Chapter 1 [The Old City]
As one moves north, upriver, the city gradually quietens and grows less and less busy. First houses, then entire streets, then finally entire neighbourhoods seem abandoned and partly overgrown.
Curious about this phenomenon, I often went walking in these areas in my time in the Yellow City. At first I did so tentatively, fearing thieves and whatever strange beasts might live there. But I soon came to see these places as dominated by feelings of melancholia and incredible age, rather than danger.
As I ranged deeper and deeper into the Old Town, as it is called, I began to discover the city eventually merging with the very jungle itself. First I found streets given over to trees and bushes, pushing their way up through the pavements. Then I came across great plazas, palaces and temples from the Yellow City’s distant past, covered with vines and mosses, with trees growing through their cracked floors and up through their broken roofs. Ultimately, these buildings come to resemble not so much human constructions but eerie vegetation-covered monoliths haunting the forest.
These jungle ruins indicate that once the city was even larger than it is now, but over millennia its population has receded and moved southwards, leaving ancient suburbs to rot in the jungle. I subsequently heard that the people of the city-proper fear the Old Town, and tell of ghosts and spirits living there, as well as criminal exiles and mad men. I came across none of these. The people also believe that in the ruins are treasures and strange artefacts beyond the imagination of ordinary men. Unfortunately, I came across none of these either.
Chapter I [Cont’d: Yellow City Geography]
That brings our account to a description of the city itself.
There are two things that the visitor will note as soon as he arrives. The first is that the city is yellow. Although this is naturally to be expected from the name, it is no less striking when one sees it for the first time. The rock from which it is made glows like gold in the sun, from the topaz shot through it, so even from a great distance one can see it sparkling like some barbarian’s image of heaven. (It is only when one starts to smell it that one realises how far this is from the truth.)
The second is the river. Or, rivers. At the Yellow City is where the God River, running down from the north, meets the sea, and shatters into in a great delta. The city has grown up around the waterways, almost as if the sediment and detritus washed downstream has built up about the mouth of the river, layer on layer, over thousands of years, until one day it came to be a living metropolis and the city was born.
If he stays a little while, two days or more, and strolls about it, the visitor will be struck by the architectural legacy which the city’s thousands of years of history have endowed to it. Everywhere are palaces, towers, temples, tenements and domes of different styles and heritages, which have been converted into residences, religious institutions, offices of bureaucrats, indoor markets, ghettos and back again many times over.
On the river banks, one always finds temples and shrines. The Yellow City is a city of gods, and this is one of the reasons why the God River is so called. Nobody can count the many spirits, divinities, powers and deities worshipped there. But each has their temple, each their cult, each their little patch of the river bank. The scent of incense mixes with the stench of blood sacrifices and sewage whenever one finds oneself close to the water.
Chapter I [Cont’d]
The people of the Yellow City are many and varied, but they are united in their love for three things: opium, knowledge, and tea.
It is difficult to say which of these vices is the worse, for all have their merits and their flaws. Opium keeps the people in a pleasant state of bliss. But its abuse can cause loss of ambition. Knowledge makes the city a seat of learning the envy of all the land. Yet its pursuit has given the Yellow City a surfeit of sophists and learned fools. Tea pleasures the tongue. But it also makes the bladder weak.
Opium, knowledge and tea each flow down the God River to the city in a constant stream. The opium and tea comes from distant Sughd, where growing conditions are best, and in the city seventeen cartels traditionally monopolise their trade. These cartels are the most powerful bodies in the Yellow City, and their leaders, who sit in council once a month, are what passes for rulership there. These families are slugmen all. One can sometimes see them about the town, being carried on palanquins by muscular eunuchs from Druk Yul. Usually their power is only outdone by their corpulence.
Knowledge comes from traders, but also from the exploring guilds. The rich slugmen families of the city clamour for knowledge of the world outside, since they leave the Yellow City so rarely, and so they give patronage to institutions which send men forth to gather strange beasts, draw maps, and survey for minerals. The biggest of these exploring guilds is the Celestial Brotherhood, whose home is in a great palace many thousands of years old: its ceilings are painted deep blue and painted with stars, from which the guild gets its name. The archive of the Celestial Brotherhood has as many books as there are people in the Yellow City, it is said, and there is more knowledge forgotten there than is known today many times over - in ancient books and scrolls written in languages no longer understood. The Brotherhood sends explorers far and wide, ranging over Yoon-Suin, seeking ever more about the world and its contents. It claims to have a menagerie of beasts deep in its halls that no outsider has ever seen.
