Marco Polo Travels the Silk Road to China


Three men step off a galley at a quay in Venice. No one rushes to greet them. Their homecoming after 24 years abroad would have passed unnoticed had their bizarre appearance not made them stand out. Dressed in ragged robes of once fine silk, in the Mongol style, they had, says one source, “a certain indescribable smack of the Tartar both in air and accent, having indeed all but forgotten their Venetian tongue.” The travelers are Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle. The year is 1295.

THE Polos’ stories of a journey to distant Cathay, now China, seemed incredible to their contemporaries. Marco’s memoirs​—originally entitled Description of the World and later, Travels of Marco Polo—​told of unknown civilizations of huge wealth, abounding in goods avidly sought by Western merchants. His book exerted an enormous influence on popular imagination. Within 25 years of Marco’s return, manuscript versions were current in Franco-Italian, French, Latin, Tuscan, Venetian, and likely German​—an unparalleled success for the Middle Ages. His book was copied by hand for two centuries and since 1477, it has continually been in print in many languages. Marco Polo is probably the most famous Westerner ever to have traveled on the Silk Road to China. Why did he make the journey? And can all that he claimed to have seen and done be believed?

Merchants of Venice

In the 13th century, many Venetian merchants settled in Constantinople, now Istanbul, and made fortunes there. Among them were Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, Marco’s father and uncle. In about 1260 they liquidated their property in the area, invested in jewels, and made for the capital of the western khanate of the Mongol Empire, Sarai, on the Volga River. Business went well, and they doubled their assets. Prevented by war from returning home, they headed east, likely on horseback, to the great commercial city of Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan.

Unrest detained them there for three years, until envoys bound for Kublai​—Great Khan of all the Mongols, whose domains stretched from Korea to Poland—​passed through Bukhara. The envoys invited Niccolò and Maffeo to accompany them,  since, recounted Marco, the Great Khan had never met any “Latins”​—likely meaning southern Europeans—​and would be pleased to speak with them. A year’s trek took the Polos to the court of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire.

The Great Khan welcomed the two Polo brothers and asked them much about the West. He gave them a gold tablet as a safe-conduct for their return and entrusted them with a letter asking the pope to send “some hundred wise men, learned in the law of Christ and conversant with the seven arts to preach to [Kublai’s] people.”

Meanwhile, Marco was born. He was 15 when he first met his father, in 1269. On reentering “Christian” dominions, Niccolò and Maffeo learned that Pope Clement IV had died. They awaited a successor, but this three-year interregnum was the longest in history. After two years, in 1271 they left to return to the Great Khan, taking 17-year-old Marco with them.

Marco’s Journey

In Acre, Palestine, a prominent church politician, Teobaldo Visconti, gave the Polos letters for the Great Khan explaining why the Polos had been unable to carry out his request for a hundred wise men. On reaching Asia Minor, they heard that Visconti himself had been elected pope, so they returned to him in Acre. Instead of a hundred sages, the new pope, Gregory X, sent just two friars with powers to ordain priests and bishops and furnished them with proper credentials and gifts for the Khan. The party set off again, but fear of the wars ravaging those regions soon caused the friars to turn back. The Polos continued on.

The three traveled through the lands now known as Turkey and Iran and descended to the Persian Gulf with the idea of proceeding by sea. However, judging the ships unseaworthy, “wretched affairs . . . only stitched together with twine,” they settled on the overland route. Turning north and east, they traversed the immense wastes, imposing mountain ranges, green plateaus, and rich pastures of Afghanistan and the Pamirs before reaching Kashgar, in what is now the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang Uygur. Then, following ancient caravan routes south  of the Tarim Basin and the Gobi Desert, they reached Cambaluc, now Beijing. The whole trip, which included severe weather and an unspecified illness of Marco, took three and a half years.

Marco notes curiosities along the way​—the mountain on which Noah’s ark was said to have come to rest in Armenia, the Magi’s supposed burial site in Persia, lands of intense cold and perpetual darkness in the far north. Marco’s is the first mention in Western literature of petroleum. He reveals that “salamander,” far from being the wool of an animal able to resist fire, as was reputed, is a mineral ​—asbestos—​found in the Xinjiang Uygur region. Black rocks that burn​—coal—​are so abundant in China that hot baths can be taken daily. Wherever he goes, he notes adornment, food, and drink​—especially the fermented mare’s milk of the Mongols—​as well as religious and magic rites, trades, and goods on sale. Entirely new to him is the paper money used in the realm of the Great Khan.

Marco never reveals his thoughts but dispassionately relates what he sees or hears. We are left to guess how he felt when attacked by pillagers who captured some of his companions and put others to death.

In the Service of Kublai Khan?

