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In Marco Polo’s Footsteps
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In Marco Polo’s Path

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By Mike Edwards Photographs by Michael Yamashita

The storied Venetian trader escapes bandits, rampaging rivers, and sandstorms to reach the border of far-off China in this first of three articles.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

By now, I estimate, the Polos had traveled at least 5,000 miles (8,050 kilometers). Marco speaks of delays on account of rain, snow, and swollen rivers, explaining in part why it took three and a half years to reach China. They may also have lost time because Marco was ill. One version of his book says that in Badakhshan Marco “remained sick for about a year.” What might his illness have been? Malaria is a good guess. If that’s what it was, it finally ran its course, for once more the Polos were on their way, following a road that went “upwards by a river.”

That would be the Warduj, boiling through rapids below the track we followed. We were in another battered pickup truck, driven by a fellow named Agha. What I most remember about Agha is the smile perpetually creasing his beard, even as he forced his precious truck over rocks as if it were invincible. Every half hour or so he stopped to refill the radiator.

At about 9,000 feet (2,750 meters) the Warduj became a gentle stream braided across a wide valley of lush grass. Over the centuries thousands of caravans have camped in that idyllic place, and I have no doubt that the Polos stayed a couple of days to rest their animals. Then they rode across a low rise to the Pyandzh, as the upper Amu Darya is known, and followed that river into the valley that Marco called Vocan.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Follow Marco Polo’s trail of adventures with this desktop image.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

“Here begins the introduction of this book which is called the description of the world. Lords Emperors, and Kings, Dukes, and Marquesses, Counts, Knights, and Burgesses, and all people who wish to know the different generations of men and the diversities of the different regions of the world, then take this book and have it read and here you will find all the greatest marvels and the great diversities....”

So begins Marco Polo’s book, The Description of the World, as presented in Arthur Christopher Moule’s masterful English translation of a version of Polo’s book known to scholars as the F text. This is the source of the quotes that appear in the series of three articles on Polo that begins this month in the magazine. The original product of Marco’s collaboration with a romance writer named Rustichello has been lost, and so scholars are left to sift through the some 150 versions known to exist, no two exactly alike. Scholars divide the 150 versions into two groups, labeled A and B. The F text, which falls into the A group, is housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Considered one of the best and very close to the original, it is written in a Franco-Italian language described by one scholar as “uncouth French much mingled with Italian.” Some of these A texts are notorious for variations that show the biases, mistakes, and editorial judgments of their copiers. For example, when some translators were presented with the news that the three Magi were buried at Saveh in Persia rather than in Cologne, they inserted that the people of Saveh tell many lies. As these books were translated from language to language, the opportunities for error multiplied; one text from the early 16th century is a Tuscan translation of a Latin translation of an earlier Tuscan translation of the original Franco-Italian language. Although we have no confirmation of the Marco-Rustichello collaboration other than the book itself, Marco seems to have approved of at least some of its versions, for in 1307 he presented a French translation of it to an envoy of Charles of Valois.

The second group of manuscripts, known as the B group, provides some provocative material not found in the A texts. From this B group, for example, we learn that the people around Yarkand in western China suffer from goiter—a problem for them even today. Until the 1930s the only examples of B texts were a few odd bits of manuscript and a printed text by Giambattista Ramusio that appeared in 1559, two years after his death. Ramusio tells his readers his Italian version was produced “with the help of different copies.” The foundation of his work appears to be a Latin text dating from before 1320, with influences from other identifiable versions. What is distinctive about Ramusio’s work is that about 20 percent of it was, until 1932, considered unique. That 20 percent is thought to have come from another early Latin text, which may have been destroyed in a 1557 fire. In any event, the source has never been found. A second version containing much of Ramusio’s original material surfaced in Toledo, Spain, in 1932. Most of this Latin manuscript agrees with the F manuscript, but it also contains some 200 passages not found in F. About 120 of those, however, are found in Ramusio’s book. Because the remaining 80 offer valuable historical and geographical material and even help to clarify some obscure passages of F, this manuscript is thought to be a copy of something that was very close to an original.

In sorting this out, scholars have come to conclude that Marco probably wrote two versions of his book. The second version, represented by the B texts, may have been a revision and expansion done for a select group of readers who had already made their way through the first book. It is unlikely that we will ever know exactly what form the first book took, but the versions we have still make for a very good read.

—Patricia B. Kellogg

Venetian Maze
The thematic tours of Venice at this website grew from a University of Texas graduate student’s art history doctoral dissertation. You can follow 18 tours or navigable paths through the city and even see the sculpted camel that opens the Marco Polo story in National Geographic magazine. Look for the Palazzo Mastelli in the Tracery and Trim tour.

Afghanistan Online
This site offers information on culture, history, politics, economy, geography, and even movies and the daily weather. Dozens of links to other Afghan sites including media and nonprofit organizations.

This site contains material on Iran’s culture and history. Multiple links to sites from Iran and about Iran. Also a long list of general Middle East links.

Doctors Without Borders
Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, is an international organization that delivers emergency aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters, and to those who lack health care because of social or geographic isolation.

Governments on the WWW
Database of governmental institutions on the World Wide Web. Find out more about the places Marco passed through by checking the entries for modern country names. Includes many government websites and sources for background information. In English and German.


Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

Moule, A.C. and Paul Pelliot. Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Vol. 1. Reprint of the 1938 edition published by G. Routledge, London. AMS Press, 1976.

Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo’s Asia: An Introduction to his “Description of the World” Called “Il Milione.” University of California Press, 1960.

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition. 2 vols. Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Westview Press, 1995.


Junger, Sebastian. “The Lion in Winter,” National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2001), 76-90, 135-139.

Montaigne, Fen. “Iran: Testing the Waters of Reform,” National Geographic (July 1999), 2-33.

Vesilind, Priit J. “Why Explore?” National Geographic (February 1998), 40-45.

Edwards, Mike. “The Great Khans,” National Geographic (February 1997), 2-35.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. “Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers,” National Geographic (December 1991), 2-49.

Sarianidi, Viktor Ivanovich. “The Golden Hoard of Bactria,” National Geographic (March 1990), 50-75.

Cameron, Ian and others. Into the Unknown: The Story of Exploration,
National Geographic Books, 1987.

Graves, William. “Iran: Desert Miracle,” National Geographic (January 1975), 2-47.

Lattimore, Owen. “The Desert Road to Turkestan: Twentieth Century Travel Through Innermost Asia, Along the Caravan Trails Over Which Oriental Commerce Was Once Borne from China to the Medieval Western World,” National Geographic (June 1929), 661-702.

Hildebrand, Jesse Richardson. “The World’s Greatest Overland Explorer: How Marco Polo Penetrated Farthest Asia, ‘Discovered’ Many Lands Unknown to Europe, and Added Numerous Minerals, Animals, Birds, and Plants to Man’s Knowledge,” National Geographic (November 1928), 505-568.

Morden, William J. “By Coolie and Caravan Across Central Asia: Narrative of a 7,900-Mile (12,700-Kilometer) Journey of Exploration and Research Over ‘the Roof of the World,’ from the Indian Ocean to the Yellow Sea,” National Geographic (October 1927), 369-431.


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