In Xanadu – A quest by William Dalrymple

Pages – 300

There’s something fascinating about the writing style of William Dalrymple and that’s what attracted me to this book. I had never heard about Xanadu, I didn’t have the faintest clue where it existed and needless to say I didn’t know why he wanted to write a book about this place!

Sir Alec Guinness has the opinion, “Delightful and funny”. Just two words and it perfectly sums up a book of 300 pages, about a Quest taken to traverse on the path of Marco Polo as described in his book ‘The Travels’.

This quest was undertaken while the author was graduating from Cambridge University as a history student. It needs guts and some insanity to embark. on a journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu taking him through Turkey, Syria, Iran Pakistan and China. All that he has a backpack and the company of a lady, as he covers a distance of 12000 miles while living in caravansarais or in small stinking rooms. There were days when they had to go without food and they travelled not only on local buses but also hitch-hiked in trucks wherever possible.

As they travelled into China, they had the fear of being deported because following the Silk Route, they ventured into forbidden paths.

Though this travelogue is heavy with the references of historical events and people, there is never a dull moment. I did not take the trouble to soak in the details of the kings who ruled these places or the historical events that made them famous but I did enjoy the anecdotes and the description of the life and people. I am still not able to come to terms with the fact that the author undertook this journey just to follow the path of Marco Polo! The Mongols resonated my feelings… When William Dalrymple and his friend, on the verge of being deported back to Peking are finally able to see the remains of Xanadu, the Mongol Security officer stood shaking his head as he grunted: “Bonkers, English people, very very bonkers.”

If it weren’t for the author’s insanity, we would have been devoid of a beautiful travelogue about 12000 miles of varied landscapes, interaction with countless races, historical musings of numerous kings and travellers, and tales of the two eccentric historians!!

Amazing read!!

Leaving you with two passages from the travelogue:

"We heaved Laura up on our shoulders and precipitated her forwards into the train. She fought her way in, flaying like a Saracen. Once she had established a bridgehead, we followed. A coolie passed up our rucksacks, and we manoeuvred ourselves over legs, shoulders, tiffin cans, sacks, tables and benches, until we found ourselves above the central passage. Then we burrowed down. Within a few minutes we had reached the floor, and seconds later had excavated enough space to place our rucksacks down on it, and ourselves on them. We looked at each other and beamed with satisfaction at our achievement."

"The caravanserai was filthy, cold and had no food, but neither, thankfully, did it have any Public Security guards. We slept like children, but only until five o'clock. To keep ahead of the police we knew we had to be off before dawn. We also thought it wiser to change our transport. If the Keriya police had telegraphed forward to Charchan, the Public Security there would be expecting us on the bus. We guessed that we stood more chance of getting through travelling by truck. So, feeling ill and exhausted, we tramped around the different caravanserai dormitories looking for a driver who was leaving immediately, heading in the right direction and prepared to take us with him. Only one filled all these criteria: as at Khotan, we set off into the desert on top of a pile of coal. To mark the occasion we wore for the first time the 'disguises' we had bought in Keriya. Mine consisted of a Mao suit topped by a green Uigur skullcap; Louisa wore a printed dress and a white veil. From front-on, in broad daylight, neither disguise fooled anyone. Indeed on several occasions they caused hysterical peals of laughter from Uigurs who otherwise might never have noticed us. Nevertheless we thought that the 'disguises' did look vaguely convincing from the back. If ever we came to a checkpoint, we planned to fall forward on our faces and pretend to be asleep. Only the most officious guard would be rude enough to wake a sleeping couple, or so, at any rate, we hoped."

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