Although Marco Polo was not traveling for the purpose of writing history, he gives detailed accounts of the different places he visits, the culture of the people living there, and their pasts. But it’s not just what he writes about but how he writes that caught my attention. As I was reading, I imagined that Polo was writing to me about the beautiful kingdoms,landscapes and palaces. “I have told you about the Sheikh of the Mountain and his Assassins. Now let me tell you how he was overthrown and by whom.” (72) You know when a friend has some long detailed story they want to share with you but somehow, through the way they tell it and reveal the details, it becomes this compelling and engaging story line with plenty of interesting characters. His stories, and the way that he involves the reader, made me want to visit the places he had traveled to.
What I also found interesting is he seems to write his travels in a way that it is a guide for future travelers. He gives precise distances between places. He warns of dangerous areas like the Desert of Lop and tells of the best pasturage to find food in the Plains of Pamir. It’s like he’s informing others on what to avoid and what to embrace. I didn’t feel Herodotus wrote to advise other travelers as noticeably as Polo seems to in his travel narrative. With every new land Polo’s narrative starts with “When the traveler leaves…” or “Once the traveler arrives…” Polo discusses getting lost while traveling as well as if to teach others what to do if they find themselves in a similar situation. He speaks of voices that misguide a traveler when he has separated from his group. “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.” He goes on to say that travelers at night “set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel. And round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path”. (84-85) These little tips intertwined with the stories of the Sheikh, the Great Khan, and others make for not just a great travel story but an also a informative travel guide. I wonder if the two men, Francis O'Donnell and Denis Belliveau, who undertook the 25,000-mile journey to retrace Marco Polo’s travels in the 1990s, heeded the advice Polo gives in his travelogue.
How many people hear glanced at the class syllabus and immediately thought of playing a game in the pool during your childhood? That’s what usually comes to mind when I find out I will be reading Marco Polo. Funny. I think. That such a celebrated traveler would have his name connected to a pool game. Quite a way to be remembered! But I guess it perfectly does explain our author’s quest. The search for something more. To find, to see, and to touch anything that is far off and seems unreachable. In writing the writing in The Travels we see this desire for discovery in the way that Marco Polo describes his findings. His descriptions are exactly as her sees everything, almost as if he is writing in a journal. In chapter 1 The Middle East the author writes about the traditions in Baghdad he writes, “I might have told you about happenings and customs in Baghdad; but, as this would run to a tedious length, I have cut short my account.” This may seem like a weird sentence to choose as one that stands out to me but I love that the author states something that is so true about tradition. In describing something else we can never say enough, but if we tell the right story then a small amount can be perfect. This is so true about tradition; we have to be careful when explaining the customs of others because they belong to others. Marco Polo is aware of the vast belief of these people and proves it by prefacing his example with his knowledge of their traditions. If he could share all of them he would, but there is not enough room to do their practices justice. It seems important to remember this fact, not only about foreign lands, but also the people we meet on a daily basis. Everything they are about cannot be written down in a chapter, their habits far extend that. What I also enjoyed about Marco Polo’s writing was the way he made the towns, though so foreign to me, come alive. He spoke of the land, the government, the people, the merchants (even went as far to write about what the merchants make and the colors they produce the items in), the food, and even the animals. The author writes, “They make cloth of gold and silk of every sort. Cotton grows there in abundance. They have no lack of wheat, barley, millet, panic-grass, and every type of corn, besides wine and all kinds of fruit..” The paragraph continues and the author speaks of the special steps the people must take if they desire to drink wine. His descriptions are clear and artistic; they come alive on the paper. When I am done reading the images I am seeing are far from my childhood playing in the pool.
