Traveling to Xanadu

Grant Cornett

The ancient Chinese city is well worth a visit.

For the musically minded, the word “Xanadu” conjures a sparkly Olivia Newton-John nightclub. Cinephiles will recall the Xanadu of Citizen Kane, the title character’s treasure-stocked estate on an artificial mountain. Before film or disco, there was the “stately pleasure dome” of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s drug-induced poem “Kubla Khan.” But unlike its sister city Shangri-La, Xanadu was, and is, a real place: a walled metropolis in Inner Mongolia, the Yuan Dynasty capital in the 13th and 14th centuries. Here was forged a remarkable East-West friendship between ruler Kublai Khan and voyager Marco Polo, who later described Xanadu’s parks, waterways and imported wildlife in awestruck detail. Today travelers to China can admire the city, recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site, albeit as an archaeological dig. The widening excavation is uncovering the architecture and artifacts of a uniquely blended nomadic-agrarian culture. Sited on a vast, grassy plain, Xanadu’s palatial splendor no longer dazzles, but its location alone remains as ravishing as an opium dream. A three-day tour with China Holidays starts at $580;