Travel literature review: Xanadu

Xanadu: Marco Polo and Europe’s discovery of the East by John Man

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Scott Stampfli

Scott Stampfli is a Lonely Planet Staffer in the Oakland office.

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Many of us as children were captivated with vague tales of Marco Polo’s journeys on the spice trail, which brought images of mysterious far off places and exotic adventures. Xanadu: Marco Polo and Europe’s discovery of the East, by John Man, brings into focus both the realities and the myths about the man, his 17-year journey to and from China in the 13th century, and his unique relationship with Kublai Khan — the Mongol King of the East.

Much of the book explores young Polo’s route east, accompanying his father and uncle, which the author examines in detail while retracing many of the likeliest trails south of the Caspian Sea, then turning north through the mountainous Karakoram, and finally onto the vast plains of Mongolia. Man speaks with the illustrative voice of a storyteller, as he recounts the peoples inhabiting these lands in the 1200s, especially Kablai Khan’s ancient capital Xanadu, as well as the building of Beijing — which became the southern capital.

The author also takes on the Polo critics who complain that his writings offer contradictory and incomplete documentation of his experiences. John Man explains that the explorer was the son of a merchant and not a trained scribe, even though he would become Europe’s first travel writer. In addition, there is no doubt that many of his incomplete stories were heard third-hand, retelling them as his own. But what teller of tales doesn’t?

And critics often complain that Polo never speaks of a wife even though he spent many years at the Mongol King’s court; noting he was twenty when he left Venice and late thirties upon his return. Polo is often somewhat salacious in his description of the women in the east, and there is little doubt he was exposed to countless princesses and courtesans. It is likely that by the time he finally put his adventure down on paper, the inquisition was going full steam back home in Italy, and he did the prudent thing of leaving out any escapades which might have branded him a heretic.

This is an interesting, intriguing book and inspiring for travelers. John Man sums it up best: 'In travel, as in history, there is no absolute. We try to circle in on truth. But we keep our distance, because if we get too close it vanishes, like a picture dissolving into dots and brushstrokes'.

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