Marco Polo’s travels cover a breadth of land, examining each one in exquisite detail with special attention to religion, reigns of power, and customs. But his encyclopedia of travel (so to speak) doesn’t only concern these things; he gives specific mention to travel time and modes of transportation multiple times throughout. We notice that other explorers, such as Herodotus, don’t acknowledge this facet of adventure. He just seems to miraculously appear at the next destination without the slightest effort. This could not have been the case. Even today, travel seems stressful and time consuming. We spend multiple hours in airports and on planes, or trains, or in cars constantly questioning our estimated arrival time. These days, though, we’ve got travel down to a science. It is hard to imagine what travel would really have been like for Herodotus or Polo. Their modes of transportation give new meaning to the phrase “have the fun is getting there.” The routes were so long and grueling that men would die of scurvy or other diseases—the risks are innumerable. But Marco Polo would have been well versed in the art of archaic travel given the nature of his family’s work. Marco, Niccoló, and Maffeo Polo were all merchants trading primarily with the east. In fact, a portion of Marco Polo’s travels concern work trips he took with his father and uncle. According to the Wikipedia article, the Polo family had “established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in the Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire.” For this reason, Marco Polo illuminates for us the specific travel times and modes of transportation necessary to connect the dots of his adventures. Usually, to get to a neighboring country, it takes anywhere from 10-15 days (which, today, is the duration of an entire vacation). To climb to the top of a mountain, or travel somewhere within the country Polo mentions it taking about 3 days. All in all, as stated in the prologue, “they were hard put to it to complete the journey in three and a half years”(39). This also had very much to do with weather conditions, as it still does, but to a lesser extent, today. Of course, there are multiple references to travel times throughout the book, starting in the prologue and most predominantly in the second chapter “Journey to Cathay.” In this particular chapter, nearly every paragraph refers to travel times: “after these six days he reaches a city called Shibarghan,” “the traveler proceeds for three days toward the east-north-east,” “at the end of the three days’ journey lies a city called Ishkasham,” “ten days’ journey south of Badakshan is a country called Pashai,” and so on and so forth. What did Marco Polo use as a means of travel? What was available to him at the time: horses, ships, or his own two feet—a far cry from planes, trains, and automobiles. Marco Polo’s style of documenting his travels is more practical than, say Herodotus. A person living at the time would have been able to use this literature as a sort of road map—their version of turn-by-turn GPS.
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Do the Polo brothers’ travels deserve to be more famous than those of, say, Lewis and Clark? Marco Polo’s expedition cut across vast stretches of land and between peoples of heterogeneous descent. Yet perhaps it was not really that difficult. Everywhere along the journey were roads, cities and castles – somewhat better than Lewis and Clark’s less amiable encounters.
All in all, it doesn’t seem to have been that primitive. In fact, doing a little cross-checking we see that at that time “the Mongols had done the most to create a political framework for the overland network,” providing easy transport to Marco Polo. We can assume that Marco Polo was not the first to take advantage of these new roads, and things we might refer to as globalization started to happen. For example, Kublai Khan maintained a court of advisors, and Polo informs us that “These wise men are called Tebet and Quesmur” (119). Both groups hail from their respective regions (Tibet and Kashmir), quite a distance from their new home in Khan’s royal court. This implies that economic migration was in fact possible and the Mongolian world benefited from a very wide network of transport.
Yet we must also be cautious, for Polo may have misjudged the origin of some peoples. Quite disdainfully, he offers in a story that a nasty “Saracen” had been discovered “after [Khan’s] death” employing “spells” against the ruler (98-99). While this first sounds like an Arabian and would highlight Polo’s disdain for the Middle East, it turns out that the term Saracen “carried the connotation of people living on the fringes of settled society,” beyond the familiar Middle Eastern World. So while the Saracens of Kublai Khan’s nation may have been Muslim, they might also just be locals who, in custom, language or beliefs, fall into the broad category of Saracens to Polo’s eyes.
This does not necessarily downplay the important role of exchange in the Mongolian world. Even if these Saracens, Tibetans and Kashmiris were all really Mongolian natives, it appears certain they lived with a wide variety of ideas. Whether or not people traveled, commodities and ideas certainly did. The Black Plague was a byproduct of this trade process and testifies to its reach – whether people chose to travel or not, exchange would find its way to them.
