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Home » Silk Road Facts » Marco Polo Trail on Silk Road China

Marco Polo Trail on Silk Road China

Marco Polo (1254–1324) was an Italian merchant traveler from the Republic of Venice whose travels are recorded in Livres des merveilles du monde, a book which did much to introduce Europeans to Central Asia and China. He learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo, who traveled through Asia, and apparently met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa; Marco was imprisoned, and dictated his stories to a cellmate. He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married and had three children. He died in 1324, and was buried in San Lorenzo.


The Travels of Marco Polo
The book is a 13th-century travelogue written down by Rustichello da Pisa from stories told by Marco Polo, describing Polo's travels through Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia between 1276 and 1291 and his experiences at the court of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan.

Some skeptics have wondered if Marco Polo actually went to East of Kashgar or he perhaps wrote his book based on hearsay & tales of central China for the reasons that there was no the Mongol or Chinese names but only Persian names for places and no mention about the Great Wall of China, Chinese characters, chopsticks, or footbinding and more Chinese symbols. However, Mongol records indicats someone named Polo was indeed there and Polo's Kinsay (which Yule and Cordier call Hang-Chau-Fu) is Hangzhou.       

Whatever the purpose of Polo's tales was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization or for other reason, his travel idea probably was to create an oriental handbook for crusaders, western merchants, essentially a text on weights, measures and distances. Marco Polo pioneering journey inspired Christopher Columbus and many other travellers passion toward the East.


The First Trip East
Istanbul - Sudak - Bokhara - Samarkand - Kashgar - Turfan - Xanadu - Beijing
Niccolo and Maffeo brothers set out from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 1260, and sailed across the Black Sea to Soldaia in the Crimea. Today the city is called Sudak and is in the Ukraine. Soldaia was a largely Greek city at that time and routinely traded with various Mediterranean ports.

Today, Bokhara and Samarkand are cities in Uzbekistan, and Balkh is a town with some interesting ruins in Northern Afghanistan. The Persian empire was once much larger than modern Iran, including much of what we now call Central Asia. The brothers lived in Bokhara for three years and became fluent in Persian.

In Bokhara, they learned that the Great Khan, Kublai- grandson of Genghis and, at least in theory, overlord of all Mongols- had never met a European and had expressed curiosity about and goodwill toward them. So they went on, traveling via Samarkand, Kashgar, Turfan and Hami (the Northern branch of the Silk Road) to his summer capital in Xanadu somewhat Northwest of modern Beijing. The Khan received them warmly and sent them back West with letters for the Pope, expressions of friendship and requests for missionaries and scholars.


The Second Trip
The brothers went back to Acre, this time with young Marco, and then up to Jerusalem to get some oil from the holy sepulchre which the Khan had requested.

They then set off East again without a papal reply to the Khan's letters. The Khan also invited scholars and missionaries from other places - Tibetan Buddhists and Persian Muslims - and those had a great effect on China.

Their route was indirect, setting out from the Mediterranean port of Laias, North to Armenia and Georgia, then to Mosul in what is now Iraq, then into Persia (now known as Iran) via Tabriz, Yazd and Kerman to Hormuz. The book talks of Damascus and Baghdad, but it is doubtful they actually visited those cities.

The original plan was to take a ship East from Hormuz, but after reaching Hormuz they decided to swing North instead. Marco would later come to Hormuz by sea, taking the Maritime Silk Road on his return journey.

The three men went back to Kerman and on to Persia's Eastern province of Khorasan. This put them on the main Silk Road route. The branch they took involved going Northeast to Balkh, then Southeast toward Kashmir and finally North to reach Khotan in what is now Xinjiang. The major routes today are the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan into Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway North to China, but the Polos' exact route is unclear. They may have taken lesser-known passes such as the route through Ladakh.

The brothers had taken the Northern branch of the Silk Road around the Kalimakan Desert on the previous trip. This time, the first city they reached in what is now China was Khotan, in the middle of the Southern branch, so naturally they continued East on that branch.


Travels in China
They reached the Khan's capitals and were warmly welcomed. The winter capital was then called Khanbalik or Canbulac, meaning the Khan's camp; it later grew into Beijing. The summer capital was Northwest of Beijing across the Great Wall, near a town Polo called Kaimenfu. The palace itself was Shangtu or Xanadu.

By the time the Polos reached China the second time, the Khan had subjugated Southern China, which the book calls "Manzi." However, he needed officials to help rule it and did not yet trust the newly-conquered Chinese. Along with many others, Marco became an official of the empire, a job that soon had him traveling over large parts of China. The provinces mentioned are modern Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan and Yunnan. Marco visited many cities along the way; here are his comments on some.

Taiyuan
A place has iron and coal and makes steel for manufacture of the Emperor's army equipments;   
 
Xian
It was a noble, rich, and powerful realm of silk, gold trade and industry, as well as army equipments;  

Chengdu
In former days a rich and noble city where the Kings who reigned there were very great and wealthy.  
Through the midst of the city runs a large river where has a great quantity of fish and merchants carry the quantities of merchandize up and down the river.  

Tibet
Tebet, there people have a language of their own and they delight to hang it round the necks of their women and of their idols. Among them, you find the best enchanters and astrologers; they have plenty of fine woollens and other stuffs and mastiff dogs as bigs as donkeys.  

Yunnan
The people are of sundry kinds who have wheat and rice in plenty but never wheaten bread.

Ningxia & Gansu
The Tangut or Western Xia were a people of largely Tibetan ancestry, originally from Western Sichuan. For several hundred years before the Mongol conquest there had a Buddhist kingdom, independent but paying tribute to the Sung Emperor. It was centered in what is now Ningxia, but at its peak it was much larger than Ningxia and was quite rich. It was the first non-Chinese kingdom one entered going West on the Silk Road. There are Tangut royal tombs near Yinchuan, their capital. Much of the art in the Buddhist grottoes at Dunhuang is from the Western Xia.

Beijing
the city of Cambaluc hath such a multitude of houses, and such a vast population inside the walls and outside, that it seems quite past all possibility.  

Kashgar
Cascar constituted a kingdom of beautiful gardens, vineyards, fine estates and cottons from where many merchants go forth about the world on trading journeys.

Jinan
Chinangli is a city of Cathay. There runs through the city a great and wide river, on which a large traffic in silk goods and spices and other costly merchandize passes up and down.

Suzhou
Suju is a very great and noble city producing silk, gold brocade and other stuffs in great quantities; where merchants, traders and most skilful craftsmen are of great wealth but no soldiers at all. Yang-chau is Yangzhou, together with Suzhou governed by Jiangsu.  

Hangzhou
Passing a number of towns and villages, you arrive at the most noble city of Kinsay where has twelve guilds of the different crafts, and that each guild had 12,000 houses; each of these houses contains at least 12 men. There is a lake surrounding by many erected beautiful palaces and mansions.   

Fuzhou
Now Fuju is a city seat of great trade and great manufactures. There a great river flows through the city and many ships are built and launched upon the river. Enormous quantities of sugar are made and a great traffic in pearls and precious stones there. For many ships of India come to these parts bringing many merchants who traffic about the Isles of the Indies. Mawei, just outside Fuzhou, still builds ships. Many of the ships and crew for Zheng He's great voyages of the 1400s came from this area.  

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