Sep 232015


Today marks the 800th birthday (1215) of the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. Under Kublai Khan with the conquest of China, the Mongol empire reached its greatest extent. I’m slightly torn about celebrating this anniversary because Kublai was one of the most ruthless, cruel, and brutal leaders in world history, a fact I am rather reluctant to honor. On the other hand, there is no denying the splendor of his rule and the lasting impact of his empire, especially in China. His birth is not being celebrated here in China because of a government policy of ethnic unity which obviates celebrating the Mongols and their legacy, important though it is to the history of China.

I thought perhaps it would be best to talk about Xanadu, or Shangdu, the capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty until he moved his capital to what is now Beijing. Xanadu remained his summer capital, noted for its opulence which was described by many authors. Xanadu is located in what is now called Inner Mongolia, 350 kilometers (220 mi) north of Beijing. The old city is roughly square shaped with sides of about 2,200 m. It consists of an “outer city”, and an “inner city” which is also roughly a square layout with sides of about 1,400 m. The inner city contains Kublai Khan’s palace with sides of roughly 550 m and covering an area of around 40% the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The most visible modern-day remnants are the earthen walls though there is also a ground-level, circular brick platform in the center of the inner enclosure. The city, originally named Kaiping (开平, Kāipíng), was designed by Chinese architect Liu Bingzhong from 1252 to 1256. In 1264 it was renamed Shangdu. At its zenith, over 100,000 people lived within its walls.


In 1872, Steven Bushell, affiliated with the British Legation in Beijing, visited the site and reported that remains of temples, blocks of marble, and tiles were still to be found there. By the 1990s, all these artifacts were completely gone, most likely collected by the inhabitants of the nearby town of Dolon Nor to construct their houses. The artwork is still seen in the walls of some Dolon Nor buildings. Today, only ruins remain, surrounded by a grassy mound that was once the city walls. Since 2002, a restoration effort has been undertaken and in June 2012, Shangdu was made a World Heritage Site.


Marco Polo visited Shangdu in about 1275. In about 1298–99, he recorded one of the most complete descriptions of the city as it existed. Here is an excerpt:

And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between north-east and north, you come to a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning. There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

Round this Palace a wall is built, inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. Of these there are more than 200 gerfalcons alone, without reckoning the other hawks. The Khan himself goes every week to see his birds sitting in mew, and sometimes he rides through the park with a leopard behind him on his horse’s croup; and then if he sees any animal that takes his fancy, he slips his leopard at it, and the game when taken is made over to feed the hawks in mew. This he does for diversion.


In 1614, the English clergyman Samuel Purchas published Purchas his Pilgrimes – or Relations of the world and the Religions observed in all ages and places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. This book contained a brief description of Shangdu, based on the early description of Marco Polo:

In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.


In 1797, according to his own account, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was reading about Shangdu in Purchas his Pilgrimes, fell asleep, and had an opium-inspired dream. The dream caused him to begin the poem known as ‘Kubla Khan’. Unfortunately Coleridge’s writing was interrupted by an unnamed “man from Porlock” (a nearby village), causing him to forget much of the dream. But his images of Shangdu form one of the best-known poems in the English language.


 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.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 

As a small aside, I was once, decades ago, baffled by a clue in The Times crossword – “sacred flower (4)” – for which I had _L_H. Cunningly tricky (short clues always are) !! Next day when I looked up the answer I kicked myself mightily. The word “flower” was not pronounced as if it were a blossom, but as a thing which “flows” – that is, a river. Grrrr. How could I have missed that?

khan8  khan9

Kublai Khan must have had great banquets in Xanadu, but we do not have extant recipes. Instead I turn to a famous Mongolian dish, khorkhog. Khorkhog is made by cooking pieces of meat inside a container which also contains hot stones and water, and is often also heated from the outside. To make khorkhog, Mongolians take lamb, mutton or goat meat, and cut it into pieces of convenient size, leaving the bone in. Then the cook puts ten to twenty fist-sized rocks in a fire. When the rocks are hot they are placed with the meat and vegetables plus water in a cooking container such as a metal milk jug. The ingredients should be layered, with the vegetables (carrots, potatoes, and cabbage) on top. The container is capped tightly and placed in a bed of coals for around 90 minutes. When finished, the cook hands out portions of meat along with the hot stones which are tossed from hand to hand and are said to have beneficial properties. Diners usually eat khorkhog with their fingers, although one can use a knife to slice the meat off the bone. Khorkhog is a popular dish in the Mongolian countryside, but usually is not served in restaurants.

