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In Xanadu: A Quest [Paperback]

William Dalrymple
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Vintage Books (July 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679728538
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679728535
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 13.2 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,800,139 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was twenty-two. City of Djinns won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. The Age of Kali won the French Prix D'Astrolabe and White Mughals won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003 and the Scottish Book of the Year Prize. The Last Mughal was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. His most recent book, Nine Lives, was published in 2009 to huge acclaim. He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside Dehli.

(Photo credit: Karoki Lewis)

Product Description


Many guidebooks are place specific but this guide is packed with advice on travel in general to guide the reader through their journeys. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant writer & an exceptional book 22 July 2001
By A Customer
The author not only followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo but demonstrated the same spirit of adventure, with a modern echo. Entertaining and at times hilarious, it surpasses what one would expect a travel book to be. Whether Central Asia is your favourite area of travel or not, this book will not fail to bring you a sense of youthful adventure. A brilliant writer and an exceptional book.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 12,000 miles in the footsteps of Marco Polo 18 July 2001
By E. A. Lovitt - Published on Amazon.com
William Dalrymple travelled 12,000 miles overland from Jerusalem to Xanadu in order to retrace the journey of Marco Polo, and I think the Venetian probably had the easier trip--- in 1271 Marco Polo didn't have to smuggle himself along the Silk Route by burrowing into the back of a coal truck.
The author calls his journey a 'quest' rather than a 'vacation,' since it involved not only a goal, but also a great deal of hardship and suffering. However "In Xanadu" is an excellent book to take on vacation. It is a lucid and sometimes hilarious account of a very low-budget journey through Asia ($1100 financed the entire trip through Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, and the breadth of China.) And best of all, no matter how badly your own vacation turns out, you can always pick this book up and find Dalrymple in a more miserable spot than you are.
There is also beauty and moments of scholarly excitement when the author identifies some feature of the landscape with a passage from Marco Polo's journal. I particularly liked his description of a nocturnal train trip through Turkey. He sees dry flatlands transformed into lush pasturage and wonders at the source of water. Then the train comes upon a river, and Dalrymple unfolds his map:
"Its Turkish name, the Firat Nehri, meant nothing to me. Only when I followed the thin blue line down through Syria and out towards Baghdad, did I see the river's more familiar name --- the Euphrates....Is there another river which carries with it so many associations?...The river which ran through the Garden of Eden, one of the five rivers of the Apocalypse! Following its course on the map, its banks are littered with the names of the ancient cities it once gave life to: Mari, Nippur, Uruk, Larsa, Erdu, Kish."
The above paragraph is a rare flight of fancy for Dalrymple. His normal style is less flamboyant, laced with dry British humor where he tends to be the butt of his own jokes. Sometimes the reader is left to discover the humor of the situation through one of his dialogues. Here is Dalrymple in Kashgar, a Chinese city populated by the Muslim Uigurs. He is trying to explain through an interpreter, the lifestyle of the British 'Chairman' Elizabeth II to an old mullah:
"Salindi [the interpreter] frowned. 'He wants to know how many sheep, donkeys and camels your chairman owns.'
"'Tell him she owns no camels, but has very many horses and a great number of corgi dogs.'
"The information was passed on. The old man nodded his head as he listened.
"'Sir, this man is now asking about the dog which is called 'khor-qi'. He asks whether these 'khor-qi' are good to eat.'
"'Tell the old man that they are delicious.'"
"In Xanadu" is travel writing in the grandly eccentric British tradition: a horrid climate and high adventure, laced throughout with dry wit. Be sure to get a copy for your next vacation. I'm going to loan mine to a friend who thinks she wants to visit Iran and Afghanistan (last year she trekked through Outer Mongolia). Either "In Xanadu" will dissuade her from her planned adventure, or else she is as bonkers as Dalrymple.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In Marco Polo's Footsteps to the Palace of Kubla Khan 16 Jun 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
"In Xanadu", Dalrymple's first book began as a pursuit of Marco Polo's trail from Jerusalem to China, ending in the summer palace of Kubla Khan at Xanadu, north of modern Beijing. Marco Polo, was the Italian merchant who went to China in 1271, and returned with new discoveries including gunpowder, pasta, paper, silks, etc. Dalrymple creates an interest in his trip because he combines human characteristics with geographic and historic significance, so that the reader feels personally involved in the trip.
