The road to Xanadu in the Travels of Marco Polo
Published in histo.philica.com
The road to Xanadu in the Travels of Marco Polo
Amelia Carolina Sparavigna
Politecnico di Torino
Using Google Earth and Wikimapia, we can try to reconstruct the journey from Beijing to Xanadu described by Marco Polo in the Milione. A possible itinerary is here proposed, in agreement with the words of the Venetian traveler.
Keywords: Satellite Images, Google Earth, Wikimapia, Marco Polo, China.
Il Milione, in English commonly known as The Travels of Marco Polo, is a 13th-century travelogue that Rustichello da Pisa wrote according to the stories told by Marco Polo, while they were in prison together in Genoa. This book is describing the Polo's travels through Asia between 1276 and 1291, and the period that he spent at the court of Kublai Khan . The book was in origin written in Old French and translated into many European languages in Marco Polo's own lifetime (the original manuscripts are now lost).
Since the book is containing several fabulous stories, from the beginning of its publication it aroused some incredulity in the readers and even today some scholars are questioning whether Polo had actually travelled to China or he was just telling the stories that he heard from other travelers [2,3]. However, as economist Mark Elvin wrote in the preface of a book written by Hans Ulrich Vogel , Vogel has demonstrated by specific examples and discussions “the ultimately overwhelming probability of the broad authenticity" of Polo's book. It is, "in essence, authentic, and, when used with care, in broad terms to be trusted as a serious, though obviously not always final, witness."  The study reported in  is based on evidences about the description given by Marco Polo of currencies (paper and cowry money), salts and related revenues.
Another approach useful to demonstrate that Polo visited China and the court of Kublai Kahn is that of verifying the accuracy of the itineraries described in the book. For this purpose, we can use Google Earth and Wikimapia, to verify the plausibility of the words of Marco Polo. Of course, the complete analysis of the book is requiring a rather extensive work. Here we limit ourselves to the itinerary followed by Kublai Khan for moving from Xanadu, the Summer Capital, to Beijing, the Winter Capital. Let us remember that Kublai reigned from 1260 to 1294. In 1271, he established the Yuan dynasty in China, ruling as the first Yuan emperor until his death. From the discussion, we will see that, for determining the path on which the Khan moved, Wikimapia is an excellent source of information. A possible itinerary is here proposed, mapped on Google Earth. This itinerary is also compared to the roads that today are crossing the region.
Henry Yule’s translation
First of all, let us read Polo’s words in the English version given by the Scottish orientalist Sir Henry Yule (1820–1889), that we can find at the web site https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Travels_of_Marco_Polo
[Concerning the Province of Tenduc, and the Descendants of Prester John]: … All this region is subject to the Great Kaan. There is a city you come to called SINDACHU (Sindaciu in Italian), where they carry on a great many crafts such as provide for the equipment of the Emperor's troops. In a mountain of the province there is a very good silver mine, from which much silver is got: the place is called YDIFU. The country is well stocked with game, both beast and bird. Now we will quit that province and go three days' journey forward.
[Concerning the Kaan's Palace of Chagannor (Ciagannor in Italian)]: At the end of those three days you find a city called CHAGAN NOR [which is as much as to say White Pool], at which there is a great Palace of the Grand Kaan's; and he likes much to reside there on account of the Lakes and Rivers in the neighbourhood, which are the haunt of swans, and of a great variety of other birds. …
[Of the City of Chandu, and the Kaan's Palace There] And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between north-east and north, you come to a city called CHANDU (Ciandu, also known as Xanadu), which was built by the Kaan 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 gyrfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. Of these there are more than 200 gyrfalcons alone, without reckoning the other hawks. The Kaan 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.
Moreover [at a spot in the Park where there is a charming wood] he has another Palace built of cane, of which I must give you a description. … In short, the whole Palace is built of these canes, which (I may mention) serve also for a great variety of other useful purposes. The construction of the Palace is so devised that it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity; and it can all be taken to pieces and removed whithersoever the Emperor may command. When erected, it is braced [against mishaps from the wind] by more than 200 cords of silk. The Lord abides at this Park of his, dwelling sometimes in the Marble Palace and sometimes in the Cane Palace for three months of the year, to wit, June, July, and August; preferring this residence because it is by no means hot; in fact it is a very cool place. When the 28th day of [the Moon of] August arrives he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace is taken to pieces. …
Henry Yule’s notes
In his notes to the text, Yule tells that there were two roads to go from Beijing to Xanadu: “the eastern road through Tu-shi-k'ow”, and the western that was used for the return journey. Marco Polo took this last road, “which ran from Peking to Siuen-te chau through the same places as now; but from the latter town it led, not to Kalgan as it does now, but more to the west, to a place called now Shan-fang pu where the pass across the Ye-hu ling range begins”. "On both these roads nabo, or temporary palaces, were built, as resting-places for the Khans; eighteen on the eastern road, and twenty-four on the western." This was asserted by Palladius, that is Pyotr Ivanovich Kafarov, (1817,1878), who wrote “Elucidations of the Marco Polo’s Travels in North-China”, 1876. The same author makes the following remarks: "M. Polo's statement that he travelled three days from Siuen-te chau to Chagannor, and three days also from the latter place to Shang-tu, agrees with the information contained in the 'Researches on the Routes to Shangtu.' The Chinese authors have not given the precise position of Lake Chagannor; there are several lakes in the desert on the road to Shangtu, and their names have changed with time. The palace in Chagannor was built in 1280".
