Marco Polo statue in Hangzhou

Marco Polo (1254-1324) is regarded as one of the world's greatest and most influential travelers. He set off on a journey to the East at the age of seventeen with his uncle and father as part of a diplomatic mission for Pope Gregory X. After a three-and-a-half-year overland journey through present day Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and China he met the great Kublai Khan who took a liking to the young man and used him as an emissary for 20 years. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco Polo called China “Catai," as in Cathay, a name derived from Karakitay, an 11th century Buddhist empire in western China. Beijing was referred to as Cambalue, a corruption of the Turkish name Khanbalikh, “Khan's city." Polo wrote repeatedly about China's wealth in silk and spices and declared that the Chinese people had “all things in great abundance." Among his exaggerations were that Hangzhou has 12,000 bridges and Suzhou had 6,000. A later traveler could only find 347 in Hangzhou and its suburbs and 290 in Suzhou.

"Because of Marco Polo's account of Kublai Khan, Columbus decided to head to China," historian John Man told the BBC. "He headed west and discovered that China was not where he thought it was, that America was in the way and so in the end it was Kublai through Marco Polo that inspired Columbus to discover America." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012]

But there are some doubts about his credibility. Ariel Sabar wrote in Smithsonian Magazine,"For a guy who claimed to spend 17 years in China as a confidant of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo left a surprisingly skimpy paper trail. No Asian sources mention the footloose Italian. The only record of his 13th-century odyssey through the Far East is the hot air of his own Travels, which was actually an “as told to” penned by a writer of romances...Travels made Polo an instant celebrity after his return to Venice, both for his descriptions of faraway lands and for what his countrymen suspected was wild fabrication. ” [Source: Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014]

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volumes 1 and 2 (London: John Murray, 1903) are part of the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels

Travel's by Marco Polo's Father and Uncle

In 1260, when Marco Polo was just six, his father and uncle set out from their merchant colony in the Crimea to sell jewels in the lower Volga and stayed a year there at the camp of a Mongol Khan. Some Mongol traders escorted them eastward and introduced them to Kublai Khan. In 1269, when Marco Polo was just 15, his father and uncle returned from their nine-year journey. They told fantastic stories about their experiences. No one believed them. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “ In 1260 two Venetian merchants arrived at Sudak, the Crimean port. The brothers Maffeo and Niccilo Polo went on to Surai, on the Volga river, where they traded for a year. Shortly after a civil war broke out between Barka and his cousin Hulagu, which made it impossible for the Polos to return with the same route as they came. They therefore decide to make a wide detour to the east to avoid the war and found themselves stranded for 3 years at Bukhara. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“The marooned Polo brothers were abruptly rescued in Bukhara by the arrival of a VIP emissary from Hulagu Khan in the West. The Mongol ambassador persuaded the brothers that Great Khan would be delighted to meet them for he had never seen any Latin and very much wanted to meet one. So they journeyed eastward. They left Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, then came the murderous obstacle of the Gobi desert. Through the northern route they reached Turfan and Hami, then headed south-east to Dunhuang. Along the Hexi Corridor, they finally reached the new capital of the Great Khan, Bejing in 1266.”

Marco Polo's Father and Uncle and Kublai Khan

The Polos traveled deep into the Mongol empire. They journeyed across the steppes of what is now southern Russia and Kazakhstan and stayed for three years in Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and arrived at Kublai Khan court, perhaps in Shangdu (Xanadu), not so far from Beijing., six years after they set off. Kublai Khan had never met people from southern Europe before. He welcomed the two Venetians with open arms. The Polos remained in his court for four years. They reported that Kublai Khan was a man of "great intelligence and wide-ranging interests” and said he asked them many questions about life in Europe. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

