Marco Polo’s Travel By ROGER DUVOISINIn the year 1260, two merchant brothers of Venice named Maffeo and Nicolo Polo sailed from the city ofConstantinople to trade in the land of the tartars. They carried with them a great many beautiful jewelswhich they hoped to exchange for a chestful of gold. They could not have been afraid to adventures, or danger, for after selling and buying and selling thejewels and other articles of trade, they traveled far beyond the Black Sea, until they finally came to thegreat city of Bokhara, in Asia. “Well, Mafeo,” said to Nicolo,” “I do not think any European merchant has ever come so far into thisunknown land.” “Certainly not, Nicolo. And if what we are told is true about bandits making the country behind usunsafe for travelers, we may have to remain in this city a long time.” Indeed three long years went by, and the bandits still made travel very dangerous. But now Nicoloand Maffeo, who were still living in Bokhara, could speak the language of the tartars as well as their own.So they had not entirely wasted their time. One day, there came into Bokhara a very important looking gentleman, dressed in a long silk robeembroidered with gold. One hundred horsemen rode behind him, their lances held straight up, like thepickets of a fence. This stranger was an ambassador from Persia on his way to Peking, in China. Ofcourse, Nicolo and Maffeo could not help noticing him and before long they became such good friendsthat said to them: “Why don’t you come with me to Peking where the new Khan of the Tartars has built his new Palace?The Khan will be pleased to see you. He will give you lots of presents and you will do some good tradingin his capital. Do not fear the bandits. My cavalrymen will keep them away.” Thus it came about that Nicolo and Maffeo, instead of going home, went in quite the oppositedirection. The great new Khan, whose name was Kublai, was truly glad to see the merchants from Venice. Aftertheir long journey, he received and feasted them like princes. As Europe was as mysterious to Kublai Khan as Chine was to Nicolo and Maffeo, he asked them totell all they could about their homeland. “How great is it?” he asked. “As great as China? How many kings are there in Europe? Are they fairto their people? Are they skillful in war? Tell me about the Pope!” All these questions and many others Nicolo and Maffeo answered so well that the Khan, judgingthem to be very clever men, asked them to go back as his ambassador to the Pope.“I shall be pleased,” he said, “if his holiness will send me one hundred wise men to teach us thr faith ofthe Christians; also some oil from the lamp that burns over the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.” Then he gave them a gold tablet with his seal on it to insure their safe conduct. Robbers did not dareattack him who carried this tablet, but on the contrary, offered him help. And so Nicolo and Maffeo, who had come to China as traders, now left it as ambassadors. During their journey homeward, the heat in the dessert, the ice and snow in the mountains, and theflooded rivers in the valleys brought them so much hardships that three more years elapsed before theygot back among their countrymen.
There they were told that the Pope had just died and so they had no one to whom to give the Khan’sletter. Nicolo’s wife also died. But the merchant’s grief was made less by the sight of the fine-looking son,Marco, who had been born during his absence Marco was already fifteen years old, so long had Nicolo’s trading trip lasted. Nicolo and Maffeo were very impatient to return to China with the one hundred learned men to sendaway to these far countries. But I think I know two friars whom you can very well take with you. I willalso give you two beautiful crystal vases and my benediction for the Khan.”“Two friars to teach the story of Christ to millions of Tartars? That that’s not much,” thought Nicolo andMaffeo. “Kublai Khan will be disappointed. But since there is nothing we can do, let’s go!”The merchants then set out for China with the two friars, some oil from the lamp that hung over the HolySepulchre, and the crystal vases. And what was more important, they also took with them Marco,Nicolo’s son. Marco was now seventeen years old and very bright boy who enjoyed looking at people and thingsabout him. During the trip through Asia he kept his eyes wide open so he wouldn’t miss the wonders of the landshe passed through: strange costumes and ways of the people; animals and trees unlike anything he hadever seen or heard of; palaces and cities more marvelous than those in dreams. Because he observed so well, and even took notes of what he saw, he was able, later, to write a bookabout China which reads like the most beautiful fairy tale The two friars who followed the Venetians were not courageous men. They soon lost heart. “What an idea to send two peaceful men like us through these dangerous countries!” they grumbled toeach other.