In the taxkorgan river valley in farthest western China, the home of Bibi Mu crouches low upon the earth, its mud walls almost invisible in the bleak end-of-winter landscape. A few miles to the west an ancient track drops into the valley from the snowbound heights of the Pamir mountain range. On this route probably came, in the year 1274 or early 1275, the small caravan of Marco Polo, his father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo. After struggling across the Pamirs from what is now Afghanistan, they were surely half-starved, and I'd guess that they stopped at a house like Bibi Mu's seeking food.
Maybe the Polos were escorted into a low-ceilinged room with bright carpets on the floor and more carpets on the walls, as I was escorted by Bibi Mu. The matriarch of her family, she reckoned her age in the 70s and had skin burned to leather by sun and wind. On her hands were five rings with worn stones of red and green. The elder Polos would have noted those; jewelry was their business. And Marco, who was 20 or 21, would have feasted his eyes upon the handsome dark-eyed granddaughters who brought disks of nan and bowls of hot sheep's milk with tea.
Such, I think, was the welcome the Polos received at this threshold of modern China. Their real threshold was months away: Here it was cold and treeless, and the people spoke Persian and Turkic languages, for most had Central Asian roots. Moreover, in the 13th century this territory had been swallowed by the vast Mongol Empire. But every step brought the Polos closer to the great cities of the Chinese East, rich in silk and spices and jewels, the tantalizing stuff of Marco Polo's book, The Description of the World.
Guided by that account, photographer Mike Yamashita and I had traced Marco's journey through Iran and much of Afghanistan. Now we would follow him as he rode 2,600 miles from the wastes of China's Xinjiang region to Shangdu (also known as Xanadu), the sumptuous summer capital of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, and then to the new city Kublai was building— Daidu, today part of Beijing.
During Marco's 17 years in China, Kublai employed him as a trusted courier and sent him afar, Marco wrote, giving him the opportunity to explore "more of those strange regions than any man who was ever born." That's a big boast. But, in fact, no other European had seen so much of China.
As I followed his track into "those strange regions," I found that many of the customs that intrigued him still survived. In Yunnan Province, for example, he reported on people who dined on raw flesh; I ate with them one day. In eastern China I looked up his old haunts, such as Yangzhou, where he claimed to have been governor, and elegant Hangzhou, which in Marco's time was the world's largest city; with 1.5 million people it was 15 times as populous as his native Venice.
Descending from the cold Pamir flank, the Polos faced a different challenge. They were at the edge of the vast Taklimakan Desert, whose name means something like "go in and you won't come out." Marco seldom reports on the Polos' means of transport, but in this bitter and windswept realm, where precipitation is half an inch a year—if that—they were most likely plodding along on double-humped Bactrian camels at the anesthetic rate of 15 miles a day.
A sinew of asphalt traces part of their route now, skirting the Taklimakan's southern rim and tying together a string of infrequent oases. I bumped along this road in an air-conditioned cocoon, an SUV. For the first couple of hundred miles I crossed great shingles of gravel, a kind of desert the Chinese call gobi. The sand that once mingled with those stones lies today in the next county to the east, or beyond, borne off by the wind. Ahead on the road appeared a fringe of poplars, the windbreaks of a town. Marco seemed amazed by the provender of such oases. He wrote of one, "They have great abundance of all things." Ancient irrigation channels still nurture the farmlands with snowmelt from the Kunlun mountain range, a faint gleam far to the south.
But as the Polos plodded on, rivers and oases became scarce and sand dunes rose ever higher, until they looked like mountains. The toughest stretch of their desert journey was at hand, where "nothing to eat is found" and "you must always go a day and a night before you find water." The Polos loaded a month's supply of food for themselves and their animals. They probably hired a couple of cameleers to help with their pack string, and perhaps they joined a caravan of traders who knew the location of water holes.
There is a sensuous allure in the curving, swelling architecture of dunes. They are also deceitful. One day I was sure I saw a great lake ahead, with boats. Just mirages, of course. But a traveler half-crazed by thirst could go fatally astray while pursuing such a vision. Marco wrote of spirits that could lure away a straggler, calling him by name in voices that sounded like his companions'. "It often seems to you that you hear many instruments sounding," he also wrote, "and especially drums."
Practical men say these eerie sounds are produced by moving sand or by wind in the dunes. "The old people believe they are hearing devils speak," said a farmer at an oasis. He rejected this as superstition but confessed, "One night I heard, three times, a terrible noise, like crying, like someone dying."