Book Review: William Dalrymple – In Xanadu: A Quest

If you want to be transported to foreign lands and taken on exciting adventures, has found your next read

The desire to escape is familiar to all students, and while one reads this book they find themselves fulfilling those ambitions by journeying side by side with Dalrymple as he battles illness and malicious border guards, meets fascinating locals and suffers on questionable modes of transport, the majority without suspension.

While waiting for his university results, Dalrymple decide to embark on an epic excursion, retracing Marco Polo’s historical route, starting in Jerusalem, all the way to the capital of the Mongol Empire: Duan (now Beijing). Accompanying him for the first half of his journey is Laura, a storm of a girl who doesn’t let anyone get away with anything. Despite him barely knowing her, Dalrymple’s account of Laura is highly enjoyable;  compared to the slightly submissive Cambridge boy, Laura never backs down, and in fact ensures the continuation of the trip on more than one occasion. She hits the ground running in dealing with the trails and tribulations of foreign travel, while Dalrymple needs a few weeks to get into the swing of things. His bout of stomach sickness is quite ironically a very comical moment — although extreme sympathy is felt for him, especially as ‘no-nonsense’ Laura gives him none.

What Dalrymple never fails in doing is connecting with the people around him. Whether it be a short conversation on a bus, or a shared passion in architecture that leads to a life-long friendship, Dalrymple recounts these brief moments in life with such clarity and attentiveness, of both the good and the bad, that he creates a wonderful collage of the varieties of human character. Though travel writing is his main genre, Dalrymple really knows his history. Dalrymple loves to sink below the histories of locations he visits, and his ability to leap from past to present seamlessly is truly astounding. It is a history lesson made entertaining; he is a true master of the art of story making.

The beautiful, exotic locations that Dalrymple travels to are painted with such lucidity, that when one looks up from the page one may be surprised not to find themselves alongside him on the foothills of the Himalayas, or in a bustling town in India He has such astonishing skill it is slightly disorientating.

Honesty, however, is something that really characterises Dalrymple’s writing. Even when he travels the second leg of his journey with his freshly ex-girlfriend, he doesn’t hold back, all of the awkward conversations about her new boyfriend included. Dalrymple does not sugar coat an expedition like this, unlike the Instagram ‘travellers’ of the media age, he bares all, for both himself, and the reader.


In Xanadu: A Quest is now available both online and in bookshops.

2 comments

  1. 21 Oct ’17 at 7:59 pm

    Gerard Kevin McBride

    Still remember it from years ago.

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  2. 22 Oct ’17 at 4:55 pm

    Francis ODonnell

    It is amazing to me that this so very failed attempt to retrace Polo’s route still has legs. I guess it has more to do with Dalrymple’s writing which is engaging. It is his and others so very failed journey, flawed in its very concept that so inspired my Expedition to do the same. – One does not start from Jerusalem and spend only two months – or only try and reach Beijing in Retracing Marco Polo route. Rather spend two years as ODonnell and Belliveau did on their Epic retracing = documented in the PBS Emmy Nominated ‘In the Footsteps of Marco Polo” and the companion book of the same name. http://www.wliw.org/marcopolo for the record – Myself being Francis ODonnell

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