Born in 1254 into a family of merchants, a citizen of Venice
called Marco Polo was destined to become one of the greatest travellers of all
time. His own father and uncle were away
for long periods on business – indeed, he did not even meet his father until he
was 15 or 16, but when they finally met, the boy too went out on one of their major
expeditions. Setting out in 1270, their mission was to take a phial of sacred
oil from the lamps at the Church of the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem 12,000 miles
overland to the Mongol emperor, Kubla Khan, at his great palace at Shang-tu, the
Xanadu immortalised by Coleridge in his poem, not too far from modern day
Beijing. You may well know Coleridge’s
poem: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…” and so
on. Kubla Khan ruled over the enormous Mongol
empire, founded by his grandfather Ghengis Khan, which became the largest
contiguous empire in history, covering most of those 12,000 miles in what is
now western Europe and Asia. His
grandfather had opened up the Silk Road, the famous trade route which Marco
Polo himself travelled. The Khan had
become interested in Christianity, had already met Marco Polo’s father, and had
requested the sacred oil from Jerusalem on a previous visit by them. Marco Polo’s travels started when he was 16
and ended 24 years later when he finally returned to Venice, a very rich man,
and wrote his travel memoirs, translations of which exist today.
William Dalrymple is one of the modern day’s finest travel
writers. He has written extensively on
India and the subcontinent generally and his books are well worth exploring
yourself. In the late 1980s, when he was
just 22, and still at Cambridge, Dalrymple followed the travels of Marco Polo
in his summer holidays, visiting first the Church of the Holy Sepulcre in
Jerusalem to get a jar of sacred oil and ending up depositing it in the
crumbling ruins of Kubla Khan’s “stately pleasure dome” three and a half months
later – and over 700 years after Marco Polo himself did it. Along the way, travelling as close as he
possibly could to the old Silk Road, he had to deal with arrests, road blocks,
sandstorms, repatriation, diarrhoea, isolation and extreme tiredness. When he returned a week late for the
Cambridge term, he wrote his first book, entitled “In Xanadu”.
The reasons for mentioning this are threefold. Firstly, those two intrepid travellers, one
in the 13th Century and the other still travelling today, started at
about your age. One might expect to read
stories like this of 13th century teenagers, but Dalrymple was only
a university student when he went on his great trip and wrote his first book
(and, in fact, even a year earlier than that, he had in fact followed the
passage of the First Crusade overland).
The second is to do with what happened next. When Marco Polo finally got home after 24
years’ travelling, the Venetians were fighting against the people of Genoa; he
got caught up in this and found himself almost immediately captive in prison
for 4 years. This must have seemed like
the most terrible anti-climax to years of adventure, uncertainty and near death
experiences. William Dalrymple, 700
years later, finishes his book driving away from Xanadu in a jeep back towards
the train which will take him to Beijing and ultimately back to term time at
Cambridge. He writes about “a strange
sensation of vacuum; after weeks of worry, the goal had been achieved, yet I
could not relax and time hung heavy”.
Both men, therefore, felt a deep sense of loss, immediately after having
achieved something great.
The fact is that many of you this term will find yourself in
a not dissimilar boat. A number of you
will take exams, which themselves have provided you with a journey this past
year and indeed you are still on that journey.
Some of you will leave Bedford altogether; that has been a really
special and prolonged period and will come, no matter how you feel now, with a
sense of loss to one degree or another.
Others will simply come to the end of a play – many of you know what it
is like to get to the end of that last night: mixed emotions, a sense of
extreme satisfaction, but also Dalrymple’s “strange sensation of vacuum”, or you
will play your last game of cricket for the summer, or finish your race at
Henley. It can be a real come down.
What was the travellers’ response? Well, firstly both wrote. Marco Polo wrote up his travels while he was in
prison; Dalrymple started to write up his travels when he was in the jeep
travelling away from Kubla Khan’s palace.
Then they both redefined themselves.
Marco Polo ran a merchant business; he never travelled again himself,
but made a lot of money from his knowledge.
Dalrymple went to live in India and worked upon his second book, City of
Djins. Both became wealthy, happy and
famous in their own right.
So this term, enjoy the journeys, big and small, that you
make. Enjoy the victories you have, big
and small. Enjoy the sense of
achievement when goals are finally realised. Then cope with the loss by
redefining your ambitions. There is
always something else enjoyable out there; there is always another
challenge. Remember that Marco Polo and
William Dalrymple were 16 and 22 respectively; remarkable men, no doubt, but
also people who made the very most of life and simply kept on discovering
things as long as they lived.
Very good luck for the term ahead.