Marco Polo always had his doubters and still does, for no record has been found that proves he reached China. So the best days of my years-long Polo adventure were those that produced evidence that he didnt lie about being there.
I remember a gilt-edged day in a museum in the old port of Quanzhou. Before me was the well-preserved hull of a junk, 113 feet (34 meters) long, that dated to Marcos era. Some of its details were amazingly like those of seagoing ships that he described. For example, he wrote that Chinese shipwrights repaired leaky hulls by nailing on new layers of planking, up to six. The museums junk had two complete layers plus part of a third. Marco also described Chinese caulk: ...lime and hemp chopped small...mixed with oil from a tree.
That was tung oil, museum curator Wang Lianmao told me. We found this same caulk between the boards. The formula is not mentioned in any Chinese recordonly in Marco Polos book.
Yep, I told myself again that day, Marco was in China.
Mornings in the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan began with cannon thunder echoing off mountainsides. At the edge of an anti-Taliban Northern Alliance stronghold a struggle was under way for possession of the Shamali Plain, once a productive farm region but now an empty no-mans-land.
Mike Yamashita and I hired an old car and rattled toward the war zonecloser than I cared to be. Rockets streaked toward Taliban positions. Close by, a 122-mm cannon opened fire with a roar that made me jump.
I stood in a road with several Northern Alliance fighters. We were in open view, easy targets if anyone chose to shoot at us. Shouldnt we get out of sight? I asked.
Were OK, one shrugged. So we just stood there. These fighterssome illiterate, but also including a couple of university graduateshad been at war for years. To them the bombardment was as ordinary as going to an office. Thats one reason Afghanistans tragic civil war does not end: It has become a habit.
Bumping along the Old Burma Road in Chinas Yunnan Province, we came at midday to a shoe-box café standing alone on a mountainside. The proprietor looked dismayed when Mike and I walked in. Whats to eat? we asked. He hesitated, glancing uncertainly toward the kitchen. Chicken, he said at last. Fine, we said.
Minutes later, looking out the door, we saw the cook aiming a pellet rifle at a red rooster scratching in the yard. Thump! A puff of dust rose beside the startled bird. Thump! Another miss. Squawking loudly, the bird fled into a culvert under the road. The cook knelt and tried to prod him out with a stick. Nothing doing: That boy was staying put.
Finally the cook trotted a quarter mile to a house. I dont know whether he stole our dinner from a neighbors pen or bought it, but now we heard the fast chop-chop-chop of a cleaver in the kitchen, and to our table came a less fortunate bird, leather-tough, stir-fried with peppers and onions. When we departed an hour later, our original dinner-to-be had yet to emerge from his refuge.