He was the greatest tourist in history.
In an age when hardship means not getting a wifi signal at Macchu Piccu, we can scarcely imagine what it was like to travel for four years through black hurricanes, scorching deserts and bandits to get where you’re going.
But that’s what he did.
He gave the world its first great travel book, a bestseller from the moment it was written, in an age when there wasn’t even a printing press.
The journey he undertook is almost unthinkable today. In scale of achievement and adventure he ranks alongside Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon.
His name was Marco Polo. He was just seventeen years old when he set off on a gap year that lasted half a lifetime. He was forty one when he finally came home again.
The world he explored was so different to ours, that a wheelbarrow was literally something to write home about.
The first thing he had to contend with?
Man-eating ants …
He left Venice with his father and uncle, who were both merchants, in 1271. Their intended destination: China, and the Emperor Khublai Khan’s fabulous palace in Shang-tu – a place known to the west as Xanadu.
It was a place of legend, even then. The handful of Christian missionaries who had returned from there told horrific stories:
“Some say that in the land of Cathay there are creatures with heads like dogs who bark and speak at the same time. Others say there are ants as big as cattle. They burrow in the earth for gold and tear anyone who comes across them to pieces with their pincers.’
Undaunted, the Polos traveled the length of the Silk Road to reach their Xanadu, a journey that took three and a half years, somehow evading the man-eating ants and talking dogs.
What they found astonished them just as much. There were so many books. A book was a rare and precious objects in the Christian world, but in Khublai Khan’s China the local ‘barbarians’ owned at least one almanac and perhaps also an edition of the Tao.
These books were not copied by hand, as they were in Christendom, but manufactured in large numbers using wood-cut plates which reproduced their calligraphy on paper. This was two hundred years before the Guttenberg printing press.
The Chinese had also discovered how to make gunpowder – an invention they stumbled on, ironically, while searching for an elixir for eternal life.
They even had compasses. The Chinese versions were made of lodestone and pointed the opposite way to the later, western, version. Ancient Chinese soothsayers were the first to use them.
Which is perhaps why they all pointed sooth.
And marvel of marvels: a wheelbarrow! A general named Jugo Liang, who lived during the Han Dynasty, had pioneered them in the second century for use barricades as well as transportation.
Until the arrival of Marco and his fellow westerners they were a closely guarded military secret.
And if you think it was Bill Gates and Google that brought the world together, think again. It wasn’t the internet, it was…silk. Demand for the fabric was so voracious it gave rise to the fabled Silk Road that eventually stretched from China to the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
But the door to this mysterious world was soon to close; the establishment of the Ming dynasty in 1368 marked the end of European trade and Catholic missionaries until the Portuguese arrived almost two hundred years later.
Marco himself left Cathay in 1292. His journey home took two and a half years. This time he went by sea, the voyage taking him through modern-day Singapore, Jaffna and the Arabian Sea. Of the six hundred who set out with him, only eighteen survived.
When he got back, Venice was at war with Genoa. Marco, a man who clearly got bored very easily, joined the Venetian navy straight away. He was imprisoned after a skirmish at sea in 1296 and spent the next three years in prison. He used this opportunity to dictate the story of his Oriental adventures to his cellmate, a romance writer called Rustichello da Pisa.
Rustichello certainly glamorised Polo’s accounts, and added a few fantastic and romantic embellishments of his own. They helped make Book of the Marvels of the World – The Travels of Marco Polo, an instant bestseller.
Released from prison in 1299, Marco went on to become a wealthy merchant. He married, had three children and lived happily ever after. Well not ever after, no one does that. He died at home in his bed in 1324. He is remembered by having a sheep and an airport named after him.
Oh, and a frequent flyer club.
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“A rich tale covering an iconic route within a tumultuous historical period, told in a lively and engaging voice. Thoroughly recommended.” – Bookbag
“… an epic and eventful journey that spans a huge swathe of the middle and far east, and it is one that provides action, romance, and beautifully descriptive writing by the cartload. The level of research that has been undertaken is clearly evident, but without ever becoming intrusive on the story … I enjoyed it from cover to cover. Highly recommended for historical fiction fans.” – Des Greene, Novel Suggestions