In Kublai Khan’s court, Marco Polo seems more interested in the spread of ideas than spices. He puts to Kublai’s credit a variety of compliments for Christianity, as when he offers that “If your G-d did not assist Nayan, he acted with great justice, because he is a good and righteous G-d. Nayan was a traitor and rebel against his Lord, and therefore G-d did well in not assisting him” (98-99). This seems strange, since Kublai was not a Christian yet seems to attribute fate to the Christian G-d. He even goes so far as to ‘admit’ his secret passion for Jesus, claiming that one day he will rebel against Mongolian religion “and suffer [himself] to be baptized” (100). Kublai’s secret Christianity fetish may be hard to swallow, especially with few other sources on the matter. Marco Polo seems to have us in a bind, though, because it is not beyond reason for Kublai Khan to have been well-versed and familiar with Western religions. Though unlikely, it is not implausible in a culture of exchange for Kublai to have intimate knowledge of Christianity and to secretly admire it. This probably sounded pretty good to the readers back home, too.
Inevitably a discussion of travel will lead to a discussion of globalization, westernization, and all of those other -zations that have such immediate importance to our world today. But as I was reading through Marco Polo's writing, and then a few of the outside readings (namely, "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo" and descriptions of John Larner's book "Marco Polo and the discovery of the world) I found myself getting a little annoyed with this topic of the "-zations." To put it bluntly, when I was reading of the two friends who trailed Marco Polo's route, all I could think was, "Wow. This is the most bourgeois thing I have ever heard." I don't mean to dis travel as a middle class privilege (well... okay, it is, but that doesn't bother me so much) but the way in which some people gain a sense of "going out into the world to understand it" seems to me so strongly tied up with those words "globalization" and "westernization." It’s as though these places we travel, when we travel outside of the West, aren’t real until we either bring pieces of it back to influence us, or we attempt to influence them. The word “discovery,” is proof of this. The title of Larner’s book proclaims that Marco Polo “discovered” the world (the implication being, of
course, that ‘world’ means the world beyond the West) but, Marco Polo didn’t “discover” anything. He wrote about things we may not have had access to before, he offered new knowledge, but all of these places existed and thrived and had tradition long before Polo got there. Somehow we’ve gotten it into our heads that going to different places to experience traditions different from our own adds to a respect for various national identities and cultures. But isn’t it really just another way in which we globalize? It’s not the act of going itself, but how we then interpret those travels to work in our own context (i.e. using words like “discovery.”) The whole thing makes me feel a bit icky.
Marco Polo describes his experiences with Kublai Khan, a Mongol and leader of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty around the year 1270 and grandfather of Genghis Khan. There is a lot one can take from his travelogues; it’s a great source of knowledge about foreign cultures and politics, a detailed itinerary of his travels, and also an early form of globalization. The writing tells a great deal of the time and the seeds for globalization. Polo describes the Mongol emperor with a fair amount of respect and a subtle tone of praise. Though he presents much of what is said as a list of facts accompanied by precise measurements, he also writes of things such as how grand their architecture is, or what makes him such a fair leader. It is clear in his writing that Polo has a tremendous amount of respect for the Chinese empire, and rightfully so.
Kublai Khan was tolerant of all religions being represented in his land, with the exception of Taoism. The Khan was presented with the idea of converting to Christianity, and he said he would not, as his disciples would question his motives. Kublai Khan continues to explain himself, “Return, however, to your pontiff, and present to him my request, that, he would send a hundred persons learned in your law, who, when confronted with the others, will be able to control them, and while proving themselves endowed with similar skill, shall render their antagonists unable in their presence to carry these practices,” (100). The Khan was very open to new ideas and thought, so long as they were rational. Born in Mongolia, Kublai had become infatuated with Chinese culture and studied the language. He was also a proponent of Chinese arts.
I perceive the writing to be an early form of documentary, likened to something such as BBC’s Wild China today. Compared to Herodotus’ History, the piece is much more precise and, by our standards, believable. Polo, like some believe Herodotus to be, was born into a family of traders. This facilitated his ability to travel. Polo was sent to the Khan by the Pope to deliver missionaries. This exposure of Chinese culture to Western Europe with the traveler’s very detailed travelogue paved the way for the Silk Road, an international trade route, connecting the West with the East. Of course this isn’t the same kind of globalization that we see today, where one can order bootlegs from China off of eBay or coffee beans grown in South America, but it is the beginning of an exchange of ideas and products over a great distance.
