In Xanadu: A Quest by William Dalrymple
This book was on my (huge) “Read Me” stack, and I picked it up for a change of pace. As I started reading, I wondered “how did this get there?” My first instinct was it was a recommendation from Little Diamond. As I was reading, however, I came across a segment that was what our priest had read in church around the Feast of the Epiphany about the birthplace of the wise men who came seeking the Christ Child after his birth. I wrote down the title and ordered it from amazon.com (which has some copies used from 72 cents).
William Dalrymple wrote this book when he was a mere 22 years old. He and a travelling companion took off to trace Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu, where he was taking oil from the sanctuary lamp to Kubla Khan.
In a world where we have all been taught to be so careful, they take incredible risks. They travel on the cheap – staying in fleabag hotels, sometimes sleeping “rough”, i.e. out in the open. They travel any way they can – an occasional train, but more often a truck, a bus, whatever is going their way. One very long segment they travelled on top of a pile of coal.
They travel from Jerusalem up through Syria and into Turkey, then turn east and cross Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to China. They have some amazing adventures, see some astounding scenery and because of their mode of travel, have a lot of time to talk with their travelling companions or people in the cities where they are staying.
I am blown away that an unmarried couple would cross Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I guess they told people they were married to share a room (they were on a budget) and they were only friends, not a couple, but what a risk. I am astonished that they were never asked to produce a marriage license or any proof of marriage when they stayed in hotels. I am astonished at the girls (one left in Lahore and another joined him, but these are girls who are friends, not anything more) would travel on the backs of trucks full of men, and never blink an eye.
The book is occasionally hilarious. Most of the hilarity results from foods they have to eat – sometimes it is the only food available – or from misunderstandings because of lack of a common language, or due to their frequent bouts of diarrhea, what I really liked about the author was that he was rarely pompous, and when he is funny, it is usually about some conversation he has had, or some mistake he has made.
One of my favorite parts of the book happens in Iran:
As we sat waiting for the bus to Tabriz, the next town on Marco Polo’s itinerary, we watched the mullahs speeding past in their sporty Renault 5s. Iran was proving far more complex than we had expected. A religious revolution in the twentieth century was a unique occurence, resulting in the first theocracy since the fall of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Yet this revolution took place not in a poor banana republic, but in the richest and most sophisticated country in Asia. A group of clerics was trying to graft a mediaeval system of government and a pre-medieval way of thinking upon a country with a prosperous modern economy and a large and highly educated middle class. The posters in the bus station seemed to embody these contradictions. A frieze over the back wall of the shelter spoke out, in the name of Allah, against littering. On another wall two monumental pictures of the Ayatollah were capped with the inscriptions in both Persian and English:
BEING HYGENIC IS DIRECTLY RELATED ON THE MAN’S PERSONALITY
ALLAH COMMANDS THE RE-USE OF RENEWABLE RESOURCES.
We had expected anything of the Ayatollah. But hardly that he would turn out to be an enthusiastic ecologist.
The challenge of this journey is to follow as closely as possible the path Marco Polo took, but two segments of the journey go through off-limits areas. They find a way into one, to discover later it is an atomic testing area, and the second, at the very end, around Xanadu, they find receptive Chinese officers who take them to have a brief glimpse of the ruins of Xanadu while booting them out of the area. As they stand in Xanadu, they repeat a poem that every American child grows up with in English Literature:
In Zanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of gertile ground
With walls and twoers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills.
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree:
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
I liked this book. Dalrymple is a history major, and often quotes from historical – even obscure – texts to illuminate what he observes. I think I may look at a couple more he has written since.