Here’s an entertaining tourist video which will challenge your linguistic skills. The titles and most of the dialog are in Russian but you’ll catch some Mongolian as well. Makes me wish (very briefly) that my job prospects in Inner Mongolia had panned out.

Sep 152015


Today is conventionally taken as the birthday (1254) of Marco Polo although the actual date and place of his birth are sometimes disputed. Polo learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia, and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. Although Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China, he was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experiences.

In 1260, Niccolò and Maffeo, while residing in Constantinople, then the capital of the Latin Empire, foresaw a political change; they liquidated their assets into jewels and moved away. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, they passed through much of Asia, and met with the Kublai Khan, a Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan dynasty. Their decision to leave Constantinople proved timely. In 1261 Michael VIII Palaiologos, the ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, took Constantinople, promptly burned the Venetian quarter and re-established the Eastern Roman Empire. Captured Venetian citizens were blinded, while many of those who managed to escape perished aboard overloaded refugee ships fleeing to other Venetian colonies in the Aegean Sea. Meanwhile, Marco Polo’s mother died, and an aunt and uncle raised him. He received a good education, learning mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising, and the handling of cargo ships, but he learned little or no Latin.


In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice. In 1271, during the rule of Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo, Marco Polo (at seventeen years of age), his father, and his uncle set off for Asia on the series of adventures that Marco later documented in his book. They returned to Venice in 1295, 24 years later, very rich. They had traveled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).

At this time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa. Polo armed a galley equipped with a trebuchet to join the war. He was probably caught by Genoans in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta and not during the battle of Curzola (September 1298), off the Dalmatian coast, as is sometimes reported. The latter claim is due to a later tradition recorded by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in the 16th century.

Polo spent several months of his imprisonment dictating a detailed account of his travels to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who incorporated tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China. The book soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form, and became known as The Travels of Marco Polo. It depicts the Polos’ journeys throughout Asia, giving Europeans their first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan.


Polo was finally released from captivity in August 1299, and returned home to Venice, where his father and uncle had purchased a large house in the zone named contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo (Corte del Milion). The company continued its activities and Marco soon became a wealthy merchant. Polo financed other expeditions, but never left Venice again. In 1300, he married Donata Badoer, the daughter of Vitale Badoer, a merchant. They had three daughters, Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta.

In 1323, Polo was confined to bed, due to illness. On January 8, 1324, despite physicians’ efforts to treat him, Polo was on his deathbed. To write and certify the will, his family requested Giovanni Giustiniani, a priest of San Procolo. His wife, Donata, and his three daughters were appointed by him as co-executrices. The church was entitled by law to a portion of his estate; he approved of this and ordered that a further sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, the place where he wished to be buried. He also set free a “Tartar slave” who may have accompanied him from Asia.


The Travels is divided into four books. Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco encountered on his way to China. Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan. Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and the east coast of Africa. Book Four describes his trip back to Italy. The trip involved a number of hazards such as a gang of pirates robbing thousands of gold pieces from Marco and holding him hostage. Eventually the pirates were arrested by a passing ship which called for help from the Chinese authorities.

I think it is generally understood nowadays that Marco Polo did not bring pasta back to Italy from China, although for a long time that was the common misconception. Archeologists have proven that pasta existed in Italy before Polo went on his travels.  It’s quite easy to imagine that boiled dough was invented independently in different cultures.  But the association lingers despite the evidence, so let’s celebrate Polo’s journey with a pasta dish.  I discovered that Julia Child cooked  a dish she called Marco Polo spaghetti when she visited Mr Rogers in his Neighborhood. I could not find a video of this event but I do have a general recipe.  I’m not sure why Child thought this was especially Marco Polo-ish.


Marco Polo Spaghetti

Cook 1 lb of spaghetti in plenty of salted water until it is al dente, that is, with a bite (not limp), but cooked through.

Heat a generous amount of butter or olive oil in a heavy pot.  Add sliced, roasted red pepper, pitted and halved black olives, chopped walnuts, chopped green onions, and flaked tuna (drained). Sauté until all the ingredients are heated through. Add the spaghetti and toss around until the ingredients are all thoroughly mixed and coated with butter or oil.

Serve on a warmed platter topped with shredded Swiss cheese.