Marco Polo begins the second book of his Travels with an introduction of Kublai Khan, the Lord of Lords of Cathay, a title he deserves, in Polo’s opinion, in consideration that the “number of subjects, extent of territory, and amount of revenue, surpasses every sovereign that has ever been or now is in the world.” At this point there’s a footnote that reads: “Kublai’s empire extended from the China Sea as far west as Poland.”
“Extent of territory” is an understatement. I mean, shit, man!
Kublai Khan’s empire included innumerable people who spoke innumerable languages and practiced all the major religions of the time, not to mention the various sects of religions each of them contained. How this empire managed to remain an empire under such conditions of diversity is unimaginable.
“Unlike his predecessors, whose rule usually involved widespread plunder, Kublai Khan tried to warm to and seek support from the populace. Many reforms were made during Kublai Khan's reign.” There you have it.
There is also evidence of Kublai Khan’s benevolence in Marco Polo’s account as well. He makes his religious tolerance by inviting Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists to the palace on their respective high holidays, at which time he performs various rituals to show his respect to their Gods. “I do honor and show respect to all four [of the primary prophets of the religious], so that I may be sure of invoking whichever among them is in truth supreme in Heaven,” he says.
Another portion of Polo’s Travels is dedicated to Kublai Khan’s curtailing of taxes for those stricken with dearth. If a particular region of his empire is struck by such a catastrophe that food production dwindles, he not only temporarily dismisses the collection of taxes, he provides those suffering with the difference of food from the granary he keeps.
Polo further explains the generosity of Kublai Khan in his, what would today be called, welfare system. If, for whatever reason, a family is stricken with a bit of bad luck, Kublai Khan makes up for the difference and provides foodstuffs and clothing from his store of such things. Alms are similarly paid to the poor and destitute.
Certainly such a civilization would leave much to be desired for modern man, but all things considered, it seems more than tolerable as a place to live. What Kublai Kahn managed to achieve in the area of social safety nets in the 13th century we are far from achieving in the 21st. But who knows? Perhaps Obama, as the closest thing to an absolute monarch we’ve had in a long time, will be able to achieve what Kublai Kahn did.
I spent last summer traveling around northwestern China, visiting a few of the towns that Marco Polo blazes through on the road to Cathay. I thought I would share a few of my photos to give you an idea of the terrain, and to show how these cities have been subtly modernized and assimilated into Chinese culture since the thirteenth century.
I was in Kashgar (mentioned on page 80 of the Penguin Classics version) on the day that the Olympic torch passed through town. Kashgar is in XinJiang Autonomous Province, a part of China that stomachs many of the same struggles as Tibet, yet without the reinforcement of being a Western cause celebre. The local Uighur people are predominantly Muslim, speak a language of Turkik roots and are so strikingly beautiful with olive skin and light blue eyes that I couldn’t help but ogle.
The freedom movement in XinJiang has been known to get militant, so the logistics of the torch relay remained unclear to local people until the last minute. This was the states attempt to deter the planning of any strategic riots that might upset the days events, an effort that was taken seriously after protests in the West derailed the torch’s international journey. As foreigners, we were literally locked into the compound of our hotel, but were able to see the torch run by from behind bars. It was a cloudless day, and the crowds of locals lining the streets screamed with joy as the torch jogged past.
Reading this section of Marco Polo made me realize the historic implication of these overlapping journeys, a duet of adventures straddling seven centuries, passing through the same desert landscapes that seem frozen in time. The ‘Latins’ venturing into the exotic reaches of the Middle East and Asia represent the first recorded, direct interaction between east and west. Its as if this story pulled the lever that has slowly set the gears of globalization in motion. This movement has inspired events like the Olympics, and inspired me to live in a country that as a little girl, I could only imagine visiting via a hole in my sandbox.