Chapter I: The Yellow City and the South
Editor’s Note: Dahl did not organise his account into chapters, and the information is presented in a fairly haphazard fashion, in chronological order as the author travelled from place to place. This has resulted in structural oddities - such as the account of Dahl’s time in the Yellow City being separated by some hundred pages from his description of Làhàg, despite those places neighbouring each other geographically. Some attempt has been made to impose a certain amount of order on its contents, as in this chapter, where Dahl’s descriptions of The Yellow City and the South are grouped together.
The Yellow City
The city at the mouth of the God River has many names. The City of Topaz, the City of Gold, the City of Gods, the City of Whores. The Old City, the First City, the One City. The Grand Lady. The Great Stink. But I will call it the Yellow City, which is what the people of my home call it, because of the way it glows in the light of hot sunny days.
I am sure that even you, the distant reader, are familiar with the place and its venerable history. I would not seek to patronise with an account of its origins. So I will describe instead some aspects of its character that a foreign visitor should know. It is the greatest city in Yoon-Suin and undoubtedly the world, however, so my account must needs be incomplete.
First, the inhabitants. It is no exaggeration to say that the people of the Yellow City are by turns the wealthiest, most refined, and most educated people in all the land, yet at the same time capable of the most horrible cruelties and licentious depravities. Like all those whose societies are ancient and rich, they are also cynical and bored. The most singular feature of their life, which strikes any visitor the moment he arrives, is their strict heirarchical stratification, which all inhabitants obey.
At the highest level are the slug-people, the race who built the city’s first buildings, founded its first institutions, and who have lived there since the dawn of time. They alone are permitted to own property, to import and export goods, and to attend many of the city’s libraries, archives and madrassas. They are a pompous and effete people, fascinated by clothes and fashions and the decoration of their own appearances, though they love learning and study and pursuits scientific, aesthetic and sorcerous.
Below the slug-people are human beings, who are themselves separated into castes. Some are warriors in private employ (for there is no public military in the Yellow City), others are shopkeepers or sailors, while others fight for money or sell themselves for sex (the whores in the Yellow City are very fine). Their lowest rank are called “Ulufo”, the people who herd giant cockroaches in the darkest alleyways. These cockroaches eat the city’s litter and are in turn eaten by their herders, a sight which can be seen on any street corner around the docks and the river side. The scent of the roasting insects seemed to me like chestnut, though I did not eat the meat.
Lowest are the crab-men, who live outside the city in the mangroves and the rocks called the Topaz Islands, and are not permitted to enter the city proper except in servitude. They are unintelligent things, but strong and tough, and they are sometimes forced to do manual labour or simple tasks, on pain of death or torture and for scant reward. They are undoubtedly unfortunate and pathetic beings, very meek of character, though the people of the city think of them as the reincarnated souls of criminals and breakers of taboo, and deserving of their miserable lot. They do not generally have names, though those in employment are often daubed with paint to signify their master. I saw one goaded into executing a criminal: it severed the man’s head from his neck with one movement of its claw.
Introduction by The Editor
The journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl is, it is safe to say, the most valuable account that we have of the mysterious place once known as The Purple Land, but called ‘Yoon-Suin’ by its people. This precious book was discovered in a chest that washed up on a beach at Oroquoy, near fifty years past, with the other remnants of a shipwreck. Miraculously, at least two thirds of it were still readable, and it has since been the primary source of knowledge for those of us who have devoted our studies to that far-off land.
Who Laxmi Guptra Dahl is, we do not know, and the information he provided about his life is scarce. We do know that he was familiar with Lyonesse, for his account is written in our tongue. This also suggests it was created for foreign readers like ourselves, perhaps with the intention of being sold here or elsewhere. And we know the nature of his death: he was poisoned somewhere in the place called The Hundred Kingdoms, by what he calls a “kep-kep”, and died in the city of Syr Darya - the final section of his account tells something of this sad tale. And finally, we know that he was a well-educated man, erudite and well-read, with a clear eye, because that much is obvious from the nature of his work.
Other than that, he remains a mystery to us, and it is almost as if his account sprung straight from the ocean from which it first came. But one likes to imagine him, in whatever afterlife he finds himself, looking upon us and knowing that at least his life’s work is, after all, being read.
I hope, gentle reader, that you find this new edition of the Journal interesting, inspiring and illuminating, and that it is a fitting tribute to the memory of this unknown but unforgettable man.