In addition to being a superb adventure travelogue, Dalrymple has infused historical details in "In Xanadu". He is a scholar of ancient history, and punctuates his observations with historical facts and anecdotal quips. It is amazing how he notes in great detail conversations, descriptions and moods that transcend the pages to allow the reader to experience first hand the locations he describes. Contrary to Paul Theroux, however, Dalrymple gives the impression that he actually enjoys the people he meets, even though sometimes you could imagine that he has a smirk on his face as he talks to them. He is non-judgmental about their lives or surroundings, be they Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian.
The most striking features of his trip are the risks he seems to take in meeting with people who do not speak his language, eating foods he does not recognize, staying in inns that feel more like latrines, riding in buses that do not have luxuries like seats, and most importantly, venturing into China without a permit (which he is unable to get due to the confusion between the different Chinese authorities he contacts in the countries he visits).
Dalrymple is a most interesting author of historical travel books, and I can't wait to see what he is going to choose for his next adventure.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mad grad school students dash across a continent 30 Aug 2003
By Doug Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Of the three William Dalrymple books I've read this one is the least satisfying. Its a fun read but ultimately not a very substantial one. City of Djinns & Age of Kali are both excellent books on India and highly recommended. In Xanadu is one of those travel books that is dominated by its itinerary. You hear lots of exotic sounding words and place-names but are not left with much more than a glimpse of each place passed through. Each country just feels like a check point as the border crossings are what give the book what drama and humor it has. For example in Iran he is detained by a policeman at a remote checkpoint but when he produces his Cambridge library card the officer exclaims, "Oh, Agah, by the great Ali! This is the most famous university in the world." And then the officer not only lets him go but offers his services as a tour guide. It is a funny story but as a reader you begin asking yourself what the point of the journey is if all Dalrymple is really concerned with is crossing borders and finding the next mode of transport to get him to the next town. The journey at times feels more like an endurance challenge than anything else. Dalrymple does quote from a number of great travel writers at timely moments along the way but in doing so he simply makes you wish you were reading their books instead of his. There are a number of books about the Silk Road or Persia in particular(Robert Byron's In Oxonia) that may be worth considering as an alternative to this book. Dalrymples expertise is architecture and he spends time speculating about the medieval churches and crusader fortifications which he encounters. The few architectural passages are interesting and informative but there are only a few of them. Later he will put his architectural expertise to much greater use in Delhi for his book City of Djinns. There is an admirable amount of information in the book but there are a few moments when he suggests that he is perhaps the first person since Alexander the Great or Marco Polo to see certain sights at which time you become very aware of the authors age. By the time he arrives at the ruins of Xanadu you feel Dalrymple has conned you into believing he has actually achieved something. And when he quotes the poem by Coleridge with his girlfriend I was kind of embarrased for the author. After leaving Xanadu and seeing that his journey has come to a close he feels depressed and then quotes Sir Richard Burton who after reaching Mecca wrote about experiencing a depression. But no reader of travel books will mistake Dalrymple for Burton. After all the Silk Road is now for the most part a paved highway and the most formidable foe most ravelers are likely to encounter is the drinking water. Dalrymples later books are much better. He wrote City of Djinns after living in Delhi for five years and the book is a well organized telling of that citys long and diverse history with portraits of its most famous inhabitants. And Age of Kali full of excellent reportage and gives you detailed glimpses of the different regions of India.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intermittently Entertaining, But Overrated 18 July 2003
By jeffergray - Published on Amazon.com
I very much enjoyed William Dalrymple's "From the Holy Mountain," but this book was a disappointment. It was Dalrymple's first book, and if you consider it as a novice's starting effort and read it with an appropriately moderate level of expectations, you probably won't be disappointed. But the book was overpraised by the British press, and the effusive blurbs on the cover and inside led me to expect something significantly better than what Dalrymple actually produced.

"In Xanadu" recounts a 12,000-mile journey, four-month journey from Jerusalem to Beijing that Dalrymple took in the summer of 1986. That bare description of the trip should alert you to one of the book's main problems. To cover 12,000 miles in the something less than four months of his summer vacation from Cambridge University, Dalrymple had to keep moving at an average clip of 100 miles per day. That wouldn't leave a great deal of time for sight-seeing under any circumstances, but it leaves even less when you're traveling by bus and train in Third World countries where departure schedules are unpredictable and unexpected delays frequent. Indeed, after he crosses the Iranian border on his way east, Dalrymple's account suggests that he spent as much time waiting fruitlessly for transport as he did actually seeing anything of substance in the countries he was passing through.