Kublai Khan asked the Polo brothers to be his emissary to the Pope; to retrieve some oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, considered a potion for the soul; and to recruit one hundred missionaries "educated in all Seven Arts," who would argue the merits of their religion in the khan's court. Kublai Khan reportedly said if there case was convincing he was willing to covert his subjects to Christianity. According to the Silk Road Foundation: “The Great Khan, Mangu's brother, Kublai, was indeed hospitable. He had set up his court at Beijing, which was not a Mongol encampment but an impressive city built by Kublai as his new capital after the Mongols took over China in 1264 and established Yuan dynasty (1264-1368). Kublai asked them all about their part of the world, the Pope and the Roman church. Niccolo and Matteo, who spoke Turkic dialects perfectly, answered truthfully and clearly. The Polo brothers were well received in the Great Khan's capital. One year later, the Great Khan sent them on their way with a letter in Turki addressed to Pope Clement IV asking the Pope to send him 100 learned men to teach his people about Christianity and Western science. He also asked Pope to procure oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“To make sure the brothers would be given every assistance on their travels, Kublai Khan presented them with a golden tablet (or paiza in Chinese, gerege in Mongolian) a foot long and three inches wide and inscribed with the words: "By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan's name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed." The golden tablet was the special VIP passport, authorizing the travelers to receive throughout the Great Khan's dominions such horses, lodging, food and guides as they required. It took the Polos three full years to return home, in April 1269.” When the Polo brothers returned home no one believed their stories. Pope Gregory denied the Great Khan's request and sent only two Dominican friars.

Marco Polo in the Pamirs

Marco Polo and his father and uncle passed through the Pamirs, a rugged mountain range with huge glaciers and many peaks over 20,000 feet, to reach Kashgar in China. Marco Polo was the first Westerner to mention the Pamirs, which he said "is the highest place in the world." Today the Pamirs are often called "The Roof of the World." [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

It is believed the Polos traveled through Wakhan — the long valley in present-day Afghanistan that divides the Pamirs from the Hindu Kush and reaches across to China — and may have entered present-day Tajikistan, where the bulk of the Pamirs are located. The journey through the Pamirs was the most difficult leg of the Polo's journey. It took them nearly two months to traverse 250 miles. On the 15,000 foot passes they traversed, Marco Polo wrote, "Fire is not so bright" and "things are not well cooked." The Polos may have been delayed by blizzards, avalanches and landslides. **

"Wild game of every sort abounds" in the Pamirs, Polo wrote. "There are great quantities of wild sheep of huge size...Their horns grow to as much as six palms in length and are never less than four. From these horns the shepherds make big bowls from which they feed, and also fences to keep in their flocks." The Marco Polo sheep is named after Marco Polo because he was the first to describe it. Known for its wide spreading horns, it and the argali of Mongolia are the largest members of the sheep family. **

Marco Polo in Western China

western China near Turpan

After passing through the Pamirs, Marco Polo entered western China near Tazkoragan, near where China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan meet, and traveled to Kashgar. At this point in their journey the Polos had been traveling for about two years and had covered around 5,000 miles and still had 2,600 miles to go before they reached their goal: Shangdu (Xanadu), not so far from Beijing. The Polos followed the Silk Road caravan route through China. They stopped in Kashgar and then crossed the Taklamakan Desert to the north-central Chinese towns of Dunhaung, Nanhu, Anxi, Yumen, Jiayuguan and Zhangye and finally Shangdu. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

Describing Kashgar Marco Polo wrote: "The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens...the inhabitants live by trade and industry. They have fine orchards and vineyards and flourishing estates. Cotton grows here in plenty, besides flax and hemp. The soil is fertile and productive of all the means of life. The country is the starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world." **

Marco Polo Crosses the Taklamakan Desert

The Polos traversed the forbidding gravel plains and sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert, whose names means "go in and you won't come out." They most likely were part of a caravan of double-humped Bactrian camels that traveled about 15 miles a day with a month's supply of food, stopping at infrequent water holes and oases. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco wrote, of oases that "have great abundance of all things” but there are places where "nothing to eat is found" and "you must always go a day and night before you find water....It often seems to you that you hear many instruments sounding and especially drums. The old people believe they are hearing devils speak...One night I heard, three times, a terrible noise, like crying, like someone dying...Beasts and birds there are none,because they find nothing to eat. But I assure you that one thing is found here, and that a very strange one...When a man is riding by night through this desert and something happens to make him loiter and lose touch with his companions...the spirits begin talking in such a way that they seem to be his companions. Sometimes, indeed, they even hail him by name. Often these voices make him stray from the path, so that he never finds it again. And in this way many travelers have been lost and have perished." **

20080217-Kashgar market Dried animal parts.jpg
Modern Kashgar market
According to the Silk Road Foundation: “When the Polos arrived the Taklamakan desert (or Taim Basin), this time they skirted around the desert on the southern route, passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor. Marco's keen eye picked out the most notable peculiarities of each. At Yarkand, he described that the locals were extremely prone to goiter, which Marco blamed on the local drinking water. In the rivers of Pem province were found "stones called jasper and chalcedony in plenty" - a reference to jade. At Pem, "when a woman's husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than 20 days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, and this she is fully entitled to do by local usage. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way." Cherchen was also a noted jade source.” [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

Marco Polo Crosses the Gobi Desert

It was at Gobi desert that Marco Polo was overcome with the vastness of desert and hardships of trying to penetrate it: He said: "This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys.”

