NOW WE ARE IN XANADU!!! by Tom Carter
November 3, 2006
NOW WE ARE IN XANADU
Tom Carter travels to the winter wonderland of Inner Mongolia
In the summer it is a scalding expanse of desert, in the spring verdant grassland; but in the winter, Inner Mongolia is a white kingdom few travelers, beyong the occasional Mongol nomad, brave to enter.
Indeed, the traditionally nomadic lifestyle of the native Mongolian reflects the region’s unforgiving climate. To quote the usually intrepid Lonely Planet guidebook chapter on Inner Mongolia, “…from December to March – forget it!”
Occupying 12% of China’s landmass in a majestic arching slope of over one million kilometers, Inner Mongolia borders 8 other Chinese provinces in addition to the colossal countries of Mongolia and Russia to the north.
Today, Mongolians make up only 17% of the provincial population. And while leather-skinned warriors on armored horseback may no longer pose a threat to the Chinese, the mainland is now seeing a second Mongolian invasion, this time in the form of sand.
The vast Gobi Desert, which already consumes Inner Mongolia’s northwestern border, is dramatically expanding at a rate of 10,000 square kilometers per year and is calculated to turn 40% of the People’s Republic into a veritable wasteland, evinced by the apocalyptic sandstorms from the north that assault Beijing during the summer months
But vacationers to Inner Mongolia (Nei Menggu in Putonghua) need not concern themselves with such things as environmental catastrophes, for in winter the gold sands of the Gobi slowly give way to white as frost slowly veils first the north and then the entire province.
Arriving in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot (pronounced Ho huh ha ta), one finds that it truly is a “Blue City,” as its Mongolian name implies, but with a comparatively modern ambiance nonetheless.
The urban skyline falls behind the horizon as our journey via steam train progresses across the frozen plateau to the more rustic northeast. Following electrical lines from village to village, the train’s ice-trimmed windows reveal an otherwise barren countryside dotted with red brick homes stacked with chimneys continuously exhaling their coal smoke.
This is the pastoral life of Mongolian miners, farmers and shepherds hibernating for the winter, nary a sole outside save the occasional caravan of camels led through the snowy waste by men as furry and indistinguishable as their charge.
The flatlands give way to hills of white birch and sinuous rivers of blue ice. Veering north, the train then burrows into the Greater Khingan mountain range, which forms a natural provincial border separating Inner Mongolia from the plains of Manchuria to the east.
Passing frozen Hulan Hu, China’s fifth largest lake, and the Hulunbuir grasslands (now blanketed in snow), it comes as a pleasant shock to discover that the busiest land port of entry in the mainland is located here in the far reaches of Inner Mongolia. The Manzhouli crossroads, situated directly on the borders of China, Mongolia and Russia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, is a fascinating fusion of northeastern cultures.
Shops, hotels and restaurants are of distinct Russian personality and advertise in both Chinese and Russian script while the streets teem with rugged import-exporters and big blonde Russian tourists extravagantly attired in plush fur coats, pelt scarves and omnipresent ushanka hats.
But the final and most remote destination comes during the return trip south through tundra as vast as the sky above, the snowscape spotted with resilient brush, wind-swept fences and adobe villages of ice-glazed rooftops until…Xanadu, Kublai Khan’s summer palace.
While the name Xanadu invokes an air of mystery to those who have never been, there is in fact no “snow-white mares with sacred milk, rich and beautiful meadows” as observed by Marco Polo, nor Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s oft-cited “stately pleasure dome.”
Xanadu, otherwise known as Yuanshangdu, today is less an eternal world than a set of dilapidated stone walls and towers buried in centuries of dirt and weeds, leaving the fantasies of a romantic Mongolian city to be written by the opium-addled. China’s tourism bureau has all but deserted the ancient area for (literally) greener pastures, and, according to locals, it is a rare day when even one visitor can be found walking the venerable grounds during the winter months.
But the sheer desolation of Xanadu is exactly its attraction. Walking among 11th-century ruins mantled in dazzling whiteness, one is left completely alone to enjoy an untouched history and uncorrupted serenity that is otherwise not found in today’s China.
In the immortal words of disco queen Olivia Newton John, “Now we are in Xanadu!”
Tom Carter, a freelance writer and photographer from San Francisco, has lived in P.R.China the past two and a half years. He is currently backpacking through all 32 Chinese provinces.
Daily flights from Hong Kong to Hohhot (connecting in Beijing), via Air China, Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air, 6 hours, 7000 HKD, round trip.
Daily trains from Hong Kong to Beijing, 24 hours, 800 HKD. From Beijing to Hohhot, 12 hours, 300 HKD
To reach the bordertown of Manzhouli, daily trains from Hohhot to Hailaer, approx 40 hours, 270 HKD for a sleeper. From Halaer to Manzhouli, via shuttle bus or express train, 3 hours.
There are no official tours or direct routes to Xanadu. From Hohhot or Hailaer, get off at Sangandali, and then take a shuttle bus to Zhenglanqi (simply called Lanqi by the locals). From Lanqi, a private taxi can be retained for approx. 100 HKD for a round trip to Yuanshangdu, 30 minutes away.
Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.
This article originally appeared in a November edition of HK Magazine.