In Xanadu by William Dalrymple

There are many people who are adventurous and many more who are world-travelers. In today’s world of the internet and rich media streaming one can easily be an armchair traveler who can see the world from the comfort of their homes. But in 1989, there were no low cost carriers or dot com travel guides. It was in this year that William Dalrymple chose to retrace the steps of the great traveler Marco Polo on the old Silk Route. In Xanadu is a recollection of this journey that William undertook during the summer break of his final year in college and the book was published a year later when he was 23.

William starts his journey at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where he obtains a vial of holy oil aiming to do exactly as Polo had done before him. Carry this holy oil across Asia to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and hope to convert him to Christianity. Though in this case the vial contained nothing but ordinary sunflower oil, William was dedicated to his mission of delivering this vial to Xanadu, the summer palace of the emperor Kublai Khan during Polo’s times. The journey takes him across Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and finally China. What livens up any journey, are the your travel companions. And he(William) is not alone during the journey. Along with countless strangers, two different but wonderful women accompany him. On the first leg of the journey till Pakistan he is accompanied by Laura, a fiery woman whose father is the British ambassador to India with connections in all the right places. Their visas for several countries and permits in others are all thanks to these connections. On the second leg through China he is accompanied by his ex-girlfriend Louisa which one would expect to add a lot of drama. But other than bouts of sickness and extreme diarrhea his companions remain largely drama-free.

The entire journey is sponsored by a grant of 700 pounds from Cambridge. When traveling on such a budget several corners are cut. They stay in flea-bag hotels, eat all kinds of local delicacies (chiefly because of the unavailability of anything else that is edible) and travel on all kinds of transport. So while they spend one night on the beach in Turkey and take a bath in the sea, other nights are spent on the top of coal-laden trucks. Their trip also involves several risky adventures like traveling in forbidden areas of China, entering countries without a regular permit but they push, twist or cajole their way through several sticky situations. But this not an account of a hippie journey across Asia. Coming from a Cambridge history major, this account is much more than a simple travelogue.

William has a very unique way of writing his travel experiences that makes for a very interesting read. He pauses several times during his narration of his travels to give the reader an insight into history. He paints a beautiful picture of the mosques and chapels during Polo’s time and rues their often dilapidated status now. But none of these pauses seem to hinder the progression of the narration. They are in fact subtle diversions that help the reader form a picture of the towns and locations along the silk route.

William is a history major at Cambridge and has got his research for the book pat down. In fact, he travels throughout the journey with a whole of sack of books to keep him company and read while traveling. He has scoured through several works of history on the Silk Route to paint a comprehensive picture across the ages ending with what he sees right now. And he makes sure that it does not become pedantic or boring at any stage. These are well interspersed with descriptions of people that he meets and help him. These conversations are often humorous and help make the book feel like a light read. The jokes are largely on him and his actions rather than taking cracks at the people or their customs. Sample this conversation that he has with a couple of Pakistani customs officials –

Customs official (pointing at WD) – ‘You like bottom?’
WD – I look like?
Customs official – ‘No, no sahib. You like bottom? I like bottom.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. I really didn’t.
Customs official – ‘Bottom, bottom,’ he said wiggling his head from side to side in the Indian manner. ‘I like bottom. I am bottom fan. You like bottom?’
‘Well I like bottoms,’ I said
Customs official– ‘You do like bottom? You are bottom fan?’
Customs official- ‘All English people like bottom’.
‘Oh yes’ said the second customs official. ‘All Pakistani people like Imran Khan, all English people like Botham. He is your famous English cricketer.’

The author also makes some amazing discoveries during his journeys, places where he supposes that he is the first European man to go after Polo. He stumbles onto an ancient pagan ritual in progress in a settlement of the Gujar’s tribe (probably related historically to their counterparts in India) on the Karakoram highway from Pakistan to China. He goes to grave lengths to discover unknown crafts still surviving from Polo’s times, befriends various locals who help him locate ancient buildings and forts that have been largely forgotten.

Those who have read his other books like White Mughals or Delhi – 1857, will find this one to be quite a revelation. In Xanadu is William’s first novel and shows various characteristics that are largely absent in his later books. In his other books, William the historian is showcased more and he is far more occupied with telling the story of others. In Xanadu catches William talking about himself and his story while the historical aspects of the journey take a back seat. This is William Dalrymple at his youthful best, a tad immature but full of wit and adventure with the same mastery over story-telling that make all his books a must read.

Sidharth Ramachandran