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The Adventures of Marco Polo



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From Author

Mike Edwards





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From Photographer

Michael Yamashita



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Michael Yamashita (top) and Marisa Montibeller
 

image: ticket
In Polo’s Footsteps

Field Notes From Author
Mike Edwards
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 didn’t 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 Marco’s 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 museum’s 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 record—only in Marco Polo’s 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-man’s-land.
Mike Yamashita and I hired an old car and rattled toward the war zone—closer 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. “Shouldn’t we get out of sight?” I asked. “We’re OK,” one shrugged. So we just stood there. These fighters—some illiterate, but also including a couple of university graduates—had been at war for years. To them the bombardment was as ordinary as going to an office. That’s one reason Afghanistan’s tragic civil war does not end: It has become a habit.
Bumping along the Old Burma Road in China’s 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. “What’s 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 don’t know whether he stole our dinner from a neighbor’s 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.


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