‘There is no such place,’ ‘Sorry it is not possible,’ were the constant replies Hasnat Abdul Hye got to his faxes and telephone calls to his Chinese acquaintances when he asked them if he could visit Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome, according to the famous poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Ever since he had read Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan in his childhood, the Bangladeshi academic/writer and retired civil servant had been obsessed with Xanadu, the magical place where Kubla Khan had his summer palace.
‘The poem is a haunting one,’ said Hye. ‘It is a juxtaposition of different images and had always captivated me. But most of the Chinese are ignorant of the place, and it is not on the official map. The Chinese think it is a mythical place. I forgot about it till I read William Dalrymple’s book In Xanadu in 1997 and found that he had actually visited the place.’
In quick succession Hye read Caroline Alexander’s The Way to Xanadu, the Search for the Sources of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Caroline had also made it to Xanadu, after a meticulously planned trip, arranged by the Mongolian authorities. Dalrymple had several adventures including being arrested and finally being escorted to Xanadu by the Chinese authorities. Both had in the final stage been escorted to Xanadu and so could not leave clear instructions of how to get there. Hye had from their accounts the names of two townsDuolon and Zhinglanchi. He knew that Xanadu lay somewhere in between these towns, in the space of around a 100 km. Hye had something to work on. The LSEeducated economist, travel-writer and award-winning novelist from Bangladesh, set out at the age of 59 to trace his childhood fantasy of Xanadu.
Through a politician friend who had a Chinese business acquaintance. Hye began to make enquiries about reaching Xanadu. He came up against a blank wall. There was no such place, was the only answer. ‘Then I told them that if we reach Duolon or Zhinglanchi, we could ask our way from there. These two towns at least existed on the map, and my hosts were ready to escort me there.’
What followed were Hye’s adventures to reach Xanadu and his impressions of the place which he recaptured in his book XanaduA Journey which was launched in London this week.
The book is dedicated to the people who made his journey possibleSyed Abul Hossain (the Bangladeshi MP with the Chinese contacts) and his Chinese hostsWang Liandi and guides Wang Jiang and Liu Aiping.
Flanked by his two Chinese guides, Wang Jiang and Liu Aiping, Hye set off by road from Beijing. He had three days to find Xanadu. Wang Jiang spoke no Chinese, and made up for the lack of speech by giving a low guttural laugh every few minutes and smiling in a grandfatherly way, and Liu Aiping, the interpreter, spoke in monosyllabic English. Jiang tried to make his guest comfortable by offering him Wrigley’s chewing gum at regular intervals while Aiping supplied him with an unending stock of sweetened fruit drink cartons. She also made repeated monosyllabic enquiries about Hye’s family and children. Armed with a map of China it was her job to stop and ask for directions from absolutely clueless locals and truckers. Very often Hye wondered in despair whether he would get anywhere with these two.
Both Wang Jiang and Lu Aiping could not imagine why a foreigner should be so obsessed with visiting an unknown place in inner Mongolia, 650 km from Beijing. Aiping wanted to know why he didn’t want to see the Great Wall of China like other visitors, and eat Beijing Duck. ‘I’ve been there, I have eaten Beijing Duck.’ Hye replied grumpily to them. They looked unconvinced.
‘They were wonderful, never showed any signs of annoyance, not when we were lost, not when the car looked like it would break down and it looked like we could be stranded for a long time. I could not have made it without them,’ said Hye.
And though Hye had a more comfortable journey by road than Dalrymple, who went by train with a friend, it often felt like they would never make it. ‘Once we reached inner Mongolia, there were vast stretches of land with no inhabitants. There was not a living being for miles and miles and a reverse claustrophobia set in. Too much open space. We didn’t know where we were and had nobody to ask.’
The car was heating up, and there was no chance of getting any help if it broke down. It was also freezing cold. Barely 50 miles from the place and none of the locals had any idea of Shangdu (the Chinese name for Xanadu), of Hubilay Han (Chinese for Kubla Khan). It was amazing.
William Dalrymple had claimed that he was the first foreigner to reach Xanadu in this century. But Hye discovered from Caroline Alexander’s work that she had visited before him, and that three other foreigners had also made the journey to Xanadu. Hye was the sixth to reach the place but the first to bring back photographs; photography in the area was restricted when Dalrymple visited and so he brought back a tile as proof of his trip. The tile had been analysed in Oxford and proved to be from the 13th century. In 1998 when Hye made the journey, there were no restrictions on photography and Hye got back the first pictures of Xanadu.
‘So is the place on the map now,’ I asked ‘No,’ said Hye. ‘But I have made a rough sketch in my book. And by following the directions from the book, future tourists can make it there.’
Unfortunately for the tourist, there is nothing left today of Kubla Khan’s grand summer palace famed for its hunting grounds, its gates, temples and architecture. What Hye discovered was total ruins, a few scattered tiles and caves. Only the platform on which Kubla Khan sat and held court had been reconstructed with loosely piled bricks.
‘The thrill was simply in being there, in having discovered the palace,’ said Hye.
‘It is still a place of dreams, and only the really committed will want go to there. But the river is beautiful, almost exactly as described by Coleridge, winding its way through the vast lands. As we were there, the sun was setting and the moon was coming out. You could see them together, the moon looking like a reflection of the sun. It was completely magical. Even Liu Aiping was caught by its magic and wanted to be photographed near the river.’
The Mongol authorities have now begun (from last year) celebrating the anniversary of Kubla Khan. The Chinese are allowing this rebirth of Mongol nationalism and playing along with it. Xanadu is part of Inner Mongolia and is part of China, though it is an autonomous region. Outer Mongolia is an independent country.
‘It was neglect, and politics that led to the devastation of Xanadu. The place was forgotten over the years and no attempt made to preserve the palace.’ said Hye. ‘Even now, the few only visitors who come to see the place or mark the anniversary are Mongols; not the Chinese, the Chinese don’t even know about it.’
‘But for me it’s been a wish fulfilled. May be, tourism will step up to the place and over the years, the bagpackers will start arriving. For me the thrill was in the discovery, in being able to stand there near Kubla Khan’s platform and recite those fascinating lines,’ said Hye.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately-pleasure dome decree:
where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
The Daily Telegraph, Calcutta 18 June, 2000.