“If cold, heat, or hunger does not kill us, surly some wild tribesmen will. And what good will that does toKublai Khan!” They pretended to be ill and let Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco continue alone into Persia. In traveling across Persia, now on horseback, now on camels, now astride donkeys, Marco, who likedanimals, did not forget to write about the strong Persian ox which had a lump on his back and kneeleddown like the camel to let himself be loaded; about the big sheep, as big as donkeys, whose tails were sothick and fat that they seemed to have heads, one in front and one behind; and about the wild asses whichbrowsed among groves of date trees. Since he wanted to be a merchant like his father, Marco was much interested in the beautiful thingsthe Persian craftsmen made in their open shops; decorated saddles, bridles, finely chiseled swords, vases,embroideries of silk and gold, many other wares. But there were also unpleasant things in Persia-among them, many robbers. They were so bold thatthe Persians in these parts had built thick walls of mud all around their towns to protect themselves. As Marco, Nicolo, and Maffeo wre traveling through this region in a long caravan which they hadjoined for safety, a great band of robber’s attacked them. They killed many of the men of the caravan orcaptured them and carried them off to sell into slavery. But the three Venetians were lucky enough toescape. Beyond Persia, they climbed up into the mountains of Afghanistan where many towns had been torndown by Alexander’s soldiers, and destroyed again later by Genghis Khan’s horsemen. The Venetians
rested for a year in a cool mountain spot, for the hard trip through the hot plains and deserts of Persia hadmade Marco ill. This was as Far East as Alexander had come with his tired army. For Marco, his father, and his uncle,it was just half of their journey. Ahead of them lay a land which had never before been heard of byEuropeans: a treeless country of mountains and plains, which is called the “Roof of the World.””The Mountains are so high,” wrote Marco, “that no birds fly near their summits; on their sides live bigsheep with horns four feet long. Out of these horns the shepherds make ladles, and vessels to hold theirfood, and even fences to keep wolves from getting at their sheep and goats.” After many months of travel over dangerous mountains and deserts, Marco, Nicolo, and Maffeofinally came into China. It was summertime when they arrived at the city of Shangto where the Khan waited for them in hismarble palace. He received them surrounded by his officers and guards all dressed in green, purple, red,yellow, and blue silk robes. With the gilded and painted walls, and the polished swords and spears, thescene glittered like a box full of jewels. “Rise up, my friends,” the Khan, as Nicolo, Maffeo and Marco kneeled before him, “and tell meabout your travels.” Nicolo recounted their adventures and gave Kublai Khan the vases and the oil from the HolySepulchre. “And who is this young man who is with you?” asked the Khan. “He is your servant, and my son,” answered Nicolo. “He is welcome. Because he pleases me I shall give him a place among my officers.” The Kublai Khan ordered a great feast and there was much rejoicing in honor of Nicolo, Maffeo, andMarco. Marco now put aside his Italian dress of wool and his tight fitting trousers, for the long silk robe ofthe Tartar officers. He also learned to speak and write the Tartar language and four others besides. “This young stranger is very wise,” thought the Khan one morning as twelve valets helped him put onhis gold embroidered robe. “Tomorrow I shall send him to my distant city Karazan to see how my peopleare behaving. And if he does well, I’ll send him on other important missions.” In setting out to Karazan the next day, followed by one hundred horsemen, Marco remembered thatKublai Khan liked to hear stories about his faraway peoples and kingdoms. “The Khan’s officers never find anything interesting to tell him when they come back from longtrips,” he said to himself. “They talk only about their business and the Khan yawns with boredom. I donot want to be silly. I shall put down in my notes the strange and amusing things I have observed on myway: how people dress and talk: the new animals and trees and flowers. The Khan will be happy to hearmy stories.” And truly, the Khan took so much delight in listening to Marco upon his return from Karazan that hesent him again and again on long journeys to the far corners of his empire. He even made him governor ofthe city of Yangchow for three years. Thus Marco learned all about many of the unknown countries of Asia, countries which had neverbeen drawn on any map. He who had never before let Europe and so had come to think that it was the richest, the most learnedpart of the world, was surprised to find that the Europe he had left behind him was almost crude, poor,and ignorant compared to China. Civilization in Europe was new, but in China it was very old.
