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IN XANADU by William Dalrymple (Vintage: $9.95, illustrated)

September 02, 1990|CHARLES SOLOMON

In 1988, William Dalrymple and a friend set out to retrace the route of Marco Polo, from the shrine of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to Shang-tu, the summer palace of Kubla Khan in Inner Mongolia (the Xanadu of Samuel Taylor Coleridge). The journal of their 12,000-mile trek across Asia is a highly entertaining blend of geography, personal anecdote and history, as the author describes various places along their route in both the past and present. In the most intriguing section of the book, he traces the probable origin of the three Magi mentioned in the Gospel of St. Matthew to the Zoroastrian observatory at Saveh, in modern Iran.

The accounts of bad food, wretched lodgings, unpleasant weather and overly zealous Chinese security officers suggest that much of Central Asia is better visited in the pages of a book than in person. Happily, Dalrymple seems to have fared better than his model: Polo's tales of the opulence of the Mongol court were greeted with such skepticism that a new comic character appeared at the Carnival in Venice--Marco Millions, who regaled audiences with his fantastic exaggerations.

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