Marco claims that the Polos spent 17 years in the service of Kublai Khan, or the Great Khan. During this time Marco was often sent to distant parts of the empire by the Great Khan on fact-finding missions, and he even governed what is now the city of Yang-chou, Jiangsu Province.

Whether Marco is telling the whole truth is debated. Mongols distrusted the Chinese, whom they had conquered, and employed foreigners to govern their empire. But that Marco, an unlettered man, could have become a governor seems improbable. Perhaps he exaggerated his rank. Yet, scholars are willing to accept that he may have been “a useful emissary at some level.”

Nonetheless, Marco was able to paint a dazzling picture of metropolises of untold wealth and of pagan and outlandish customs belonging to a world wholly ignored by the West or known only through fable and hearsay. Could such teeming civilizations, richer than Europe’s, really exist? It seemed impossible.

The palace of the Great Khan was “the greatest Palace that ever was,” said Marco. “The building is altogether so vast, so rich, and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything superior.” Its walls were covered with gold and silver, sculptured and gilt dragons, beasts and birds, and knights and idols. Its lofty roof​—vermilion, yellow, green, and blue—​shone like crystal. Its splendid parks were full of animals of all kinds.

In contrast with the tortuous alleys of medieval Europe, Cambaluc had streets so straight and wide that a person could see from one city wall to the other. Here were “brought articles of greater cost and rarity, and in greater abundance . . . , than to any other city in the world,” says the Venetian. “No day in the year passes that there do not enter the city 1000 cart-loads of silk alone.”

The number of ships sailing the Yangtze River, one of the longest in the world, was amazing. The port of Sinju, Marco reckons, must have accommodated as many as 15,000 ships.

Among the Mongol customs Marco mentions is that of the marrying of dead children. If one family lost a son aged four or more and another lost a daughter of the same age, the fathers might decide that the dead children  should be married, thereafter making a marriage contract and holding a great feast. Food would be offered, and paper effigies of slaves, money, and household goods would be burned, in the conviction that the “spouses” would possess these in the so-called other world.

Marco is struck by Mongol military skill, methods of governing, and religious tolerance. Socioeconomic achievements included relief for the poor and ill, patrols against fire and disorder, reserve granaries to alleviate distress caused by floods, and a post system for rapid communication.

While he knew of Mongol attempts to invade Japan, Marco did not claim that he had been there. However, he states that gold was so abundant in Japan that the emperor’s palace was entirely roofed and paved with it. Marco’s was the only reference to Japan in Western writings before the 16th century.

Marco’s book was both marveled at and scoffed at for centuries. Scholars today, after weighing all its inaccuracies, define it as “an unsurpassed description” of Kublai’s reign at its height.

Return to Venice

The Polos left China in about 1292. Marco says that the expedition made a 21-month voyage, which departed from what is now Quanzhou, touched Vietnam, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Sri Lanka, and then followed the Indian coast to Persia. The last leg of their journey took them to Constantinople and finally Venice. Because they had been away for 24 years, it is not hard to imagine that their relatives scarcely recognized them. By then, Marco was 41 or 42.

How far Marco traveled is hard to estimate. One writer who recently attempted to retrace Marco’s steps covered more than 6,000 miles [10,000 km] between Iran and China alone. Even with modern means of transport, that was a feat fraught with difficulties.

Marco’s book is said to have been dictated to a certain Rustichello in a Genoa prison in 1298. Tradition has it that while commanding a Venetian galley, Marco was captured in a sea battle with the Genoese, who were at war with Venice. Rustichello, a fellow prisoner, had experience in writing prose stories in French or Franco-Italian, and Marco’s company evidently stimulated him to write.

Marco was probably freed in 1299 when Venice and Genoa made peace. He returned to Venice, married, and had three daughters. He died in his home city in 1324 at the age of 69.

Doubt still lingers in some people’s minds as to whether Marco did all that he claimed or simply narrated tales he had heard from other travelers. But whatever the sources of Marco Polo’s Description of the World, scholars recognize its worth. “Never before or since,” says one historian, “has one man given such an immense body of new geographical knowledge to the West.” Marco Polo’s book remains a testimony to man’s fascination with travel, new sights, and distant lands.

[Map on page 24, 25]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

Marco’s trek to China (see publication)

While in China (see publication)

The journey home (see publication)





Istanbul (Constantinople)


Acco (Acre)



Mt. Ararat


Persian Gulf











Beijing (Cambaluc)


Yangtze River








[Credit Line]

Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

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Mt. Ararat

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Robert Azzi/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA

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Mongolian woman

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C. Ursillo/

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Boatman, Myanmar

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The Great Wall of China

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Indian spices

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Chinese horsemen, Kublai Khan, the Yangtze River

[Credit Lines]

Horsemen: Tor Eigeland/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA; Kublai Khan: Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan; Yangtze River: © Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures

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© Michael S. Yamashita/CORBIS

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© 1996 Visual Language