The book begins with William Dalrymple taking a vial of holy oil from the burning lamps of the Holy Sepulchre , which he is to transport to Shangdu , the summer seat of the King Kubla Khan. It has been mentioned that Kubla Khan wanted a hundred learned men armed with Christian knowledge to come to his Khanate and spread the knowledge of Christianity. However, that plan was abandoned, and Marco Polo, along with his uncle, set out from Jerusalem on the silk route to Shang-du, to deliver a vial of the holy oil, which was rumoured to be inexhaustible, and therefore kept the lamps at the Sepulchre constantly burning. The rest of the journey is outlined with descriptions of most of the ancient sites along the Silk Route, which Marco Polo was supposed to have passed.
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Start your review of In Xanadu: A Quest Write a review Aug 08, Antara rated it really liked it I love William Dalrymple for the simple fact that he writes about his amazing travels through a seamless blend of fact and fiction. In this book, the author, a final year Cambridge student, tries to backpack his way through the route Marco Polo had taken - Turkey, Iran and finally China, in the Inner Mongols in Xanadu where Marco Polo ended his I love William Dalrymple for the simple fact that he writes about his amazing travels through a seamless blend of fact and fiction.
In this book, the author, a final year Cambridge student, tries to backpack his way through the route Marco Polo had taken - Turkey, Iran and finally China, in the Inner Mongols in Xanadu where Marco Polo ended his voyage. With him we experience the creation of history, the readiness to savor the unexpected and the realization of why humans through centuries have been driven by wanderlust for the unknown - because, more often than not, it is quite literally the journey and not the destination that matters.
I used to like Dalrymple. But this book turned out to be yet another account of a White man on a daring trip across the world in dangerous lands from whence it is next to impossible to come out alive, all while writing encouragingly of every stereotype the Whites have ever come up with of every other race apart from themselves. Anyone who is not a British is either dangerous, "stupid", uncouth, imbecilic, unfriendly and hostile or subservient to the White man in a servile way. In way too many passages, Dalrymple speaks less like a historian and more like an inflated Cambridge spoiled brat and the pages are full of his whining.
The beginning of his journey reveals him as one whose ego cannot seem to accept the fact that the Byzantines lost and the Ottomans won in the years past. There is not a single positive word I have come across written of the Ottomans or of the Turks in general. Any positive comment that the reader comes across is only when Dalrymple has run out of anything negative to say, and even that is immediately followed by a passage with disparaging humour that negates what came previously.
His patronising tone does not help to conceal his thinly veiled racism and antagonism towards other cultures. I do not know if it is an attempt on his part to come across as a "critical scholar of Cambridge" but if it is so, it falls flat on its face, only highlighting his racist mindset. There is an air of self-aggrandisement in every page and his spoilt White-boy privilege reeks from every word. He does not even spare his female travel companions.
His portrayal of Laura and Louisa reads like caricature, which is true of his representation of practically everyone he meets on the way as well. While he subtly puts across messages like how European girls are the only girls worth calling beautiful etc.
Laura, his travel companion in the first half of the journey is painted as a tough, domineering and indestructible woman while Louisa, who accompanies him in the second half, is the polar opposite of being "beautiful, delicate and fragrant" his words not mine. He is also genuinely surprised to find Laura reading Mills and Boon at one stage of their journey and seems incapable of reconciling the fact that someone as tough as Laura could be capable of having healthy sexual desires as well, and that she would choose to read erotica out in the open rather than the obviously intellectually superior Fall of Constantinople which he makes a point of boasting before changing the topic.
The exchanges with the natives are almost all carried out by Dalrymple with Laura and Louisa sometimes chipping in to not let the reader forget about their existence. I am willing to excuse him on the grounds that he was merely 20 years old when he wrote this book.
Still, that is not excuse enough as that is old enough to know the difference between good humour and outright disrespect of other cultures.
I also applaud his determination in following this journey out to the end, and for laying the ground and following up with an original idea. I only wish this journey was attempted by someone who would show more respect to the cultures and peoples that are encountered in this journey. I wonder, sometimes, if someone were to write a travel book about the West in an equally disparaging and patronising manner, would it get published?
At best, this book is comical in its approach. It is certainly not deserving of the label of a serious travel book.
In Xanadu: A Quest
William Dalrymple (historian)
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