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On the Road with Marco Polo Page 1 of 2

Marco Polo's father and uncle returned to Venice when he was 15 years old. Two years later, when they set
off again for China, they decided to take Marco with them. The Polos began their long journey by sailing
across the Mediterranean to Acre (in modern Israel).

From Armenia the Polos turned south and proceeded through Persia (modern Iran) to the port of Hormuz at
the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Iran is an elevated plateau with an average height of over 3000 feet above sea
level. The Zagros Mountains cover much of the western half of the country. The only fertile area is in the
north, along the coast of the Caspian Sea. The flatter regions in the center of the region are arid deserts.

. From here they had hoped to travel by ship to China. But they were so concerned about the seaworthiness
of the ships they found there that they changed their plans and decided instead to follow a series of trade
routes across Asia to China. They set out, traveling northeast through Persia until they entered Afghanistan.

The Polos were now traveling along one of the main routes of the Silk Road. This network of trade routes
had been used for centuries by merchants carrying products between China and the West.

A thin strip of Afghanistan protrudes eastward into China. This is where the Polos encountered a major
challenge: the towering Pamir Mountains.

Once they made it across the Pamirs, the Polos arrived in Kashgar, an important trading center. This is where
merchant caravans could acquire fresh pack animals, water, and food supplies. This bustling town must have
been a welcome sight after the rigorous trek through the deserts and mountains!

After resting up and replenishing their supplies in the trading city of Kashgar, Marco Polo and his father and
uncle continued eastward on their journey from Venice to China. They had some difficult times ahead.

The Taklimakan is Asia's driest desert, a vast expanse of pebbles and sifting sands nestled between two
mountain ranges. The Polos chose a route that skirted the southern edge of the desert, trudging through the
arid landscape from one oasis to the next. Each oasis was a welcome haven, offering fresh water, food
supplies, and pack animals. Some of these stopping places were famous for fresh fruits, such as melons and
grapes—a great treat for the weary travelers whose diets consisted mostly of hard bread, cheese, salted meat,
and water. Today, a few of the ancient oases offer welcome relief to hot and thirsty tourists.

At the eastern edge of the Taklimakan lay the city of Dunhuang, long famous for its Buddhist temples,
statues, and paintings. Most people associate desert crossings with camels, and rightly so. The merchants
who transported goods across the Taklimakan and the Gobi would have been in a bad way without their
sturdy, resilient camels—the “ships of the desert.”

From Dunhuang, the Polos set out across the Gobi, Asia's largest desert. For over a month they trekked
through this harsh wasteland. Marco described how travelers in the Gobi were often plagued by strange
mirages (phantom figures of friends in the distance) or frightening sounds (weird murmuring or repetitive
drumbeats). Such illusions were caused by the intensity of the sun, the lack of water, and the seemingly
endless stretches of the "unfriendly" landscapes.

After a long trek across the Gobi Desert, Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle finally arrived at the Shangdu,
the summer palace of Kublai Khan. At last they stood face to face with the Emperor of China (painting
available through Asia Source)
On the Road with Marco Polo Page 2 of 2
At this time, most of Asia was under control of the Mongols, a nomadic people whose homeland was in the
Gobi. In the 12th century, Mongol leader Genghis Khan had unified the many tribes of the Mongols and then
led armies across Asia.

Kublai Khan was very impressed with Marco's powers of observation and his skill with language (he had
picked up several local languages as he traveled through Central Asia). So he appointed him to his court. For
the next 17 years, Marco was sent on many missions throughout the khan's realm.

Kublai's capital was built on the site of modern Beijing. It was known as Khanbalik (a Mongol term meaning
“City of the Khan” [note the alternate spelling: Cambaluc]) and was located about 160 miles south of
Shangdu. Kublai's vast empire was made up of mountains, deserts, high plains, rivers, and fertile valleys.

The Chinese city of Chang'an was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. As you would expect, it was a
bustling center of trade, where merchants brought products from Central Asia and even as far away as
Europe to trade for Chinese products.

After spending 17 years in China, Marco Polo and his father and uncle finally had an opportunity to return
home. Kublai Khan asked them to lead an expedition to deliver a Mongol princess to Persia, where she was
to be married. From Persia they would continue on to Venice.

The Polos began their homeward journey by traveling south to a port (Amoy) in southern China. There their
large party, which included government officials and servants as well as crewmen, boarded a fleet of 40
ships. Their sea route took them along the coast of Annam (modern Vietnam), past the Malaya Peninsula
(Malaysia), and into the islands of Indonesia.

They spent five months on the island of Sumatra, waiting for the monsoon rains to end. While they were
stranded there, Marco noticed that the North Star had dipped behind the horizon (he was now in the southern

Finally, the weather improved and the Polo expedition set sail again. They crossed the Indian Ocean and
stopped at the island of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), just off the southeastern tip of India.

Marco Polo was on the last leg of his journey home from China to Venice. After visiting several seaports in
India, he and his party sailed across the Arabian Sea and to the mouth of the Persian Gulf, landing at the port
city of Hormuz. Marco had visited Hormuz with his father and uncle many years before when they were on
their way to China. At that time, they had considered a sea route too dangerous and decided instead to travel
eastward across Asia following a land route. Perhaps they were right—by the time they arrived in Hormuz on
their journey home, nearly all of the 600 people who had set out with them from China had perished!
Historians attribute this to a combination of storms, disease, and combat with hostile natives encountered
along the way.

After delivering the Mongol princess they were escorting to the Persian court, the Polos trekked northward
through Persia and Armenia (part of modern Turkey) to the Black Sea. Marco and his father and uncle
boarded a trading ship in Constantinople and sailed home to Venice. This final lap of their long journey from
China was an easy voyage on the Mediterranean Sea

Marco Polo ended up in prison, and while there he described his many adventures abroad to a fellow-
prisoner, novelist Rusticello. His vivid descriptions resulted in a book, commonly known as The Travels of
Marco Polo, which became a bestseller and had a great impact upon the development and expansion of trade
between Europe and the Far East. There were plenty of people who thought that Marco Polo's book was
complete fantasy and devoid of fact. Marco Polo, however, swore on his deathbed that he did not even tell
half of what he saw.