“Chandu, called more correctly in Ramusio (Giovanni Battista Ramusio, 1485-1557, Italian geographer and travel writer) Xandu, i.e. SHANDU, or "Upper Court," the Chinese title of Kublai's summer residence at Kaipingfu, Mongolice Keibung”, is called also Loan king, i.e. "the capital on the Loan River," according to Palladius. Yule tells us that the ruins “still exist, in about lat. 40 deg. 22', and a little west of the longitude of Peking”. He continues also telling that the site is “118 miles in direct line from Chaghan-nor, making Polo's three marches into rides of unusual length”. The ruins bear the Mongol name of Chao Naiman Sume Khotan, meaning ‘city of the 108 temples,’ and are about 26 miles to the north-west of Dolon-nor, a bustling, dirty town of modern origin, famous for the manufactory of idols, bells, and other ecclesiastical paraphernalia of Buddhism. The site was visited (though not described) by Pere Gerbillon in 1691, and since then by no European traveller till 1872, when Dr. Bushell of the British Legation at Peking, and the Hon. T. G. Grosvenor, made a journey thither from the capital, by way of the Nan-kau Pass, Kalgan, and the vicinity of Chaghan-nor, the route that would seem to have been habitually followed, in their annual migration, by Kublai and his successors”.
Here a part of the description of Xanadu given by Yule in his notes. “The walls, of earth faced with brick and unhewn stone, still stand, forming, as in the Tartar city of Peking, a double enceinte, of which the inner line no doubt represents the area of the "Marble Palace" of which Polo speaks. This forms a square of about 2 li (2/3 of a mile) to the side, and has three gates—south, east, and west, of which the southern one still stands intact, a perfect arch, 20 ft. high and 12 ft. wide. The outer wall forms a square of 4 li (1-1/3 mile) to the side, and has six gates. The foundations of temples and palace-buildings can be traced, and both enclosures are abundantly strewn with blocks of marble and fragments of lions, dragons, and other sculptures, testifying to the former existence of a flourishing city, but exhibiting now scarcely one stone upon another. … This city occupies the south-east angle of a more extensive enclosure, bounded by what is now a grassy mound, and embracing, on Dr. Bushell's estimate, about 5 square miles. Further knowledge may explain the discrepancy from Marco's dimension, but this must be the park of which he speaks”.
It is very interesting what Yule is also reporting. "Between the year of the Rat (1264), when Kublai was fifty years old, and the year of the Sheep (1271), in the space of eight years, he built four great cities, viz. for Summer Residence SHANGTU KEIBUNG Kuerdu Balgasun, for Winter Residence Yeke DAITU Khotan, and on the shady side of the Altai Arulun TSAGHAN BALGASUN, and Erchuegin LANGTING Balgasun. … A valuable letter from Dr. Bushell - tells Yule - enables me now to indicate the position of Langtin: The district through which the river flows eastward from Shangtu is known to the Mongolians of the present day by the name of Lang-tirh (Lang-ting'rh)…. The ruins of the city are marked on a Chinese map in my possession Pai-dseng-tzu, i.e. 'White City,' implying that it was formerly an Imperial residence. The remains of the wall are 7 or 8 li in diameter, of stone, and situated about 40 li north-north-west from Dolon-nor."
A possible itinerary
The discussion given by Yule is very detailed. The problem is that the names of the locations are not easily found on the modern maps. For instance, of the two roads to go from Beijing to Xanadu, I was not able to find “the eastern road through Tu-shi-k'ow”. So let us concentrate on the western road. In particular, let us consider the Polo’s main sites Sindaciu, Ciagannor and Chandu and locate them on a Google Earth map. Today, Sindaciu is Xuanhua . For Ciagannor, we can use . In this reference it is told that “Xian Hong Cheng, which has been identified as Chagan Na’ur, is located in a vast meadow near the Shandian he River in Guyan xian”. A large salt lake called Hulun Naoer lies south-west of the ruins and can be identified with the lake of Chagan Na’ur. “A summer palace called Jingming gong had been constructed by the Jin dynasty nearby (in Liangxing)”.