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “Despite the dangers encountered during the Gobi crossing, Marco's account suggests that the route was safe and well established during Mongol's reign. After they left Gobi, the first major city they passed was Suchow (Dunhuang), in Tangut province, where Marco stayed for a year. Marco also noted the center of the asbestos industry in Uighuristan, with its capital Karakhoja; he added that the way to clean asbestos cloth was to throw it into a fire, and that a specimen was brought back from Cathay by the Polos and presented to the Pope. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

Nahu in north-central China had the only sources of water for miles. Shazhou (present-day Dunhuang) is where the Polos probably were exposed to large numbers of Chinese, Tnguts (relatives of Tibetans), and Buddhists for the first time. Marco Polo didn't mention the famous grottos in Dunhuang but he did describe the custom in which men sometimes let travelers sleep with their wives, a custom still reportedly practiced by minorities in area. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco Polo wrote the people were "idolaters...they have many abbeys and many monasteries which are full of idols of many kinds, to which they do great sacrifice and great honor." He also wrote of admiration for monks — their shaves heads, their fasting, their "moon" calendar and the the way they "lead life hard" — and said Buddha would have been a saint had he been a Christian. **

Marco Polo Arrives in Kublai Khan’s Capital

20080216-kublaikhan osu.jpg
Kublai Khan
After a three-and-a-half year journey, Marco Polo, his father and uncle arrived in Shangdu (Xanadu), Kublai Khan's summer capital, not so far from Beijing, in 1275, when Marco was 21. Word of the Polos journey had been relayed to Kublai Khan by Pony-Express-style messengers. Envoys of the Great Khan reached the Polos in central China. They escorted the Polos for the last 40 days of their trip to Shangdu. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “ Finally the long journey was nearly over and the Great Khan had been told of their approach. He sent out a royal escort to bring the travellers to his presense. In May 1275 the Polos arrived to the original capital of Kublai Khan at Shang-tu (then the summer residence), subsequently his winter palace at his capital, Cambaluc (Beijing). By then it had been 3 and half years since they left Venice and they had traveled total of 5600 miles on the journey. [Source: Silk Road Foundation]

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Marco Polo arrived in the East with his father and uncle at a crucial turning point in history: The 300-year-old Song Dynasty was on the verge of collapse and Kublai was about to become the first non-Chinese emperor of China. But even as the khan was trying to take China, his own people were turning on him in a civil war, upset over what they saw as his increasing softness and excessive Sinification."Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2014 ^|^]

Marco Polo’s Theory on the Founding of the Mongols

“Chapter XLVI: Of the City of Caracoron” is about the foundation of the city of Caracoron (Karakorum), the first Mongol capital and Marco Polo's own theory about the rise of the Tartars (the Mongols). According to Marco Polo's account: “Caracoron is a city of some three miles in compass. [It is surrounded by a strong earthen rampart, for stone is scarce there. And beside it there is a great citadel wherein is a fine palace in which the Governor resides.] ‘Tis the first city that the Tartars possessed after they issued from their own country.[Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“And now I will tell you all about how they first acquired dominion and spread over the world. Originally the Tartars dwelt in the north on the borders of Chorcha. Their country was one of great plains; and there were no towns or villages in it, but excellent pasture-lands, with great rivers and many sheets of water; in fact it was a very fine and extensive region. But there was no sovereign in the land. They did, however, pay tax and tribute to a great prince who was called in their tongue Unc Can, the same that we call Prester John, him in fact about whose great dominion all the world talks. The tribute he had of them was one beast out of every ten, and also a tithe of all their other gear.

