (less than a pint of Guinness in Beijing) per night, The Shed is a great place to stay on the way to Xanadu. Refreshed, and freshly powdered (Johnson's Baby Powder is not only for nappy rash), I continued northwards at 7am.

Thoughts that the high-point of yesterday would be the highest of the trip were scuppered when my altimeter registered 1560 masl.  The roads got worse.  I crossed the border into Inner Mongolia, and they worsened still. The entire road from here to Xanadu (except roads in the urban area of Duolun) had been ripped up and been replaced by a cratered track (in these parts, new roads are not laid in stages).

Thoughts that I should have come on my mountain bike were further confirmed when I began to climb to a point somewhere in the sky.

After an hour of climbing, I was getting a strong, not to mention disturbing sense of déjà vu.  Several cars, silver mianbaoche (bread vans) and lorries that I had seen an hour before were streaming past me in the opposite direction.  One car had the decency to stop to explain what was happening. 

"The road up ahead is blocked," said the driver.

"You'll have to go 'round".

I remembered from my research that "'round" would have been an additional 4 hours at the very least.  It was 3pm.  Sunset would be at about 6pm.

"What's happened?" I asked.

"Landslide," said the driver, "It'll take days to clear".  With that he was off.

I reasoned that it wouldn't be too difficult to carry my bike around or over the landslide, so carried on nevertheless.

I was wrong.

The mountainside on both sides of the pass had collapsed onto the road.  There was no way up, there was no way around.  The only way was over the rocks that had fallen.  20 minutes later, I had managed to carry my bike over the top of the huge pile of rocks by using them as giant stairs, some of which were three or more feet higher than the next.

All was well, until I got close to the earth-moving vehicle, whose operator was loading rocks into the back of a lorry on the other side of the pass.  I was worried that the activity might dislodge more rocks from the mountainside, sending them hurling towards me.  I shouted and waved.

After a wait that seemed longer than the few seconds that had actually elapsed, the operator looked up from his controls and, on seeing me, switched off his engine.  The next challenge was to get down from the newly-formed rock face; not an easy task given that the ledge I and my bike were resting on was more than six feet higher than final "step" to safety.

I waved to the lorry driver, a local chap who'd spent the last three days collecting rocks from the jaws of the earth-mover.  He very kindly got down from his truck took hold of my bike with his outstretched arms, as I lowered it down from the ledge.  With my bike now safe, I was free to rock-climb down to collect it.

One hour later, I spotted the track I had been looking for, and headed north towards Xanadu.  As the distant hills became less distant, the north-westerly wind increased and the sky became darker.  The mysterious mounds, the hills just to the south of the site of the city, were still over a mile away when the first dust-storm enveloped me.

I lowered my head, gritted my teeth, and cycled on.  I at last reached the hills, and began cycling up the track.

After a short distance, the track was too rough to cycle on, and so I went ahead on foot.  As I climbed the hill, the wind speed increased to gale force, as if conjured by the ghosts of Xanadu in a final effort to a stop this intruder defiling their sacred ground.  I lowered my head still further, crouching into the teeth of the gale, and moved step by step while dodging the debris that a new, even angrier dust storm was hurling at me.

At last, I reached the hills, and began cycling up the track.  

On reaching the top, I filled my lungs with the fresh mountain air and expelled a triumphant,"Yes!!"

The wind dropped.

And thanks to improving visibility I was able to survey the antique land of Xanadu.

I was also able to examine the building site that had been hidden until then. 

I'm not a student of Yuan dynasty history, but I guessed that concrete did not feature as a building material for the city that was designed by Liu Bingzhong, Kublai Khan's chief city-planner and architect. 

To be fair, the concrete visitor centre is "landscaped" against the hill.  And, according to the information board in the construction site, the building replaces an old iron ore mine that had been responsible for carving away a large slice of the north-eastern hillside.

But I couldn't help feeling that the 48 million yuan for the project (36 million of which is being spent on the concrete museum), would have been better spent on reshaping the hillside and on constructing a fitting tribute to the once-glorious city of Xanadu. 

What better tribute than to reconstruct the "Palace built of cane" that Marco Polo had seen there, and what he described in detail.  This cane palace was the "Pleasure-dome" that so inspired Coleridge.

What's more, the reconstructed "Pleasure-dome" would be there for the tourist season, and taken away when the season ended, leaving Xanadu exactly as it has been for several centuries... at one with the surrounding grassland.

Surely, a sympathetic architect could work wonders with Marco Polo's detailed brief:

"It is gilt all over, and most elaborately finished inside. [It is stayed on gilt and lacquered columns, on each of which is a dragon all gilt, the tail of which is attached to the column whilst the head supports the architrave, and the claws likewise are stretched out right and left to support the architrave.] The roof, like the rest, is formed of canes, covered with a varnish so strong and excellent that no amount of rain will rot them. These canes are a good 3 palms in girth, and from 10 to 15 paces in length. [They are cut across at each knot, and then the pieces are split so as to form from each two hollow tiles, and with these the house is roofed; only every such tile of cane has to be nailed down to prevent the wind from lifting it.]

In short, the whole Palace is built of these canes, which (I may mention) serve also for a great variety of other useful purposes.

The construction of the Palace is so devised that it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity; and it can all be taken to pieces and removed whithersoever the Emperor may command. When erected, it is braced [against mishaps from the wind] by more than 200 cords of silk."

"...When the 28th day of [the Moon of] August arrives he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace is taken to pieces." 

After all, "In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome [not a concrete-monstrosity] decree".