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Monday, September 5, 2016, 11:58

A lost capital haunted by ghosts and history

By Raymond Zhou and Zhang Yu in Zhangjiakou
A lost capital haunted by ghosts and history
Top: Workers sift through ruins at Zhongdu site. Above: Images of Mongol emperors adorn the Zhongdu Museum. (Photo provided to China Daily)

The Mongol Empire spanned much of Asia and Europe. It built four capital cities, the least known of which is Zhongdu, or Central Capital.

It is a confusing name because different places have been called Zhongdu, including Beijing, which, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), was named Zhongdu before it was changed to Dadu, or Big Capital. In the west, the most famous was Shangdu, or Xanadu, literally Upper Capital, thanks to Marco Polo's vivid description and Samuel Coleridge's opium-hazed imagination.

Zhongdu was 265 km north of Dadu and 195 km south of Shangdu, a short drive outside what is now downtown Zhangbei. It was en route when royal entourages traveled between the two capital cities. For those accustomed to galloping in the wilderness, there was not much reason to turn a stopover into a palace city.

But Emperor Wuzong (1281-1311), or Kulug Khan, was not the kind of monarch who thought rationally. During his three-and-half-year reign, he essentially bankrupted the country by lavishing gifts on those loyal to him and having huge armies of supernumeraries. Only 10 days after he ascended the throne, he ordered Zhongdu to be built. Miraculously, it was completed in just one year.

Wuzong was a military hero. He snatched the crown from his younger brother Ayurbarwada before the latter could get to it. Perhaps to appease him, he offered succession rights to the brother, reaching an agreement that their descendants would get the throne alternately.

But the battle for succession turned violent. After Wuzong's sudden death at the age of 30, Ayurbarwada killed his loyalists and removed Zhongdu from the exalted status of a capital city. It was a popular move considering it was a drain on the state's coffers and did not fulfill any functions. It was not even a summer retreat like Shangdu.

Zhongdu survived for 50 years, slightly longer than half of the 97 years of the Yuan Dynasty. (The Yuan started from the time Kublai Khan proclaimed it as a conquest dynasty, while the Mongol Empire can be traced further back to his grandfather Genghis Khan.) It witnessed the comings and goings of seven emperors before it was torched in 1358 by peasant rebels.

The folly of a capricious overlord then lay in ruins for six and half centuries. The winds and sands of history were so relentless that for many years it was mistaken as a marketplace for cattle called "The White Sheep City".

But Yin Zhixian thought otherwise. The local history teacher had noticed fragments from the ruins that belonged more appropriately to a palace. Further archeological digs confirmed his suspicion, but it was not officially determined until 1997 that the ruins were the site of Zhongdu.

By then much damage had been done.

In the 1950s, a local dam used stones dug up from the ruins. And in the late 1970s, a new highway cut through it.

But legend has always pointed to the existence of something larger and mysterious in this particular place.

Fatal traffic accidents were reported to be frequent in the section of the road that transgressed the ruins.

In the 1930s, when local residents tried to erect buildings inside the grassy mounds, strange things happened.

The first household saw its roof collapse right after completion.

Ghost stories were so rampant that the few who dared to live inside had vacated it by 1960.

The palace area sat on a 3-meter-high platform, with a length of 620 meters north to south and 560 east to west.

There are 27 discernible ruins in this area.

The inner city with the palace at the center was 1,740 by 980 meters and was 1 meter higher than the outer city, which was about 3,000 meters on each side.

One of the pieces excavated is an animal ornament from one of the palace towers. It was usually ranked tenth in a 10-piece set. The only other place with similar ornaments is the Hall of Supreme Harmony inside Beijing's Forbidden City.

To see these artifacts and fill out gaps in your imagination, you need to visit the 9,000-sq-m Zhongdu Museum in downtown Zhangbei, and you will experience the glory days of the people on horseback and how they conquered and ruled far and wide.

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