|Fig.1: "Okay, fine: POLO! What do you |
want from me?"
Polo was born in the Republic of Venice in 1254. His wandering instincts didn't come out of nowhere; Venice was the merchant capital of the Mediterranean at this time, and many made their living (and sometimes, their dying) traveling to bring in goods from Asia and Africa. This included Marco's father, Niccolò, who commuted back and forth from Venice to Constantinople with his brother, Maffeo (which allowed them to take advantage of the HOV lanes). Constantinople had been controlled by Venice since the Fourth Crusade got distracted and kicked the Byzantines out earlier in the century. This changed when the obviously Greek Michael Palaeologus took back the city in 1261, blinding any Venetians who dared stick around. Luckily Niccolò and Maffeo fled east, making it all the way to the court of Kublai Khan, who was in the process of conquering China for funsies. Kublai accepted the Polos as European ambassadors, and sought to learn more about the Christian religion (this was before they came knocking at your door on Saturday mornings while you're in your bathrobe). Meanwhile, Marco grew up in Venice under the aid of his aunt, who took over when his mother died of obscurity. It wasn't until 1269, when the young lad was at least 15, that his deadbeat dad finally came showed up to take him to soccer practice.
Of course, Niccolò and Maffeo were on a scavenger hunt for Kublai Khan, and had to return to China with 100 priests, oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the Italian delicacy known as "pizza rolls." In a visit to the Pope in 1271, the Polos were only able to get two friars (who would ditch them shortly into their journey anyway) as well as merely Bagel Bites (the poor man's pizza rolls), but they were able to get a bargain on what some fast-talking swindler said was oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher (what Kublai didn't know wouldn't hurt him). And so the brothers began their return trip to the eastern reaches of Asia, this time bringing the strapping Marco along with them since he was 17 and didn't need to be in school or anything. He related the long journey in his famous narrative, first sailing to Acre in present-day Israel, then heading overland through the cities of Trebizond, Baghdad, and Hormuz. They encountered the tall, awe-inspiring mountains of the Pamirs, the hot, remote desert sands of the Gobi, and the long, painful nights on the john due to a little something called Traveler's Diarrhea. Of the Gobi, Marco complained, "This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat." Yeah, try driving on the Jersey Turnpike, you whiny-face.
|Fig.2: And I can't even go into my attic without getting lost...|
|Fig.3: Please tell me he didn't go out|
collecting taxes wearing that!
Around 1292, the Polos were getting all China-ed out, however, and wanted to return to their homeland. This was partly because Kublai Khan was getting up there in age, and the Venetians preferred not to stick around for the Mongol national past-time: bloody succession disputes. Initially the Khan refused their departure, unwilling to let the poker nights with his Italian besties come to an end. However, the Polos saw their chance when a Mongol princess was about to be sent to Persia to marry a prince there; since they were knowledgeable of the route, they offered to act as a GPS that wouldn't have to recalculate all the time. They left by sea that year, sailing around Southeast Asia and India, though they stopped to pee and check out the sights along the way (in that order of importance). The journey was a long and hazardous one, taking two years with many sailors dying of disease. When they finally got to Hormuz to drop of the princess, they learned that the prince just passed away, meaning everyone who died did so in vein (the other Mongol past-time). The Polos finally returned to Venice in 1295. Much of their wealth earned in China was lost on the return trip, but that was nothing compared to the wealth of knowledge Marco now had. He can buy food with that, right?
|Fig.4: Large print edition available|
if you ask the scribe nicely enough.
Of course, many found these stories to be a bunch of hogwash (literally, they washed their hogs with the pages). Even back then, people were skeptical that Polo even went to China, and merely just repeated the Spark Notes version of other people's trips to the Far East. The nickname for The Travels quickly became Il Milione (The Million), short for The Million Lies of Marco Polo, as coined by a cheeky Amazon reviewer who rated it one star. As the centuries passed, and Europeans became more acquainted with China (much to the Chinese's chagrin), many complained that Polo left out the obvious stuff like chopsticks, footbinding, and that Great Wall thing. However, historians have pointed out that Polo focused more on the actions and traditions of the Mongol rulers as opposed to the Chinese citizenry, and the Great Wall of China wouldn't really be more than the Ant Hill of China until the Ming Dynasty's renovations over two hundred years later. In an age when historical evidence is out to disprove everything (looking at you, Washington-haters), Marco Polo's testimony has stood up in court, especially in his details of paper money and salt production that no other Europeans recorded before that time. I'd still trust his word over Wikipedia and their stupid articles.
|Fig.4: Polo's description inspired|
the creation of the Fra Mauro map,
which loads a lot quicker than the
new Google Maps.