“Now it came to pass that the Tartars multiplied exceedingly. And when Prester John saw how great a people they had become, he began to fear that he should have trouble from them. So he made a scheme to distribute them over sundry countries, and sent one of his Barons to carry this out. When the Tartars became a ware of this they took it much amiss, and with one consent they left their country and went off across a desert to a distant region towards the north, where Prester John could not get at them to annoy them. Thus they revolted from his authority and paid him tribute no longer. And so things continued for a time.”

Marco Polo in Yunnan

20080217-rice terrace in Yunnan2.jpg
Yunnan rice terraces

Of his travels in Yunnan, Marco Polo wrote about local religious customs, shamanistic healing practices and the use of cowrie shells and salt as money, all of which have been verified by scholars. He also wrote about a giant snake with legs and a mouth "so large that it could well swallow a man." Some believe he was referring to crocodiles that lived in the region or to a local legend of a giant man-eating snake.

Marco Polo described people in Yunnan with tattoos and gold-sheathed teeth. The tattoos were applied, he wrote, using "five needles joined together...they prick the flesh till the blood comes, and they rub in a certain black coloring stuff." The Dai that live in the area he visited have gold teeth and tattoos like those he described. Marco Polo also wrote "people are accustomed to eat the raw flesh of fowls, sheep, oxen and buffalo...the poorer sorts only dip it in a sauce of garlic mixed with good spice...they eat it as well as we do the cooked. The Bai people around Dali eat the same way today.

Describing the Yunnan city of Kunming in the 13th century, when it was under the rule of the Kingdom of Dali, Marco Polo wrote: "In it are found merchants and artisans, with a mixed population, consisting of idolaters, Nestorian Christians and Saracens or Mohametans...The land is fertile in rice and wheat...For money they employ the white porcelain shell, found in the sea, and which they also wear as ornaments around their necks.” He also said, “The natives do not consider it an injury done to them when others have connection with their wives, providing the act is voluntary on the woman's part "

Marco Polo's Last Years in China

In the late 1280s, after 15 years in China, the Polos were getting restless. Kublai Khan, their patron was in his 70s, and was drinking too much and suffered from gout and the Chinese were tiring of his rule. Marco was 37 and his father and uncle were near 70. Marco wrote they had "acquired great wealth in jewels and gold" but Great Khan was reluctant to let Marco go. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco Polo asked for permission to leave several times but was denied each time. The Polos finally got their chance to return when emissaries from Persia showed up and asked for an escort to accompany a seventeen-year-old Mongol princess that was to become the wife of the Ilkhan of Persia (a Mongol khan) on her journey to Persia. Marco had just returned from a sea journey to Indie (India or the East Indies) and thus was considered to be qualified him for a sea journey to Persia. **

Marco Polo reported seeing many merchants from southern China plying a thriving trade: “Now when you quit Fuju and cross the River, you travel for five days south-east through a fine country, meeting with a constant succession of flourishing cities, towns, and villages, rich in every product.... When you have accomplished those five days' journey you arrive at the very great and noble city of Zayton [or Zaitun, now Quanzhou], which is also subject to Fuju. At this city you must know is the Haven of Zayton, frequented by all the ships of India, which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [southern China], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi. And I assure you that for one shipload of pepper that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere, destined for Christendom, there come a hundred such, aye and more too, to this haven of Zayton; for it is one of the two greatest havens in the world for commerce.”

Marco Polo Leaves China

The Polos left China from Zaiton (Quangzhou) in 1281 with the Mongol princess and a fleet of 14 ocean-going ships that contained 600 people, plus sailors (Marco Polo's estimate), and two years of supplies. The ships were 100 feet long. Each had four masts, oars that required four men to pull and a dozen or so sails, probably made of bamboo slats that rattled in the wind. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Kublai Khan gave the Polos a palm-size gold paitzu, which required officials in the Mongol to provide them with anything they needed on the journey. Chinese documents found in 1940 offer evidence of the trip. Although they don't mention Marco Polo they mention the same people that Marco Polo mentioned in his account. **

The Polos sailed south past Vietnam and Malaysia to Sumatra and then across the Bay of Bengal to India. They hugged the Indian coast, stopping several times and then crossed to the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf. From Hormuz they traveled overland across Iran to the Black Sea and sailed from there to Venice. The entire journey took about four years. **

