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"In Xanadu, A Quest" by William Dalrymple

In Xanadu, A Quest is a travelogue written by William Dalrymple of his travel from Jerusalem to Xanadu in China. This is exactly the same route taken by Marco Polo some 1200 years ago when he travelled from Europe to Asia. William and his two lady companions (lucky guy!!) did this travel during their college days in Cambridge in 1986. I read this book only now!! His latest popular book on the Indian History is The Last Mughal.

Imagine travelling from Jerusalem to Xanadu, which is 12000 miles, and travelling through very diverse climatic conditions, with language barriers and cultural differences. It is not one of the most interesting of journeys for me but I admire the grit and determination shown by these young college students. They have to travel through various countries sometimes with valid visa and sometimes without. They travelled in all forms of transport from airplanes to motor cars to public buses to hitch-hiking in transport carriers.

Language barrier was one of the greatest difficulties these guys faced. William could not talk Urdu, Arabic or Chinese other than English and some smattering of these languages. Using very minimal knowledge of the local language, they have to fend for their food, accomodation, travel etc., and manages to well fed throughout the journey going by what he has written in the book!

The objective of this epic travel is not to start from point A and go to point B. Enroute he wants to see most of those places and buildings which has been mentioned in the original travelogue written by Marco Polo. William did manages to see many places and gives a very detailed account of the places he visited. These travellers I guess spend lot of time updating their log book at the end of the day inorder to write a travelogue latter!

Many a times in their entire journey, I recalls how he used his minimal local language skills to talk to the natives and convey the messages with regard to places, buildings, food and accomodation. By reading through the book, you will understand that most of the places in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China has not seen any visible signs of development for hundreds of years. The people still continue to do things the same way they have been doing for hundreds of years and ignorant of happenings across the world.

He undergoes very many hardships before he lands himself in Xanadu, his final destination in China. It turns out in the end that the Palace of Kubla Khan which he wanted to visit in Xanadu is non-existent and only the remnants could be seen.

After reading the book, I think:

1. Inspite of many hardships, the determination to proceed further is paramount to success. It applies to all activities in our life.
2. Sign language works as well as any other language. He manages to get whatever he wants enroute.
3. Keeping cool (atleast thats what I understand from the book) in face of adversity is very important.

One thing which I cant stop asking myself is : can this kind of journey would have been possible for a brown skinned person. He manages to travel through prohibited areas in China (closer to their nuclear testing facility) without valid permit, gets caught and manages to go scot-free!!

Can you imagine how much he would have used to complete the entire travel? William and his accomplices completed this journey through with GBP700 in hand. Believe me that is the amount he got from University of Cambridge as a grant!!

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