In the footsteps of Marco Polo: the journey that changed William Dalrymple’s life

Taken from the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of William Dalrymple’s first book In Xanadu: A Quest, and first published in The Spectator on 24 June 2015

At the end of the windy, rainy April of 1986, towards the end of my second year at university, I was on my way back to my room one evening, when I happened to trudge past my college notice board.

There my eyes fell on a bright yellow sheet of A4, headlined in capital letters THE GAILLARD LAPSLEY TRAVEL SCHOLARSHIP. It hadn’t been a good week. I was 21: broke, tired of revision for exams and already longing for the holidays. But stopping to look closer, I found that the notice was an announcement concerning a fund that had been established in the memory of some recently-deceased history don; its stated aim was to fund research travel for the college’s mediaeval historians. There were, I knew, barely a handful of mediaevalists in the college.

I walked straight over to the library, found a large quarto edition of The Times Atlas of World History and leafed through the pages to see what was the longest and most ambitious mediaeval journey I could think of following: the longer the trip, I figured, the larger the grant I could apply for.

An hour later I had typed out an application for an expedition to follow the outward journey of my childhood hero, Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Kubla Khan’s Xanadu in Mongolia. The place names were the stuff of fantasy, and so, I felt sure, was the application. But I happened recently to have seen an article announcing that the Karakorum Highway linking Pakistan to China had just been opened to travellers. This meant that following Polo’s journey was technically feasible for the first time since the Soviet invasion had cut the hippy’s overland route a decade earlier. I posted the application in the letterbox of the don responsible, then went back to my revision and forgot all about it.

A month later, I was returning to my rooms from the last of the year-end exams when I found an embossed college envelope had been slipped under my door. Inside was a short letter and a cheque for the princely sum of £700: much the largest cheque anyone had ever written me. To my immense excitement, but also real foreboding, I found I had just committed myself to an enormously long and dangerous journey through a part of the world I was almost entirely ignorant about. To make matters worse, I had just been chucked by the girlfriend with whom I had planned to make the journey.

It was not a promising start; but the expedition which followed remains by far the most exhilarating I have ever undertaken: nothing I have done since, in half a lifetime of intense travel, has ever begun to equal the thrill of that 16,000-mile three month journey, walking, hitchhiking and bussing from one side of Asia the another. It was also a journey that, in a very real sense, changed my life forever.

I had already travelled in India, and the previous summer had hitchhiked from Scotland to Jerusalem following the route of the First Crusade. I read more widely still among the English travel writers, and Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Peter Fleming, Patrick Leigh Fermor and especially Robert Byron were then my literary Gods, at whose altars I worshipped with an almost fundamentalist fervour. Now I was determined to write my own travel book, and from the first morning of the trip, on arrival in Jerusalem, I kept detailed notes with a view to producing a book that I wanted to be an updated homage to Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a text I loved so much and had read so often, that I knew great chunks of it by heart.

The result was In Xanadu: A Quest. The book, which was first published quarter of a century ago, in 1989, had a lucky reception. The early 1980’s was a time of disenchantment with the novel, and travel writing seemed to present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the techniques of the novel – to develop characters, select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum – yet what was being written about was true. Moreover, unlike most literary fiction, travel writing sold.

The success of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, with its sales of 1.5m copies, had dramatically breathed life into the sort of travel memoir that had flourished in an earlier age, but which had languished since the European empires imploded after the Second World War. Its success inspired Bruce Chatwin to give up his job as a journalist and to go off to South America. The result – In Patagonia – was published in 1977, the same year Leigh Fermor produced A Time of Gifts. The final breakthrough came in 1984 with the publication of the celebrated travel writing issue of Granta: ‘Travel writing is undergoing a revival,’ wrote Bill Buford, the magazine’s editor, ‘evident not only in the busy reprinting of the travel classics, but in the staggering number of new travel writers emerging. Not since the 1930s has travel writing been so popular or so important.

