Recently while on a trip abroad I bought the book “In Xanadu: A Quest” by William Dalrymple at Chennai Airport. Generally, I don’t buy books in Chennai Airport as I will have to carry the weight with me all through the rest of the journey, instead, I note down the name and buy on return from Amazon or Flipkart on return. But I bought this book instantly for two reasons, the first was that I was impressed with the author’s recent book “Nine Lives” which I read some time back and the second was the description of the book “Retracing the path of Marco Polo” which sounded very interesting.
This book which is the first one (surprising considering how well it is written) for William Dalrymple was written during his summer break of studies at Cambridge University in the year 1989. The Author chooses to retrace the steps of the great traveller Marco Polo on the old Silk Route from Israel to Xanadu, the summer capital of the great Mongol Emperor “Kublai Khan”. This he does by travelling 12,000 miles on land (road/train) through Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan & China. It is amazing he had the courage to undertake such a journey through a region at its worst time of conflicts: Iran-Iraq War had just got over a year before, Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation, China was very much closed to the outside world and foreign travellers and with Palestine-Israel conflict at one of its worst period.
Though it is a travel book, Dalrymple interrupts it briefly with pieces of History including Christian Crusaders, Mongolian Emperors in the 12th Century and so on. In the past, I have read little about Crusaders and European History in the Medieval period, so these were new learning to me. Dalrymple does justice as a travel book as well by covering in detail the landscape, architecture and people of the places he goes through. Most of the places he visits are small towns or villages, which increases readers’ curiosity. Overall the book reads like fiction by keeping us on the edges to know what happens to him when he enters Iran and encounters the Revolutionary Guards or when he gets caught by Chinese Police or the time when he enters the protected region on the borders with India where China was testing their Nuclear facilities or when he is travelling with his Lady friend in a bus full of Afghan tribesmen in Iran and in the last few pages he comes to a city in China called “Duluon” which is just 30 Miles to Xanadu but reaches a dead-end on finding/reaching Xanadu.
Throughout the book, Dalrymple mentions a lot of interesting facts. Like Chini-Bagh (Chinese Garden in Uygur) which was the Kashgar residence of George Macartney, Britain’s consul-general and his wife, Lady Catherine Macartney, for 28 years, it is now a Travellers Inn.
Overall, I will highly recommend this book to any serious reader.