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Travel Books - In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

My bookshelf at home is weighted down with the books of William Dalrymple. Clearly, I’m a fan. But I had never read his first book, until now. And now that I have, I wonder why I’d waited so long.

In Xanadu: A Quest is the narrative of Dalrymple’s journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu in the footsteps of Marco Polo. The odyssey begins in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the callow twenty-two year old Cambridge university student, in imitation of Polo, has persuaded a friendly Franciscan monk to fill a phial with Holy Oil to carry to the throne of Kubla Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu (Coleridge’s Xanadu). This kind of eccentric whim sets the tone for the entire journey. Using Polo’s Travels as a guide, Dalrymple and his two female travelling companions cross Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and China, until they reach the ruins of Kubla Khan’s summer palace in Inner Mongolia. At times, it is not entirely clear that they will succeed in their quixotic quest. It is 1986, and Afghanistan is closed, the Ayatollah’s Iran is unwelcoming, the necessary permits to travel the new Karakoram Highway are unforthcoming, and they cross Silk Road China hiding in the back of a coal truck to avoid the security police. But against all odds they succeed. When they finally arrive at the ruins of Shangdu, they pour the Holy Oil on the ground where they assume the Great Khan’s throne must have once stood and, in the rain, recite Coleridge’s great unfinished poem, while their Mongolian guide circles his temple with his index finger and says, “Bonkers…English people, very, very bonkers.”

When it was published in 1989, In Xanadu, won widespread praise and made Dalrymple a name to watch. He was compared to Robert Byron, Eric Newby and Evelyn Waugh. Perhaps Dalrymple shared their same happy combination of erudition and humour. I think Dalrymple has improved with age. His later books are better. They are more nuanced and better researched. In Xanadu is a young man’s book, riskier, more ebullient, funnier, more self-centred, but still very much worth reading.


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