A touch of winter’s sharpness had already settled over the Mongolian steppe on the morning in 1983 when William Dalrymple finally reached Xanadu. He’d traded a summer of leisure for this trip and, at this stage, carried only its last tiny burden, a vial of oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. His quest to retrace Marco Polo’s journey across Asia ended here.
He knew the trip to be a silly one for a Cambridge undergraduate. On this early October day, all of his friends were safely buying books and settling into quarters, getting ready for a new term. Instead, Dalrymple bumped over the Chinese heath in a police jeep accompanied by two security officers and a Mongol Communist party official. When the jeep finally stopped just beyond some shallow hills, its occupants could see little more than a mangy shepherd and his few wet sheep. The fabled pleasure garden had crumbled, but Dalrymple, at least, had arrived.
Among the ruins, only one throne dias remained. Though Dalrymple could not know for sure whether it had once belonged to Kubla Khan, he walked slowly up the ramp as if Khan himself were still seated there. At the top, he knelt and poured out the vial, leaving it before the king just as he imagined Polo doing 711 years earlier. He had traveled twelve thousand miles for this and, to twentieth century eyes, it seemed a fool’s errand.
Why is one man’s destiny fulfilled by a comfortable chair, a fire, and a companionable cat, while another’s only by adventure? Dalrymple’s Cambridge colleagues found perfect satisfaction in lives placed within easy reach, but he did not. His hand stretched to discover what the cautious left untouched. In their contentment, they would scorn his foolhardy risk. They would laugh, but never taste this moment. Before Khan’s throne, he remembered,
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
In stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree:
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
The sun hung high when Dalrymple, the call now answered, made his slow way down the ramp. Below him, the Mongol driver shook his head and drew circles in the air beside his temple. Even the Asians thought him crazy, but he saw none of it. Instead, he saw the solitary path he had walked, ended for now, finished with a whispered “Well done.” Now, he was ready to turn his face back across the long desert toward the sea, and home.
“Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ “
Poetry credit: S.T. Coleridge
Source credit: Dalrymple, William, In Xanadu
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