Fast forward to a hot summer in the next millennia, and ‘we’ as westerners are still clearly outsiders, our own travels full to the brim with comparable cultural confusions and bazaar anecdotes that we will blog about from Internet cafes. In some parts of the world, even those situated on history’s most robust trade route, seven hundred years of intermingling seems to have barely made a mark on local culture and self awareness. As the Olympic torch took its domestic journey from Beijing towards the western stretches, the isolation of towns like Kashgar from the Miracle-Gro globalization experienced in China’s urban hubs becomes evident. A new dynamic of cosmopolitan versus rural, centers for global exchange versus traditional living, has added an inverted aspect to the spectrum of cultural differences along with the latitudinal.
The journey of the torch allowed for citizens to respond to the gradual global shift that we have read the beginnings of in Marco Polo. Often a ring for political accusations and protest, the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was certainly no exception. Protests in Paris, San Francisco, and London broadcasted the conflicting differences between East and West to all corners of the globe. The Olympics serve as a platform to espouse fair play, diversity, and healthy competition between global citizens, and these protests ask whether or not these ideals, borne from Marc Polo’s Western tradition, have been universally adopted by “Eastern” counterparts. The tension that arose demonstrates that whatever new equilibrium globalization is moving towards has yet to be realized, that the 2008 travel of the Olympic torch is far from the end of this social journey started by merchants from Venice in the thirteenth century.
Imaging the next phases of globalization for places like Kashgar are bitter sweet. Will we ever reach a point when cultural exchange looses its surprise, its confusion, its discomfort, or its humor? Maybe it’s only a matter of time before investors transform the “vine yards and flourishing estates” of Kashgar into the Eastern Napa Valley. Extending the tracks of tourism to the region would jumpstart development, ‘resuscitating’ what was once a thriving inland port for merchants with capital infusions, spas, and a few good harvests of cabernet. But in the mean time, areas like Kashgar allow visitors to visit the same “Wild East” that the Latins ventured through in the pages of Marco Polo, an adventure that, while ideologically complex, feels invigoratingly human.
Marco Polo writes that there used to be horses with a horn on their forehead in Badakhshan or Balashan like Alexander’s horse Bucephalus. But these horses went extinct when the wife of the breeder killed them all off to revenge her husband’s death. It is a popular legend that Bucephalus was a unicorn, and when Marco Polo writes that these horned horses where offspring of Bucephalus he fuels the myth. This story also gives a reason for the extinction of unicorns. But here is some background on Alexander and Bucephalus. A merchant brings a magnificent horse to Phillip, but no one could tame the horse so Phillip did not want to buy the horse for the large price that was being asked for it, but Phillip’s son Alexander wanted the horse and believed that he could ride it. Phillip did not believe that his son could ride the horse while all his horse experts could not so he used this opportunity to try and teach his son a lesson. The two made a bet for the price of the horse, if Alexander could ride the horse Phillip would pay for the horse, but if Alexander could not he would have to pay for the horse with his own money, which was a lot of money for a young boy (stories vary on Alexander’s age saying ages from 10-14). Alexander was able to mount the horse and Phillip said these famous words, “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.” The name Bucephalus is thought to originate from a couple of different reasons. One is that horses were branded with an ox head known as “boukephalus” in the Greek. Bucephalus could of had “an unusual naturally occurring feature, a peculiar shaped white mark on their forehead”. Marco Polo thought this “mark” to be a horn. Another version is that Bucephalus had a rather large head comparable to the size of an ox head. As I was doing some research on unicorns and Marco Polo, I found that Marco Polo actually believes he sees unicorns in China, which I guess is later on in the book. He assumed that a rhinoceros was a unicorn because he never heard of a rhinoceros before and it roughly fulfilled his image of a unicorn. Philosopher and Italian Medievalist Umberto Eco writes, “He was unable to speak about the unknown but could only refer to what he already knew and expected to meet” and so because of this “We cannot say Marco Polo lied”. He could only understand what he saw by what he already knew, and the rhinoceros fit the description of a unicorn, at least with the horn on the forehead.