Marco Polo (1254-1324) is probably the most famous Westerner travelled on the Silk Road. He excelled all the other travellers in his determination, his writing, and his influence. His journey through Asia lasted 24 years. He reached further than any of his predecessors, beyond Mongolia to China. He became a confidant of Kublai Khan (1214-1294). He travelled the whole of China and returned to tell the tale, which became the greatest travelogue.
The Polo family were great nobles originating on the coast of Dalmatia. Niccolo and Maffeo had established a trading outpost on the island of Curzola, off the coast of Dalmatia; it is not certain whether Marco Polo was born there or in Venice in 1254. The place Marco Polo grew up, Venice, was the center for commerce in the Mediterranean. Marco had the usual education of a young gentleman of his time. He had learned much of the classical authors, understood the texts of the Bible, and knew the basic theology of the Latin Church.
Marco Polo was only 6 years old when his father and uncle set out eastward on their first trip to Cathay (China). He was by then 15 years old when his father and his uncle returned to Venice and his mother had already passed away. He remained in Venice with his father and uncle for two more years and then three of them, at the end of year 1271, receiving letters and valuable gifts for the Great Khan from the new Pope Tedaldo (Gregory x), the Polos once more set out from Venice on their journey to the east, through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamirs, and all along the Silk Road to China.
Avoiding to travel the same route the Polos did 10 years ago, they made a wide swing to the north, first arriving to the southern Caucasus and the kingdom of Georgia. Then they journeyed along the regions parallel to the western shores of the Caspian Sea, reaching Tabriz and made their way south to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. They intended to take sea route to the Chinese port. From Hormuz, however, finding the ships “made from the husk of the Indian nut”, they decided to go overland to Cathay and continued eastwards. From Homurz to Kerman, passing Herat, Balkh, they arrived Badakhshan, where Marco Polo convalesced from an illness and stayed there for a year. On the move again, they found themselves on “the highest place in the world, the Pamirs”, with its name appeared in the history for the first time.
When the Polos arrived the Taklamakan desert (or Tarim Basin), this time they skirted around the desert on the southern route, passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor. Marco’s keen eye picked out the most notable peculiarities of each. At Yarkand, he described that the locals were extremely prone to goiter, which Marco blamed on the local drinking water. In the rivers of Pem province were found “stones called jasper and chalcedony in plenty” a reference to jade.
After they left Gobi, the first major city they passed was Suchow (Dunhuang), in Tangut province, where Marco stayed for a year. Marco also noted the center of the asbestos industry in Uighuristan, with its capital Karakhoja; he added that the way to clean asbestos cloth was to throw it into a fire, and that a specimen was brought back from Cathay by the Polos and presented to the Pope.
Marco Polo was a great explorer. He was very brave. Marco was not scared at all when they left to go on the trip. He was also very determined. When people would not believe his stories of his discoveries, he was determined to make them believe him. Marco Polo was very courageous too. He wasn’t scared of the people in the different countries he visited. Marco Polo was a very brave, determined, and courageous explorer.
Finally the long journey was nearly over and the Great Khan had been told of their approach. He sent out a royal escort to bring the travellers to his presense. In May 1275 the Polos arrived to the original capital of Kublai Khan at Shang-tu (then the summer residence), subsequently his winter palace at his capital, Cambaluc (Beijing). By then it had been 3 and half years since they left Venice and they had traveled total of 5600 miles on the journey. Marco recalled it in detail on the greatest moment when he first met the Great Khan.
Marco, a gifted linguist and master of four languages, became a favorite with the khan and was appointed to high posts in his administration. He served at the Khan’s court and was sent on a number of special missions in China, Burma and India. Europeans did not see many places that Marco saw again until last century. Marco went on great length to describe Kublia’s capital, ceremonies, hunting and public assistance, and they were all to be found on a much smaller scale in Europe. Marco Polo fell in love with the capital, which later became part of Beijing, then called Cambaluc or Khanbalig, meant ‘city of the Khan.’
