Published: May 2001

Marco Polo, Part I

By Mike Edwards
Photographs by Michael Yamashita
Sweltering heat in Bandar-e Abbas, a port city in Iran, sends a fisherman's son into the shallows of the Strait of Hormuz. The Polos may have traveled to this shore to find a boat to take them to China. Wrote Marco in The Description of the World: "Their ships are very bad and many of them are lost because they are not nailed with iron pins." The Polos chose to turn around and brave a crossing of the Dasht-e Lut, the "desert of emptiness."

The old people claim that sometimes the palaces and temples reappear, shimmering magically in the morning sun. "I have not seen this myself," said a shepherd named Wei Chang. "But that is what the elders told me." Wei Chang was grazing his flock on mounds that hold the bones of Shangdu, the summer capital that Kublai Khan decreed in the grassland of Inner Mongolia, 200 miles (322 kilometers) northwest of Beijing. He decreed lavishly, as attested by Shangdu's Mongol name, City of 108 Temples. The Chinese speak of Kublai's "crystal" palace, meaning that it shone brightly.

It was at Shangdu, probably in 1275, that Marco Polo first genuflected before the great Kublai; grandson of the conqueror Genghis Khan, he claimed to be suzerain over an empire that stretched from China to Iraq and Russia.

I entered the ruins as Marco may have entered the shining city, through a gateway in the western wall; defying erosion, the wall's packed earth still rises 12 feet (four meters). Within, Marco recorded, was "a vast palace of marble." Indeed, near where Wei Chang's flock grazed, I glimpsed big blocks of white marble, perhaps remains of the crystal palace.

Marco was about 21 years old when he reached Shangdu, accompanying his father, Niccoló, and uncle, Maffeo, merchants of Venice. They had traveled more than 7,500 miles (12,070 kilometers), which took, Marco wrote, "quite three years and a half." Very few Europeans are known to have penetrated deep into Asia before them. And none came close to racking up such a long or far-reaching adventure as the Polos, whose odyssey spanned 24 years and concluded in a homeward sea journey via Sumatra and India.

The only Polo much remembered for this huge accomplishment is, of course, Marco, who chronicled it in his boldly titled Description of the World. The book overflowed with the wealth of Asia—silk, spices, jewels, porcelain —and with place-names unknown in medieval Europe, not only those of China but also Java, Cipangu (Japan), and many more. In time it became one of the great spurs goading Europeans, including another Italian, Columbus, to seek Earth's far corners.

Or did Marco fake the whole thing? A whiff of suspicion has lingered about him ever since he wrote his book, about 1298. After all, he chronicled things that even Venetians, worldly-wise traders, had never seen, such as paper money and a black rock that burned. Even now it is argued that Marco ventured no farther than Constantinople or the Black Sea and cribbed tales from more venturesome Arabs and Persians.

Most scholars who have dissected Marco's work, however, regard him as truthful. Well, mostly truthful. Some of his whoppers may have been invented by the writer who helped Marco set down his story, one Rustichello, an author of tales about chivalrous knights. Marco's work was further distorted by the monks and other scribes who copied and translated it in the 14th century and by printers whose editions began to appear in the 15th. They often amended and deleted as they saw fit, and misspelled and mistranslated to boot, so that today about 150 versions of the text are known. The version thought to be closest to Marco's original now belongs to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

That's the main one I use. I'm a Marco fan, a solid believer. I've lived with him off and on for four years now, following 6,000 miles (9,656 kilometers) of his travels, usually in the company of photographer Mike Yamashita. Like some of the scholars who've studied Marco, I can't believe he gathered so much information and got most of it down in guidebook order while sitting on a curb in Constantinople. He told me where in Iran to look for a hot spring whose waters could cure "the itch." In Afghanistan he guided me along an old Silk Road route that threaded formidable mountain ranges. In China I followed his lead across deserts and to great coastal cities. Finally, I traced his long journey home, touching Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and India.

Much that Marco recorded hasn't changed in seven centuries. In southern China I found—as he did—people with tattooed skin and teeth sheathed in gold. "They eat all coarse things," Marco wrote of the Chinese, having seen markets like today's, where dinner writhes, wiggles, croaks, clucks, and barks.

Marco probably would not have made his great journey had it not been for his father and uncle, Niccoló and Maffeo, who already had dared travel deep into the Mongol Empire, perhaps to Shangdu. In 1260, when Marco was six, the elder Polos set out from a merchants' colony in the Crimea to sell jewels on the lower Volga. Six adventurous years later they arrived at Kublai's court.

Marco says the Mongol emperor, much interested in Christianity, asked the brothers to carry a letter to the Pope requesting "as many as a hundred wise men" to spread the Gospel among his subjects. He also wanted oil from the lamp at Jesus' sepulchre in Jerusalem, considered a balm for body and soul, and the brothers promised to return with it.

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