Don’t read this book if you are easily offended.
However, despite the fact that Dalrymple is quite critical (or condescending!) of every place and culture he encounters on his incredible journey from Jerusalem to China, this book is a great read and I quite enjoyed it.
The book is actually a double form of time-traveling. The author, and his formidable traveling companion, Laura, set out to recreate most of Marco Polo’s epic journey. They don’t begin in Italy but rather in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Marco Polo supposedly stopped to take some holy oil for the journey. Dalrymple brings alive historical information about Marco Polo’s journey in a light, engaging, and clearly knowledgeable manner. He particularly focuses on architecture and points out cross-cultural influences between Islamic and Christian architecture, as he relates anecdotes regarding the people he meets and their adventures along the way.
But the modern journey is itself a form of time-travel to a reader like myself, reading the book in 2018. The two students (the author was 22!!!) embarked on the journey in the early 1980s. Not only have the regions they passed through undergone changes or even upheavals since then, but the journey also took place in pre-Internet days. While Dalrymple is very knowledgeable about the past, he seems to have known very little of the current (1980s, that is) forces or news of the regions he was passing through in advance. I believe foreigners trekking through remote places was a much rarer phenomenon back then, which makes his tales even more interesting.
The young people certainly do not travel in style and do many a crazy thing to keep progressing towards their goal. Frankly, I find it pretty amazing they made it to Xanadu at all. Side note: Dalrymple makes the whole journey but in India, Louisa replaces Laura for the last leg. Louisa was Dalrymple’s former girlfriend…
I have to admit that I’m a mother of 20 something-year-olds. Although I read the tales of these two young people’s travels through areas considered highly dangerous (where the two young people could have easily been murdered or thrown into a remote prison many times!), with a fair amount of equanimity, I got quite upset when I reached the part where Louisa became ill. They were in an area where the health care was particularly appalling and she could have easily died! Obviously, she did not but I identified strongly with their mothers’, who are briefly mentioned.
In short, despite its shortcomings, it’s an engaging book! I’m ready to read more of his books!