VOL. 9 November ISSUE YEAR 2008

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 9 - November Issue - Year 2008

The young man was only seventeen years old. His name was Marco. He and his two travelling companions had finally spotted the oasis just as the desert was about to fall into total darkness and when they were beginning to lose hope of finding the only source of water for many miles around. Too tired and too tense to betray any emotion, the three men swiftly unloaded and hobbled their horses and camels, making sure that the beasts received enough water before taking care of their own needs. After four days of uninterrupted march, they could finally try to get their first night of real sleep, safe in the knowledge that they would be able to stock up with enough water to last them to the next oasis.


Marco Polo left home in the year 1271, following his father and uncle in a journey which would take the three men from Venice to Cambaluc, founded by Kublai Khan as the capital of the Mongolian Empire and which later became known as Peking. Over a period of almost four years and covering a distance of 5,600 miles, they crossed some of the most rugged and dangerous terrain in the world, often backtracking long distances and forced to take long detours to avoid war zones or thief-infested areas. The first leg of their itinerary took them by ship from Venice to Acre, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, from where they continued northwards on horseback through the Ottoman Empire, then across Armenia and the Kingdom of Georgia before cutting across Persia on the way to Cormos, the present-day Hormuz, from where they had planned to take a ship to the Far East. However, upon seeing how flimsy and unsafe the vessel that was to take them to China was, they decided to continue by land and returned back through Persia, Afghanistan and then over the Pamir range and some of the highest mountain passes in the world. The dangers were not over once they had crossed the mountains, for they still had to skirt around the Taklimakan Desert, famous for the rarity of its oases and which Marco later described as “so long that it would take a year to go from end to end and offering absolutely nothing to eat”.

It was not spirit of adventure which pushed the travellers to such an arduous enterprise, for the Polo family had been merchants for many generations and were not afraid to travel great distances in order to trade, often staying away from home for years and setting up trading posts wherever there was profit to be made. In fact, although Marco had never left the protection of the Venetian Republic before this trip, his father and uncle had already travelled to Cambaluc in 1266 and had been warmly received by Kublai Khan, who had never seen a Latin before and who was very curious to know about Europe, its peoples, customs, kingdoms and about the Church. The two Polo brothers, who spoke Turkic dialects perfectly, answered all his questions truthfully and earned the respect and admiration of the Mongolian ruler, who sent them back to Europe one year later with messages for various kings and for the Pope. During their stay, the brothers also established some very profitable trade and accumulated considerable wealth. For this reason they were quite willing to return to Cambaluc, this time accompanied by the young Marco.

Kublai Khan sent a royal escort to greet the three men as they approached the summer capital of the Mongolian Empire at Shangdu in 1275. Marco quickly became a favorite with the Great Khan and was appointed to several important posts in the Imperial Administration, travelling on special missions to China, Burma and India. Wherever he went, Marco took detailed notes of everything he saw and learned, for Kublai Khan took great delight in hearing about the customs and the curiosities of the peoples over whom he ruled. Marco marvelled at the efficiency, wealth and power of the Mongolian Empire, which spanned from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. He later related his experiences in a book known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo, which was an instant success in Europe and which became required reading for generations of future explorers and travellers.

The Polos remained in the Khan’s court for seventeen years. In the end, Kublai Khan reluctantly granted their repeated requests to return home and the travellers finally arrived in Venice in the winter of 1295.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager Pometon Abrasives

Author: Giovanni Gregorat