The place of Chagan Na’ur can be easily found using Wikimapia at the coordinates: 41°44'26"N 115°44'58"E. In Wikimapia, it is described in the following way:
That is, using a Google translation, “ Hongcheng ruins, Hongcheng is a 750 years old town in the the grassland waste city, also known as Red City, or Wulan City, that is, the ancestors of Kublai Khan Nao Nao children palace, located in Hebei Province Guyuan County”. The rest of the Chinese text is not enough clear in the Google translation. Another town that we can easily find is Kalgan as told in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhangjiakou. In the Figure 1, we give a map prepared using Wikimapia and Google Earth, showing all the places that we were able to identify and others reported by Wikimapia. On the map we are proposing (in red) the possible itinerary followed by Marco Polo from Beijing to Xanadu.
Figure 1: A possible itinerary from Beijing to Xanadu, here proposed after the description of Marco Polo and the notes of Yule.
It seems that Yule, following Palladius, considered Polo moving from Sindaciu to Ciagannor, in a “three days’ journey”. As we can see from a Google Earth map (Figure 1), the travel moving on the red itinerary from Sindaciu to Ciagannor is of about 160 km, so the journey would be of 50-55 km per day, which seems quite hard to do at Polo’s time. However, let us read again Polo’s words “Now we will quit that province and go three days' journey forward”. The journey described by Polo is from the province, not from the town. Therefore, the travel was shorter: in my opinion, the “three days’ journey” is from a gate of the Great Wall, probably the border of the province, marked with A in the Figure 2. From this place A to Ciagannor (B), a three days’ journey is more plausible. Then, “when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between north-east and north, you come to a city called CHANDU”. Xanadu is C in the Figure 2. From the map, we can see that the journey from A to B, and that from B to C are comparable. Therefore, it is possible that Marco Polo was describing the journey from a gate of the Great Wall to Ciagannor, and not from Sindaciu to Ciagannor.
Let us also note that, measuring with Google Earth the distance between Ciagannor and Xanadu, we find about 80 km, not the mentioned “118 miles”, that in the Yule’s notes are “making Polo's three marches into rides of unusual length”.
Figure 2: The itinerary from Beijing to Xanadu, as proposed in the Figure 1, on a map which is showing modern roads and the fortifications of the Great Wall too (Courtesy Google Earth). A is a gate of the Wall, which is shown by the yellow square markers. We consider A as the starting point of the three days’ journey to Ciagannor (B) described by Marco Polo.
In preparing the Figures 1 and 2 we have also considered Yule’s note telling that Marco Polo took the road, “which ran from Peking to Siuen-te chau through the same places as now; but from the latter town it led, not to Kalgan as it does now, but more to the west, to a place called now Shan-fang pu where the pass across the Ye-hu ling range begins”. Again, it is difficult to locate Shan-fang pu, but observing the Google Earth map we can imagine a journey passing in the valley where we find the Wanquan Fortress (Wikimapia) (see the Figure 3).
Figure 3: In preparing the itinerary we have also considered Yule’s note telling that Marco Polo took the road which ran from Beijing to Sindaciu “through the same places as now; but from the latter town it led, not to Kalgan as it does now, but more to the west”. Observing the Google Earth map we can imagine a journey passing in the valley where we find the Wanquan Fortress (Wikimapia) and also the modern highway (G207) crossing the mountain range. Let us note that passing through Kalgan we have the eastern (S242) road.
Comparing the red itinerary to the modern roads, we can see that, after crossing the mountain range, the ancient travelers moved on a Eastern path, passing through many towns which today are in ruins. Then, besides the investigation of possible itineraries, the Polo’s book can also stimulate the study of the ancient towns and fortresses of China using Google Earth and Wikimapia. We discussed in [7-9] of Xanadu, which is quite interesting for its remarkable planning. Of the other towns mentioned by Polo or evidenced by Wikimapia, we will discuss in a future work.
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 Wood, F. (1996). Did Marco Polo Go to China?. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813389981.
 Vogel, H. U. (2012). Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues, BRILL.
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 Masuya, T. (2013), Seasonal Capitals with Permanent Buildings in the Mongol Empire, in Turko-Mongol Rulers, Cities and City Life, Front Cover, BRILL, edited by David Durand-Guédy, pag.223.
 Sparavigna, A. C. (2013). A Solar Orientation in the Town-Planning of Xanadu (June 7, 2013). Archaeogate ISSN 1973-2953, June 2013. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2769338
 Sparavigna, A. C. (2013). Sunrise and Sunset Azimuths in the Planning of Ancient Chinese Towns. International Journal of Sciences, vol. 2 n. 11, pp. 52-59. - ISSN 2305-3925, DOI: 10.18483/ijSci.334
 Sparavigna, A. C. (2017). Magnetic Compasses and Chinese Architectures. PHILICA Article number 1094. 4th August, 2017.
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