Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Review: In Xanadu - A Quest by William Dalrymple

Most of us must have heard following opening lines of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

The poem references Mongol and Chinese emperor Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty and his summer capital Xanadu or Shangdu (as popularly known). Xanadu has a significant place in western history as well because it was the destination of the most famous Marco Polo's trip from Jerusalem to China (which he called Cathay) carrying oil from Holy Sepulcher & presents from Pope Gregory X for Kublai Khan between 1271 & 1274.

In his book by name of 'In Xanadu - A Quest', William Dalrymple retraces the epic journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Xanadu, the ruins of the palace of Kubla Khan, north of Peking carrying oil from Holy Sepulcher, in the summer of 1986. He calls this book as a quest - not a vacation - just because it involves hardship and suffering not accompanied by a vacation. An intrepid traveler, and entertaining writer, Dalrymple offers an anecdotal history of the people and places he encounters en route through Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, and the breadth of China. An overland passage through these closed countries is an incredible travel feat in itself.

Although I did not found this book to be as engrossing or interesting as some of the other ones by William Dalrymple. But still, this is not a great book; it is an interesting book. Much of the book is the usual stuff of travel: difficulties in getting official clearance; locals speaking funny (read faulty) English; stomach upsets due to eating strange food at various roadside eateries; staying at inns which are sometimes as dirty as roads outside; and so on. However, in some sections he writes about more interesting things like how dull Polo's own account really is, developments in Islamic architecture, the history of some of the places, recognizing Marco's Polo description of a place and mapping it into current state of affairs. In totality, an interesting enough book by a 22 year old (remember this was his first book).

Read this book if:
1. You love reading travel books which are not like essays.
2. You are on a vacation which has turned wrong - in this book you will find that it could have been worse :)

1 comment:

Nandan Jha said...

Thanks for sharing. Short and concise review. Keep writing.