The journey from China to Persia was the most dangerous of the Polo's journey. Only 18 people of the original 600 survived. During their trip across Iran they were robbed of some of their gold and jewels. **

Marco Polo' in Kublai Khan’s Court: the Netflix Film

In 2014, Netflix, the pay-per-view film website, began filming a big-spectacle production of 'Marco Polo' that, it was hoped, would help the company expand into original-series programming.Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “No Mongol emperor ever got as far south as the tropics of Malaysia — until now. Here on a new 50-acre studio built on recently cleared jungle, a crew of about 400 has spent months conjuring Kublai Khan's 13th-century capital. Carpenters and plasterers are piecing together the royal quarters, including a lavish golden throne room, a dungeon and a wood-paneled dojo. Painters are decorating a multi-bed pleasure chamber replete with a hot tub fed by elephant-head fountains. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2014 ^|^] “Peacocks, swans, fish and turtles are due to arrive any day to add some fauna to a courtyard garden, and an insect wrangler is breeding thousands of praying mantises. In the faux slum village, the odor of genuine horse manure hangs thick in the humid air as roast ducks and animal hides bake in the sun. Costumers are working in double shifts to sew hundreds of silken gowns and robes, heavy furs and suits of armor. All this work is setting the stage, literally, for "Marco Polo" — arguably Netflix's biggest bet yet on original-series programming. An epic action-adventure suffused with court and sexual intrigue, horseback battles and martial arts, the show also filmed on location along the canals of Venice and on the snow-swept steppe of Kazakhstan.” The first season of 10 episodes debuted in December 2014. ^|^

"It's a giant adventure. The only thing on TV that matches it, production-scale wise, is 'Game of Thrones,'" said Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. is producing the series. Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, refused to discuss the cost but described the series as "work you'd only see on the very big screen. This is hard to do with the business model of conventional television." Like HBO did with "Thrones," Netflix is putting its money on spectacle rather than big-name stars. Lorenzo Richelmy, the 24-year-old Italian in the title role, has never even had a major English-language part before. Benedict Wong, who's portraying Kublai Khan, is known mainly in Britain as a TV and stage actor. The most familiar face in the series may be Joan Chen ("The Last Emperor," "Twin Peaks"), who's playing Khan's favorite wife, Empress Chabi. ^|^

“Netflix's reach is increasingly global — the service now has 50 million subscribers in 40 countries and is pushing aggressively into Europe — and so the timing may be right for such an East-West story. But Netflix cannot yet directly leverage the appeal of "Marco's" Asian story and cast into new subscribers in Asia because the service has yet to launch in the region. (Instead, its content is distributed to pay TV and Internet platforms.) Still, "Marco" may help build brand awareness for an Asian expansion.” ^|^

From 1880 Marco Polo book

“The father-son dynamic that develops between Kublai and Marco — and the jealousies their connection arouses — is a fulcrum in the series. Marco's father essentially gifts him to the khan, said Wong. "He's a novelty for Kublai — Marco is like this 13th century version of the Internet, the way he can speak and visualize things," said Wong. Gradually, Marco's utility to the khan will go far beyond regaling the emperor with fanciful descriptions of his vast realm. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2014 ^|^]

“The khan's interest in Marco engenders a rivalry with Kublai's eldest son, Jingim, played by Remy Hii, who's been told he will one day inherit the kingdom and all that entails. "This is a grand family story," said Hii, noting that just as Marco was abandoned by his father, who set off on another trading mission, "my character Jingim feels the same — an abandonment with his father." Jingim's mother, Empress Chabi, does not like that this European gets close to the khan, said Chen. "I am a helicopter mom, and I don't want Marco to be any more important than [my son]. But as we go, slowly, I see that Marco loves the khan." ^|^

“Part of Marco's immersion into the ways of the Mongol realm called for studying martial arts under the tutelage of a blind Daoist monk named Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) — a fictional character. Marco later falls for a princess, Kokachin, who was a historical figure, played by Chinese actress Zhu Zhu. The couple's love scenes, Zhu said, are "really sexy" but "poetic." Richelmy's Italian heritage and her Chinese upbringing lend authenticity and chemistry to their pairing, she said — though boozing at a Mexican cantina in Malaysia also helped break the ice. "I remember [Richelmy] was very sweet, giving me lots of tequila shots and at the same time taking care of me," she said. ^|^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Pictures of places

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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