However there were some phenomena, which were totally new to him. The first we have already met, asbestos, but the other three beggared his imagination, and they were paper currency, coal and the imperial post. The idea of paper substituting gold and silver was a total surprise even to the merchantile Polos. Marco attributed the success of paper money to Kublai stature as a ruler. Marco’s expressions of wonder at “stones that burn like logs” show us how ignorant even a man of a leading Mediterranean sea power could be in the 13th century. Coal was by no means unknown in Europe but was new to Marco
Marco was equally impressed with the efficient communication system in the Mongol world. This system enabled a message to cover the distance of a normal ten-day journey in 24 hours. At each three miles station a log was kept on the flow of messages and inspectors patrolled all the routes. Marco affirmed that those courier horsemen could travel 250 or 300 miles in a day.
Marco Polo traveled in great deal in China. He was amazed with China’s enormous power, great wealth, and complex social structure. China under the Yuan (The Mongol Empire) dynasty was a huge empire whose internal economy dwarfed that of Europe. He reported that Iron manufacture was around 125,000 tons a year (a level not reached in Europe before the 18th century) and salt production was on a prodigious scale: 30,000 tons a year in one province alone. A canal-based transportation system linked China’s huge cities and markets in a vast internal communication network in which paper money and credit facilities were highly developed. The citizens could purchase paperback books with paper money, eat rice from fine porcelain bowls and wear silk garments, lived in prosperous city that no European town could match.
Kublai Khan appointed Marco Polo as an official of the Privy Council in 1277 and for 3 years he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou, a city on the Grand Canal, northeast of Nanking. He also visited Karakorum and part of Siberia. Meanwhile his father and uncle took part in the assault on the town of Siang Yang Fou, for which they designed and constructed siege engines. He frequently visited Hangzhou, another city very near Yangzhou. At one time Hangzhou was the capital of the Song dynasty and had beautiful lakes and many canals, like Marco’s hometown, Venice. Marco fell in love with it.
The Polos stayed in Khan’s court for 17 years, acquiring great wealth in jewels and gold. They were anxious to be on the move since they feared that if Kublai - now in his late seventies - were to die, they might not be able to get their considerable fortune out of the country. The Kublai Khan reluctantly agreed to let them return. The sea journey took 2 years during which 600 passengers and crewed died. Marco did not give much clue as to what went wrong on the trip. Some think they may have died from scurvy, cholera or by drowning; others suggest the hostile natives caused the losses and pirate attacks. In Persia they also learned of the death of Kublai Khan. However his protection outlived him, for it was only by showing his golden tablet of authority that they were able to travel safely through the bandit-ridden interior. Marco admitted that the passports of golden tablets were powerful. From Trebizond on the Black Sea coast they went by sea, by way of Constantinople, to Venice, arriving home in the winter of 1295.
Three years after Marco returned to Venice, he was captured during the war against the rival city of Genoa and spent a year in a Genoese prison, where one of his fellow prisoners was Rustichello of Pisa, a writer of romances, prompted Marco Polo to dictate him the story of his travels. His account of the wealth of Cathay (China), the might of the Mongol empire, and the exotic customs of India and Africa made his book the bestseller soon after. The book became one of the most popular books in medieval Europe and the impact of his book on the contemporary Europe was tremendous. It was known as Il Milione, The Million Lies and Marco earned the nickname of Marco Milione because few believed that his stories were true and most Europeans dismissed the book as mere fable.
After a year of captivity, Marco Polo was released from the prison and returned to Venice. He was married to Donata Badoer and had three daughters. He remained in Venice until his death in 1324, aged 70. At his deathbed, a priest came in his room to ask him if he’d like to admit that his stories were false. Instead, Marco said, “I did not tell half of what I saw”. Those were his last words, the famous epitaph for the world.
Many people took his accounts with a grain of salt and some skeptics question the authenticity of his account. Many of his stories have been considered as fairytales: the strange oil in Baku and the monstrous birds, which dropped elephants from a height and devoured their broken carcasses. May Marco Polo discover in his trip the eyeglasses, ice cream, spaghetti, and the riches of Asia, but still there are many who wonder if Marco Polo ever went to China.