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On Marco Polo’s Trail
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Marco Polo


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By Mike Edwards Photographs by Michael Yamashita



Trusted by Kublai Khan, Marco served in his court 17 years, noting wonders from rice wine to paper money.



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

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.”

I went to this oasis, named Nanhu, with a small, indefatigable historian, Li Zhengyu. We traveled together for about two weeks while I soaked up his encyclopedic knowledge of the Silk Road. “The Polos certainly stopped to water here,” he said at Nanhu’s springs, conjuring a picture of Marco leading camels to drink. And then Professor Li led me to the ruins of a town, almost buried in dunes. To judge by the visible walls, it had been about the size of two football fields. “This was Shou Chang Cheng, an outpost of the Han dynasty that was mentioned in records in 110 B.C.,” he said. “Marco Polo must have spent the night within these walls—there was no other town for miles.”

By now the Polos had traveled perhaps 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers) in China—about half the way to Shangdu—and had put the dreaded Taklimakan behind them. In what is now Gansu province they reached Shazhou, a hub of trade routes, and Marco entered a new world, mingling for the first time with large numbers of Chinese, as well as Mongols and a local people related to the Tibetans, the Tanguts. Most, Marco wrote, were “idolaters. . . . they have many abbeys and many monasteries which are all full of idols of many kinds, to which they do great sacrifice and great honor.” Shazhou, now named Dunhuang, was one of China’s greatest Buddhist centers.

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







Forum
We offer this forum board in Spanish and English. Some scholars believe many of Marco Polo’s tales were borrowed from earlier explorers. Were his adventures fact or fake? Tell us what you think.

Presentamos este forum en inglés y en español. Algunos expertos creen que muchos de los cuentos de Marco Polo fueron tomados de otros exploradores anteriores. ¿Es que fueron su aventuras hechos o falsedades? Déjenos saber lo que piensa.

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Evoke Marco Polo’s desert adventures with this desktop photo.




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


About 1275, close to the time the Polos arrived at the court of Kublai Khan, two Nestorian Christian monks left Daidu (modern Beijing) on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. One of the two, Rabban Sauma, would become the first person known to travel from Beijing to Paris, and, like Marco, he would leave a record of his journey.

Probably in 1280 the traveling monks reached the lands of the Mongol ruler of Persia, where they were drawn into secular and religious politics. The journey to Jerusalem went by the wayside, and eventually Sauma’s companion, Marcus, was named patriarch of the Nestorian Church, headquartered in Baghdad. In 1287 Sauma got his chance to continue westward. Persia’s ruler needed an emissary for a diplomatic mission—he hoped to get agreements from European and Byzantine leaders to join in an effort against the Muslims in the Holy Land. Sauma, an educated Christian with a history of diplomacy and travel, was deemed the man for the job. Setting off from Baghdad, he traveled to the Black Sea, sailed to Constantinople and then continued on to Rome. From there he went to Paris, and then to Bordeaux, where in an extraordinary meeting of cultures, Edward I of England took communion from a Nestorian monk from China. Sauma returned to Persia in 1288 with numerous sacred relics but without firm commitments for a unified Crusade.

Sauma left journals, mostly written in Persian, of his life in China and travels across Asia and Europe. Shortly after his death, this material was translated into Syriac, a language used by Eastern Christians, but both the original and the translation disappeared. Sauma’s remarkable mission was known only through brief references in archives of the Vatican, France, and England—until the Syriac manuscript resurfaced in Iran in 1887.

In 1928 the British scholar Sir Wallis Budge published an English translation of Rabban Sauma’s works. The translation, available on the website of the History Department of Colorado State University-Pueblo—chass.colostate-pueblo.edu/history/seminar/sauma/sawma1.htm—makes for fascinating reading. In it, we find that Kashgar, a booming trade town in western China when Marco passed through, was plundered and empty when Sauma arrived. And in contrast to Marco’s unemotional reporting, Sauma’s description of his intense joy at meeting Pope Nicholas IV in Rome comes across undiminished after 700 years.

—Patricia Kellogg


The China WWW Virtual Library: Internet Guide for China Studies
sun.sino.uni-heidelberg.de/igcs
Links to more than 1,500 academic and media websites. The table of contents allows easy access to links on the arts, history, religion, economy, politics, education, and other subject areas and makes this an outstanding place to begin researching China. Updated frequently.

China National Tourism Administration
www.cnta.com
Take a tour of China through the website of the Chinese government’s tourist office. Includes practical travel information and general cultural material.

China the Beautiful
www.chinapage.com/china.html
This website has received multiple awards for its beautifully illustrated tour of classical Chinese literature, philosophy, poetry, and history. Material is available in Chinese and English.

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Critchley, John. Marco Polo’s Book. Variorum, 1992.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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.

Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. University of California Press, 1988.

Rossabi, Morris. Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West. Kodansha International, 1992.

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Edwards, Mike. “The Adventures of Marco Polo,” National Geographic (May 2001), 2-31.

Winchester, Simon. “Black Dragon River,” National Geographic (February 2000), 2-33.

Bowermaster, Jon. “Tibet for Independents,” National Geographic Adventure (Spring 1999), 44-46.

Lindesay, William. “Heart of the Celestial Empire,” National Geographic Traveler (September/October 1998), 84-102.

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

Edwards, Mike. “Lord of the Mongols, Genghis Khan,” National Geographic (December 1996), 2-37.

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.

Mozai, Torao. “The Lost Fleet of Kublai Khan,” National Geographic (November 1982), 634-649.

Murray, Edward Stevenson. “With the Nomads of Central Asia: A Summer’s Sojourn in the Tekes Valley, Plateau Paradise of Mongol and Turkic Tribes,” National Geographic (January 1936), 1-57.

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 Plant’s 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 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.

Warwick, Adam. “The People of the Wilderness: The Mongols, Once the Terror of All Christendom, Now a Primitive, Harmless Nomad Race,” National Geographic (May 1921), 507-551.

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