So In Xanadu came out at just the right moment, when travel writing was at its most popular. Partly as a result of this lucky timing, the book got generous reviews, was an immediate bestseller and won a small clutch of prizes. It allowed me for the first time to think of writing as a feasible career. It nonetheless remains a text I have always felt deeply ambiguous about.

For In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self – bumptious, cocky and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations – is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

And yet this book brings back so very many happy memories. It retains, bottles and distills all the good humour, cheerfulness and joie de vivre of one of the very happiest periods of my life, a period when every day contained an adventure, a discovery or an epiphany. Re-reading it now, on the cusp of my 50th birthday, what was even more pleasurable than being reminded of forgotten places and adventures, was that sensation of recovering the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines, responsibilities and commitments are non-existent; when the constitution is elastic, and the optimism of youth undimmed; when experience is all you hope to achieve and when the world is laid out before you like a map, ready and waiting to be explored.

The great Swiss travel writer, Nicolas Bouvier, wrote that being on the road, ‘deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper,’ reduces you, yet makes you at the same time more ‘open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight… Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you.’

For better or worse, In Xanadu made me. I am still with the editor who bought the book for Collins, Michael Fishwick: we have now worked on eight books together about the Middle East, and South and Central Asia – the world opened up for me by that 1986 journey. Shortly after it was published, I married my very charming flatmate, who had edited much of the manuscript, even though she was then working for finals. Together, we moved out to Delhi. She wanted to paint; I wanted to begin work on the book which became City of Djinns. Thirty years later, we’re still there, with three children, the eldest of whom is now herself at university, planning her own ambitious trips around the world.

I still see my two long suffering travelling companions. Lousia is now a skilled picture restorer, married a very handsome and rich young man, and they live in some style in the Anglo-Welsh marches south of Hay on Wye. Laura went on – to no one’s surprise – to become one of the country’s most successful – and formidable – businesswomen and pops up in the press every now and then having climbed some dizzying new corporate pinnacle.

Many of the countries we passed through have fared less happily. Syria, so hospitable to us, is now gripped by civil war and the Islamist anarchy of Isil. Pakistan, so thrillingly wild yet alluring then, is now a much more dangerous and tortured country than it was in the 1980s. Conversely, China – then a land of bicycles, Mao suits and tannoys blaring strident political slogans down every main street – has become the world’s newest economic superpower, something unimaginable at the time. So much has changed.

Travel writing has also changed. If travel writing used principally to be about place – about filling in the blanks of the map and describing remote places that few had seen – the best 21st-century travel writing is almost always about people: exploring the extraordinary diversity that still exists in the world beneath the veneer of globalisation. As Jonathan Raban memorably remarked: ‘Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they miss the brute differences in everything of importance.’

Raban is not alone in this conviction. Colin Thubron, perhaps the most revered of all the travel writers of the 80s still at work. He is also clear that the genre is now more needed than ever: ‘Great swaths of the world are hardly visited and remain much misunderstood – think of Iran,’ he told me recently. ‘A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that is rarely reflected in academic writing or journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet, google maps and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute.’

In Xanadu records a world that has in many ways already disappeared, and it is an oddly avuncular pleasure to see one’s own memories slowly turn into the raw material of history. Yet for all its youthful innocence and naivety, and the excruciating sense of entitlement exuded by the narrator, as well as the occasional downright silliness of the opinions he expresses, I am still immensely proud of this book, and prouder that the Folio Society have chosen to reissue it. This, after all, was the journey and the book which started everything for me. I feel immense nostalgia looking through the photographs the Folio Society has painstakingly selected from bundles of my old negatives, and hope that the text too still retains some interest, 25 years on: a message in a bottle from a lost moment in time and space, fished ashore and opened up anew.


1 thought on “In the footsteps of Marco Polo: the journey that changed William Dalrymple’s life

  1. JulianA

    Nice. In Xanadu is one of the most wonderful books – and From The Holy Mountain remains one of my most read books. WD should be very proud indeed of his writing and I hope that people continue to read his books for a long time to come


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