“How polite the Chinese are!” he thought. “They seldom quarrel among themselves. And how honest!Why, one can leave one’s door open without fear that thieves will come in and rob one. And they know somany things that we don’t know anything about in Europe.” The Chinese knew how to dig coal and burn it to keep warm. Marco had never even seen coal. Hewas astonished that black “stones” could burn like wood. In Europe, when a man had written a book, it was copied by hand so that a few more people couldread it. But long before that time, the Chinese had already learned how to print their books; and millionsof people could read them. The Chinese also printed paper money which was easier to carry than heavygold and silver coins. The Chinese post seemed very wonderful to Marco. Along the roads bordered by shade trees, fastmassagers ran from post-house to post-house with letters and packages. Little bells tied to a messenger’sbelt tinkled to warn the next messenger at the post-house ahead to get ready to take up the message andspeed it on. There were larger stations too in which four hundred relay horses were kept to carry travelersalong the post roads. How rich this China was! The craftsmen were busy making their beautiful wares in the cities, whileabove the gold roofs of the temples shone in the sun. On the rivers and canals, boats were as many as theants around an ant hill. Marco could not open his eyes wide enough. Some time before Marco’s arrival, Kublai Khan had finished conquering China with his Tartarhorsemen, so he had decided to build his capital city in Peking. “The king of such a great civilized country cannot live like a rude tartar chief,” he had said. I shallcall the best architects, sculptors, painters, and gardeners so they can build me the largest and richestpalace that was ever seen.” His palace was built of marble, decorated inside and out with sculptures and paintings of dragons,birds, beasts, and flowers. The roof was painted in green, red, blue, and violet, and glistened like crystal.The palace grounds, with their parks and gardens, were all enclosed within a high wall. They were solarge that it took a horseman all day to ride around them. Musk deer, goats, and stags browsed in theflowery meadows, while fish of all kinds filled the ponds. About the grounds were many painted buildings, some for the Khan’s ten thousand horses, some forhis saddles, spurs, and bridles; some for his wardrobe-robes of silk and gold and precious stones. As the Khan wanted his twelve thousand officers to be as rich looking as his palace, thirteen times ayear he gave those robes of silk with only a little less gold and jewels on them than on his own. When he ate, dozens of pages served him, their faces covered with veils, so that their breath might notsoil his food. A page brought him the wine cup and kneeled down while an orchestra played as the cupcame to his lips. The Khan loved to hunt with falcons; and since it was also a good occasion to show how great anEmperor he was, he did not walk to the hunt, or ride a horse, or even an elephant. He rode four elephantsat once. A little house carved in wood and painted with gold was put on the back of the four elephants, forhim to ride in. He could even lie down if he cared to! He took with him ten thousand men, dressed in blue robes to carry the falcons; and ten thousanddressed in red robes to catch the falcons after the hunt. Sometimes he went hunting with dogs. On these days five thousand dogs followed his little paintedhouse on the four elephants. Marco, of course, put all this down carefully in his notebook. During all the years he spent in Asia, traveling for his friend the Khan Marco never forgot to writeabout the marvelous things he saw or heard: the crocodiles, which he took for snakes, with four legs and
eyes as big as loaves; the gold and silver towers of Burma which had bells on the top of them to makemusic when the wind blew; the dog sleds and the big white bears of Siberia; the men of the North whorode reindeer instead of horses; the fierce tigers of Tibet; the Island of Japan which was so far east thateven the Chinese did not know much about it, but said that it had more gold than stones; the Island ofJava where grew pepper, ginger, and cinnamon; and many, many, other wonders. While Marco traveled, his father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo who continued to trade in Peking hadbecome very rich. But their black beards had turned white, and they now began to think of their homeland more and more often. “The time has come for us to leave China;” Nicolo sad to Maffeo one day. “Even my son Marcowould like to see his old friends in Venice.” So one day when the great Khan seemed very cheerful, Nicolo told him of their desire to go home. “It is now seventeen years since we came to visit Your Majesty,” he said. “We have been honoredand made happy beyond our dreams by your kindness and generosity. But we are old men now and welong to see our homeland before we die,” The great Khan frowned at hearing this. “Whatever you hope to find in your country,” he asked, “is it worth the great dangers of the longjourney in which you might lose your lives? If it is gain which you seek, I can make you still richer. No,the affection I have for you prevents me from granting your request.” Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco were sad. But they made up their minds to find a way, for they mustleave. After a short while, three gentlemen from Persia came to China to fetch a wife for Argon, their king.The Persian king wanted to marry a Tartar princess. Kublai Khan was pleased to help them choose ayoung and beautiful princess whose name was Kogatin. And with the beautiful princess, the gentlemanfrom Persia started back home. It was their bad luck that at that very time some tartar princes chose to start a war among them. Theymade the country so unsafe for traveling that the gentlemen and the princess returned to Peking. “What are we to do?” they lamented. “Our king is so anxious to see his new wife that he will bedispleased if we make him wait.” “There is another way to Persia,” a friend told them, “by sea. The Venetians Marco Polo has justreturned from a long voyage to the island of Java and he says that it is a safe way to travel. Ask him toadvise you.” Marco was quite interested in the story of the gentlemen from Persia. He saw at once that they mighthelp his father, his uncle, and himself to leave China. “You wish to return home?” he said. “So do I. I can guide you to Persia by sea for I know the searoute and I am skilled in navigation. My father and uncle who have traveled much can help too. But it isnecessary that you obtain the permission of our emperor.” “Then we shall try,” replied the gentlemen from Persia, “for we are certain that you only can aid us intaking Princess Kogatin to our king.” Kublai Khan was not at all happy to have to choose between keeping the princess in China or partingwith Marco, Nicolo, and Maffeo. Once Marco had gone, who would tell him the amusing and interestingstories about foreign countries, which he liked so much? Very grumblingly he finally consented. Twelve ships were made ready, just enough for a party accompanying a princess, a future queen ofPersia. They were good ships-much better than the European ships Marco had known. Their holds weredivided into several parts so that only one part would fill with water, should the ship run into rocks or
whales. They had cabins too, to shelter the passengers from stormy seas. After bidding goodbye to oldKhan, Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco at last sail from China. On the way home Venetians sailed along many new coast of which even the names were unknown inEurope. They first saw Indo-China, whose king sent twenty elephants each year to Kublai Khan; and Javaand Sumatra, where Marco found nuts big as a man’s head-coconuts-and rhinoceroses bathing in mudpools. In Sumatra the ships waited five months for the west-blowing monsoon. Since the wild men ofSumatra like to eat strangers, Marco gave the order to build trenches around the beach to keep the savagesaway. After passing many new islands, the ships came to Ceylon, and then to India which was full of jewelsand kings as when Alexander dreamed of conquering it. In India, Marco was told about the kingdom where no tailor could become rich for everyone wentnaked-even the king, who wore rings on his toes. He also heard about the Brahmins who dare not leavetheir houses when they hear someone sneeze for fear of bad luck. India still sold pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and other spices, and jewels and silks to foreign merchants,just as it had done in the old days when the Greek traders, helped by the monsoon, first came fromEurope. As the Chinese ships sailed along the Indian coast, the Arabs sailors told Marco about many strangelands-the island of Madagascar, far away to the west, where lived giant birds which carried elephants intothe clouds, and the islands of Zanzibar and Socotra. Marco was the first European to hear of these places.He also heard of the kingdom of Abyssinia in Africa where the king and his people believed in theChristian God. At the end of two years, the ships sailed into a Persian port. It had been such a long hard trip that twoof the three gentlemen from Persia and six hundred passengers Maffeo, and Marco, landed, only to learnthat King Argon had died months before, without even seeing his new wife. But everything ended happilyfor the princess, for she married King Argon’s son instead. Marco, his father, and his uncle finally arrived in Venice, twenty-four years after they had left it. Itwas the year 1295. They easily found their old home, but the servant who answered their knock at thedoor would not let them in. their ragged, dirty, foreign clothes, their sunburned, tired faces, and theirbushy hair and beards made them look like tramps. “You, Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco? No, no, that cannot be,” exclaimed the servant. “They have diedmany years ago, God knows where. Their house now belongs to a cousin of theirs. You are robbers; go onyour way!” “Let’s force our way in, said Marco, and he pushed the door open, carrying his bundle after him. Butthey had to tell of their trip many times before their cousin would believe them. At a great feast which was held at Nicolo’s house, Maffeo, and Marco decided to astonish theirfriends, so they came in dresses in long Tartar robes of crimson satin. When the dresses had been admiredby all, removed them and had them cut into strips as gifts for the servants while they put on other dressesof crimson damask. During the meal they went into another room and reappeared in robes of crimson velvet. But imaginethe surpriseof the guests when, after the meal, they brought in the old tattered clothes in which they hadcome home, and when they ripped them apart, streams of rubies, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, pearls,and jade, poured out onto the table.
No one doubted now. They were Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco, and they must indeed have had wonderfuladventures!Sometime later, when Marco showed his book which described all the things he had seen, people did notbelieve he told the truth.“Who can believe that black stones can burn like wood?” they said. “Or that nut can be as large as man’shead?Imagine shopkeepers taking paper instead of money for their good wares! What a tale teller that MarcoPolo is!” And they called him “Marco of the Millions because he said that there was so much ofeverything in China.