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Xanadu (1 of 5)

TIME : 2016/2/27 15:52:48

Who hasn’t heard of Kublai Khan (and his rather more fierce granddad, Genghis)? Even in English classes, Coleridge’s poem is inescapable.

So, here I am in Peking, and I know that Xanadu, the actual Xanadu, is not far away. It was Kublai’s summer palace and is just a few hundred miles north of Peking in Inner Mongolia. But that’s a big place, so exactly where, and how to get there? The Lonely Planet guidebook for China says that it is near Duolun, but William Dalrymple’s book “In Xanadu” reports that Duolun is a military area, and forbidden to foreigners.

By chance, also in cheap-rate basement of the Hotel Longtan is Ben, from the USA with more money than sense. He had arrived in China without a guidebook and had been asking me where I had been and where I intended to go. Then he spent six hours with an agent at CITS (China International Travel Service) arranging an air travel tour to Urumchi, Lhasa, Chengdu and a riverboat down the Yangtze, which will cost him some US$2,000 despite my descriptions of the perfectly adequate surface links available for rather less. Nonetheless, I am encouraged by his descriptions of the helpful agent, who is in direct contrast to the more usual assessment of CITS staff involving phrases such as “willfully ignorant, obstructive, unhelpful.”

When I find her, she is confounded by my queries but determined to help. She has never heard of Xanadu, nor knows much about the Khans. This is because the Han Chinese don’t care to dwell on the periods when they were ruled by “northern barbarians,” though they are aware of it. Thus the specious argument they advance is that Western China, and especially Tibet, are historic parts of China. This was because Genghis conquered all three areas and much more, not because China controlled Tibet.

We pore over maps. Xanadu is known as Shengdu (there are disagreements over the schemes used to render foreign words into Latin script) and we find a suitable dot on one of her big maps. She advises that first I go by train to Zhangjiakou followed by a bus to Duolun; no difficulty is expected over any military exclusion zone. As for my later intention to head for Kazakstan, her colleagues in Urumchi aren’t answering the telephone, but she says that I should come back after 4pm as there is a five-hour time difference. So much for Friday, October 25th.

Saturday I spend wandering around, trying to find a good map. The key requirement is that it shows both Chinese ideograms and Latin script, so that both I and any Chinese I am asking can puzzle over the same question. The Foreign Language bookshop has an excellent map of all China, but there are no regional or local maps to be found, despite the help of an English-speaking customer. Ah well, away to the railway station to book my ticket for tomorrow at the ‘Foreign Friends’ office.

I’m back to the hotel in time to join a dinner party. Christian and Rod and Danielle invite me to join them for eats at nearby “Mama’s” along with a doctor who regularly eats there. We’re actually adjacent to the main cancer hospital of Peking, originally intended for friends and relatives of patients to stay at. Now, the hospital has found it more profitable for the hotel to be converted to serve foreigners. Local people now cluster around the hospital gate offering board in their homes for a fraction of the rates we’re paying, a cheap enough Y46 for a bed in shared rooms.

So, along a side street we go to what looks like a sprawling shack constructed from packing-case plywood. We receive an effusive welcome, and are shown to a side room just off the busy kitchen. Wonderful food just keeps on coming. A bottle of beer, a can of coke, tea, and something like eight dishes comes to all of Y15 each, which is well under US$2, nor could we finish the plates. Indeed, there is a cultural clash here. Rod and I have been well-pummelled by our mums’ injunctions to ‘Finish the plate!’ but ‘Mum’ is determined to feed us until we do not finish plates, as her tradition demands.

Our doctor hostess is also amused by our style: the great space between the ricebowl and our lips, and that we first take food from the shared plate, place it on the rice in our own bowl, and then eat. No sniffs at chopstick use however; we all are capable. Eventually, I ask her to say to Mum that “The food has won the battle,” the traditional surrender cry of guests at a Maori feast.

Having a translator on hand is a fascinating opportunity to converse with normal people. Mum explains that her staff are all peasant women, because they work harder than city women. Very hard: fourteen hour days, seven days a week, just as back on the farm. They will work for six months or a year, then return to their village along with some item they had desired, such as a big TV, or a dowry, or money to clear a debt.

Read Part 2