Ten years ago, I researched Issyk-Kul, a beautiful lake in the Heavenly Mountains of Central Asia, where I set a dramatic scene, the climax of the story of Daughter of Xanadu and Son of Venice. Today, May 8, I was supposed to visit that lake, at long last, as part of a three-week Silk Road adventure in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with five friends. Alas, the trip had to be canceled, due to the pandemic. Today, I’m taking a moment to mourn what I missed.

Kyrgyzstan is called “the Switzerland of Asia” because of its dramatic scenery of snow-capped mountains and alpine-like lakes. Issyk-Kul is very large and deep and saline, and it never freezes. I chose it because a rival to Khubilai Khan, his cousin Khaidu, ruled that part of the world at the time of Marco Polo’s visit to China. Khaidu’s daughter, Ai-Jaruk, inspired me to create my main character, Emmajin, a strong independent-minded young Mongolian woman. Ai-Jaruk was a true historic person, but her story has grown mythical. Many suitors tried to woo her, but she refused to marry any man unless he could defeat her at wrestling. No man could. (Puccini’s opera Turandot was inspired by her story, too.)

I wanted my invented character, Emmajin, to meet her distant cousin, Ai-Jaruk, and challenge her in archery, Emmajin’s skill. That archery match, in Son of Venice, takes place on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. So does a devastating fire.

To write those scenes, I had to research this obscure lake: what shoreline was flat enough for a Mongol camp? How hard would it be to row across it? What was on the other side? As I researched and wrote, I wished I could visit Lake Issyk-Kul in person.

Today, that dream would have come true. I actually found five other intrepid women willing to travel there with me and see famous Silk Road cities, including Samarkand and Tashkent. Will I ever get there?

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