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Unlike typical travel books, In Xanadu traces the path taken by Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the site of Shangdu, famed as Xanadu in English literature, in Inner Mongolia, China.
The book begins with William Dalrymple taking a vial of holy oil from the burning lamps of the Holy Sepulchre, which he is to transport to Shangdu, the summer seat of the King Kubla Khan. It has been mentioned that Kubla Khan wanted a hundred learned men armed with Christian knowledge to come to his Khanate and spread the knowledge of Christianity. However, that plan was abandoned, and Marco Polo, along with his uncle, set out from Jerusalem on the silk route to Shang-du, to deliver a vial of the holy oil, which was rumoured to be inexhaustible, and therefore kept the lamps at the Sepulchre constantly burning. The rest of the journey is outlined with descriptions of most of the ancient sites along the Silk Route, which Marco Polo was supposed to have passed.
The author compares the old time splendor of the cities on the silk route to their present physical and political conditions, and thereby illustrates the changes. Of special note is the part on his passage through the then revolution-torn Iran. He also describes the bureaucratic tangle he got into while getting a permit for China through Gilgit in Pakistan, and spending a couple of days in the Swat valley on the banks of the river Indus in Pakistan, which is supposedly the last area where Alexander the Great stopped before heading back west, stopping his conquest of the Orient.
Various ethnic people are also mentioned in the book, mainly the present day Central Asians and also, the Gujars from the Swat valley. The author has also described a primitive rite of the Gujars which he accidentally stumbled upon while exploring the area. The rite is apparently a throw back to the ancient pagan religion of the Gujars, which they followed before they converted to Islam during the rule of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni.
The journey was taken on a multitude of types of transport and lasted for four months. The book, which was written when the author was only 22, received rapturous reviews and won numerous awards, and established Dalrymple as a major new arrival on the British literary scene. Eminent travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor chose In Xanadu as his book of the year in the Spectator and wrote, "William Dalrymple's In Xanadu carries us breakneck from a predawn glimmer in the Holy Sepulchre right across Asia... It is learned and comic, and a most gifted first book touched by the spirits of Kinglake, Robert Byron and E. Waugh." Sir Alec Guinness agreed, and in the Sunday Times called the book "The delightful, and funny, surprise mystery tour of the year."