Text: J. Vukas, Z. Kolic
Photo: HTZ/S. Gobbo
World traveler, explorer, travel writer, emissary to the emperor – is it possible for one man to be all that, and in Middle Ages, no less? When we add to this the book Il Milione, the most translated book in the world right after the Bible which introduced the Europeans to the expanses of China, that he moved the borders of the known world all the way to the Yellow Sea, that he unified two civilizations that were until then completely unknown to each other – East and West – it is then no surprise that his name is among those known to every human being on the planet! And that is why the eternal argument surrounding his place of birth (Venice or the island of Korčula) is not so importa1nt, since he has always been a citizen of the world. Anyway, this part of Dalmatia with the islands belonged to Venetian Republic at the time.
As a 17-year old boy, he ventured on a long journey, accompanied by his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo, who traded from the Black Sea towards the east. They already traveled down the Silk Road to China, winning the favor of Kublai Khan. Led by the saying “Life is a travel – travel is life”, Marco started his travel in 1272, soaking in the images of the landscape and “recording” the events and the life of people he saw. The trip from Europe to east China, a distance of 10,000 kilometers, led them over mountain ranges and deserts, across Armenia, Turkey, Iraq and Azerbaijan, across river Tigris to the Persian Gulf. The fear of sailing the Indian Ocean in old junks caused them to take the longer route by land.
Along the way, they successfully traded in Persia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. The Gobi Desert left the most profound impression on them. Marco, as the first European who visited it, provided some very important information about it. Gobi is known for very strange phenomena: if someone trails behind, he will hear ghost voices speaking through the air, similar to the speech of his fellow travelers. You can even hear the musical instruments, especially drums… This phenomenon is explained by movement of sand masses, caused by sharp changes in temperature during the day and the night. In summer of 1275, the three of them arrived to the summer residence of Kublai Kan, near today’s town of Pai-Ping-Fua (City of Peace) on the southwestern border of Manchuria.
Marco Polo spent full 17 years in the Far East. He traveled through entire China, Manchuria, Mongolia, and visited most of Indochina, Burma and Tibet. Although he named the towns and regions by their Mongol names with a Chinese and Latin twist, he still faithfully displayed their geographical location, so it is easy to recognize this part of the world, completely unknown to the Europeans before that. A mixture of silk and gold, jewels and pearls in huge quantities, rich granaries and rice fields, plenty of spices that travelled to Europe via Alexandria, the burning stone (coal), porcelain, gunpowder and fireworks, paper money that was unknown in Europe at the time when China already had a banking system - these were all the wonders that Marco described and admired the fashion in which the Khan grew richer while still taking care of his subjects. His fascinating descriptions were already then called exaggerations. On his deathbed, he left the famous epitaph: “I have only told the half of what I saw”.
Marco impressed the Khan with his sharp mind, the ease with which he mastered the language and dialects, and the loyalty with which he carried out his tasks. To be an emissary in a foreign country was nothing short of a miracle in those days. The long stay in a faraway land was not the only cause for his desire to return. In other words, the Khan was getting old, and the Polo family was afraid of how his successor will treat them. Khan constantly refused their pleas to let them depart, because he had great confidence in them. He reluctantly agreed to let them return after they escort the Mongol princess Kokachin to Persia where she was to marry the Persian prince, Arghun. Joined by the emperor’s entourage of several hundred people, they went on their long journey, this time by sea.
The port of origin was the city of Zaiton, where the ships from India docked with precious stones and pearls. Two golden plates handed to them by Kublai Khan guaranteed them a safe travel through all the Mongolian countries, and everything they need provided to them. The plates read: “By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan's name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed!”
This was the predecessor of the first passport and credit card. They sailed along the shores of south China and eastern shores of the Malaysian peninsula, all the way to Java (considered by Marco to be the biggest island in the world), full of spices that were purchased by the merchants from entire Asia. Traveling further through India, Madagascar, Ethiopia, and over the Black Sea, they reached Europe. How much his native country was close to his heart says the fact that soon after his return, he participated in the defense of Korčula that was attacked in 1298 by the rival city of Genoa. He was captured. In his prison cell in Genoa, with the aid of his co-prisoner Rustichello, he wrote the book Il Millione.
Their journey to China on land went largely along the route of the Silk Road, while the maritime route of the Silk Road is identical to the one Marco Polo used. The importance of this route today is evident from the efforts and investments made by UNESCO that has put together a project of its revival. Its goal is not only to expand the transport bottlenecks, but also to stimulate the countries to interconnect in the cultural, social and economic sense.
This created a unique foundation for the creation of a cultural tourist route themed after Marco Polo and the Silk Road. Majority of the countries has already signed an agreement that supports the collaboration on this gigantic project, but in order to publish this project and make the international public aware of it, it is first necessary to create mini routes, whose content will create basic foundations for the further gradual upgrades.