A series attributed to the truest of explorers
Marco Polo is often revered as the greatest explorer of human kind. When traveling across the world was a matter of life or death, Polo persevered from Europe to Asia, arriving at the heart of the Mongol Empire at the ripe age of 20. He would go on to record the mysterious culture and inner workings of the Eastern world for the next 24 years.
Many people consider his stories to be fabricated because of the sheer amount of living he packed into one life. These accusations have later been debunked as everything Polo claimed was historically accurate.
He lived a life we can only half dream of. And when finally asked, on his death bed in 1324, whether or not he had lied about his expeditions, he said he did not. And added, “I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.”
Born in Venice in 1254, Marco Polo grew up as an orphan would. He would not meet his father, a merchant on the Silk Road, until he was 15. His mother died when he was six. He was alone for the better part of his childhood when he learned to read, write, and speak five different languages.
His distant Venetian family of wealthy merchants left behind stories and maps from their journeys on the Silk Road which Polo was left to decipher which were accurate and which were works of fiction. He was a smart boy and amassed a wealth of knowledge by the time his father and uncle returned home in 1269.
“Why didn’t you come back?” he asked his father. “Mother was very sick.”
“Marco, you know that it was not possible. I was in distant lands, in the Empire of the greatest king on Earth, Kublai Khan. He has entrusted me to bring back 100 priests to spread Christianity to the East.”
“I want to go with you,” young Marco said.
“Don’t be silly, son. This is not a journey for a young boy. You do not know the life of a merchant.”
For two years, Marco worked to prove to his father he was ready for the expedition. Reluctantly, his father allowed him to join. At 17, Marco would be the youngest to ever tread the ancient Silk Road.
With camels, horses, and donkeys in tow, the journey to China lasted nearly three years – stopping at small towns and villages along the way. They’d trade spices and silks and precious gems – whatever they could buy and sell for more in the next town.
He documented much of his travels. Including the evil spirits that would sing to them in the desert, the magical healing mountains that cured him of his deathly illness, and the Tibetan villages which would throw their daughters at the foreigner to review her sexual abilities.
Upon arriving in Kublai Khan’s massive empire, 20-year-old Polo witnessed riches like he’d never seen. These were advanced civilizations which were well ahead of Europeans at the time. Intricate heating and cooling systems, hygiene, and luxury; all a direct result of an empire run by the fairest ruler Marco had ever seen.
It was as if he had died and gone to heaven. They were treated as honorary guests and warmed with gifts and a lavish party of 40,000 men. Polo’s ability to speak five languages was very useful to Kublai Khan. He quickly became a trusted advisor for the Mongols.
Men in high power were treated to the best entertainment that the empire had to offer. This included horse races, musical performances, theater, wrestling matches, and, of course, women. He also was sent on a handful of diplomatic missions throughout the Southeast Asian empire. During these expeditions, he visited modern-day Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam – as well as extensive exploration through China.
At age 37, he offered to accompany the Mongol princess to Persia where he then returned home to war-torn Italy. He was imprisoned by the Genoans where his cellmate, writer Rustichello da Pisa, took great interest in his stories.
It is from the resulting book, “The Travels of Marco Polo” where I will begin to share stories on The Thousand-Mile Journey; a project funded entirely by reader subscription.