The first half of the book, which takes you from Jerusalem to central Iran, is far and away the best part, because during this leg of the trip Dalrymple gave himself time to see some things along the way. In particular, he takes the time to relate what he was seeing with what Marco Polo might have seen seven hundred years earlier, which was ostensibly the point of the whole journey.

Then, alas, on page 149, Dalrymple is awoken one morning in Saveh, Iran by his travelling companion Laura, who brusquely informs him that "We're barely halfway to Lahore and I've got to be back in Delhi within the week." This makes it necessary to cover almost 2,500 miles across Iran and Pakistan at a pace of 300+ miles a day. At around this point Marco Polo largely disappears from Dalrymple's account, hardly to return until the very end of the book. On the western China leg of the trip, Dalrymple is foolishly determined to travel through a forbidden zone near the Chinese nuclear testing facility at Lop Nor - supposedly for the sake of following Polo's route - but his passage through this region has to be so rushed and furtive as he attempts to avoid security personnel that it is essentially pointless. In the end, the last two-thirds of Dalrymple's trip sounds like it was an utterly miserable experience, raising the question of why anyone would want to spend 150 pages reliving the experience with him.

It is true (as various of the review blurbs indicate) that Dalrymple is sometimes very funny. But he isn't as consistently funny as is Paul Theroux, for example, and he is whiny and self-pitying at least as often as he is funny. Moreover, over time I got really tired of his disparagement and mocking of many of the locals: he christens one young Pakistani who agreed to drive him and his traveling companion from Quetta to Lahore "Psycho," for example, for no other reason than his breakneck driving habits - but these were apparently necessary to meet the deadlines that Dalrymple's demanding traveling companion had imposed on them.

If you want to read about a cross-Asia trip that followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo, I would instead recommend "Danziger's Travels," by Nicholas Danziger. Danziger did a similar trip a year or two earlier in the mid-1980's, but he took more than a year to do it, and he didn't shy away from traveling through Afghanistan, as Dalyrmple did (albeit understandably). (Danziger's account of the fighting in the ancient caravan city of Herat is particularly vivid.) Or read Dalrymple's account of the Middle East's last Christians in "From the Holy Mountain." Either of those would be a better investment of your reading time than this volume.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dean Moriarty in a Burqa 10 Feb 2008
By Andrew Schonbek - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Well not quite, but sort of.

At least this is what I kept thinking of as the author (referred to as Fatso by Mick, an expatriate hippie in Kashgar) and his travel companion Laura (she's the one clad in black) head out across Iran.

They are on a madcap quest, ostensibly to retrace the tracks of Marco Polo in his journey from Jerusalem to the seat of power of Kublai Khan in Xanadu, bearing oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Dalrymple, a student at Cambridge, came up with this idea to kill time between college terms. Presumably the quasi academic cover was in some way necessary, and the intermittent references to Polo and his voyage are mildly interesting. But really this is a chronicle of a road trip plain and simple - a 1980's kind of On the Road.

The Silk Road, that is.

Anyway, all this makes for idle but entertaining reading, filled with intelligent observations and humorous snippets.

Here, for example, is the English menu from a restaurant in Turkey:

Kujuk Ayas Family Restrant

Ingliz Menuyu


Ayas soap
Turkish tripte soap
Sheeps foot
Water pies

Eats From Meat

Deuner kepab with pi
Kebap with green pe
Kebap in paper
Meat pide
Kebap with mas patato
Samall bits of meat grilled
Almb chops


Meat in eathernware stev pot
Stfue goreen pepper
Stuffed squash
Stuffed tomatoes z
Stuffed cabbages lea
Leek with finced meat


Brain salad
Cacik - a drink made ay ay
And cucumber

Frying Pans

Fried aggs
Scram fried aggs
Scurum fried omlat
Omlat with brain

Sweets and Rfuits

Stewed atrawberry
Nightingales nests
Virgin lips
A sweet dish of thinish batter with butter

Recommended reading if ever you find yourself on an over civilized vacation.
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