Marco Polo, one of the most famous and certainly one of the first travelers to follow the Silk Route to China, was born on 15 September 1254 in the Republic of Venice. He was the son of Nicolo Polo, a Venetian Merchant who ran his business in partnership with his brother Maffeo Polo. Nicolo and Maffeo Polo appear to have been rather adventurous souls, more so for their era when long-distance travel wasn't very much in vogue. They had a business enterprise at Constantinople and their work often took them as far as Crimea and Bokhara.
It was at Bokhara, in 1260, that they first encountered Mongol envoys from the court of the Great Khan, Kublai Khan. They heard of his vast, powerful, and rich empire, which encompassed large portions of China and Asia and touched the fringes of Europe, and when the envoys invited them to accompany them back to the Imperial Court, the Polos―shrewd businessmen constantly on the lookout for new horizons and opportunities, accepted with alacrity.
As the first Europeans to ever set foot in town, they were received with great honor and interest at the Imperial Court. Kublai Khan, a very intelligent and cultured man, was pleased to find his visitors fluent in the Turki dialect, not to mention equally well-refined, and developed an instant rapport with them. He was intrigued by their descriptions of the Pope, the Christian Religion and European society, and thought that these things might not exactly hurt his own people. So, at the end of their visit, he gave the Polos a message, written in the Turki script, to deliver to Pope Clement IV, asking him to send over a hundred educated missionaries to bring European Enlightenment to the Mongols.
The Polos were naturally delighted to perform this task―we all love to transmit our culture to others; besides, helping the Pope advance his business might not be bad for their own future business ventures. Unfortunately, Pope Clement IV was no more alive when they returned to Europe in 1269 and no one was appointed for the next two years.
Marco's Journey to China
Finally, when there seemed to be no sight of a new Pope on the horizon and business duties called attention, the two Polos once more decided to set forth. This time Nicolo's 17-yr old son, Marco, went with them. They hadn't journeyed far when they heard of the election of Pope Gregory X and so they turned back at once to pay him a visit. Gregory X was thrilled to receive the Great Khan's message―new at the job and this immediately opportunity excited him too.
However, though the Pope was willing, his missionaries were weak. Only two men in the entire Vatican were prepared to make the long journey and these fellows didn't last the entire length―encountering the sad, human reality of hardships and war along the way, they decided to forget the heathen souls and save their own and returned home.
Originally, the Polos had planned on traveling to China by sea from Hormuz. But, either due to weather or war or both, they decided to go by land and took a torturous route that led them through Persia to Kerman, then via Khurasan to Balkh, then through Badakshan to the upper Oxus, through Wakhan to the Pamir plateau, then through Kashgar and Yarkand to Khotan, then to Lob Nor and across the vast Gobi Desert to the boundaries of China. There had been other Europeans along this trail, but they were the first to make it all the way to China and the feat would not be repeated by later Western travelers until the 1800s.
They arrived at Kublai Khan's summer court in Shang-tu in 1275, three years after they had begun their journey. Kublai Khan welcomed his old friends warmly and was especially delighted to see that Nicolo had brought his fine, young son to be presented to him. He shrugged off their failure to bring along the expected Christian missionaries - after all something else would turn up, as it did - Buddhism.
In the meantime, the Polos were invited to stay and impart their knowledge to the Mongols. They ended up staying in the service of the Great Khan for the next 17 years, gaining a lot of knowledge of Mongol language and culture and becoming very wealthy with the many business opportunities that came their way.
Marco Polo, who became an especial favorite with Kublai Khan for his quick intelligence, linguistic abilities, and charming personality, advanced rapidly at the Court. He was made a Special Commissioner and traveled very widely throughout China and in other parts of South-East Asia, including Burma and South India, on Imperial missions.
Life in China was fine and comfortable, but eventually the Polos, especially the two elder ones, longed to return home. They were worried too about losing their privileged status in the event of the aged Kublai Khan's death and losing thereby their accumulated fortune. The Great Khan was loath to let them return―he was very fond of them and he knew there was little chance of their ever meeting again if parted. He kept putting off the idea until at last an official reason to travel abroad came up.
Messengers arrived in court from his grand-nephew, Arghun, the Khan of Persia. Arghun's wife had died and her last wish had been that he take a new one from her own Mongolian tribe. Kublai Khan gave his assent and a young girl called Kukachin was chosen.
The Persian ambassadors, who had traveled overland, had no wish to repeat the experience and proposed to return by sea. This was no less hazardous and they asked for the Polos, as experienced travelers, to be allowed to go with them. Kublai Khan reluctantly agreed and outfitted them for the journey, together with many magnificent gifts to be remembered.
They left in 1292 and, after a long voyage that was frequently delayed by weather conditions and in the course of which half the original group had been annihilated by either storms or disease or pirate attacks, they reached Tabriz two years later.
Here they found that Arghun Khan was dead and his brother had replaced him as the reigning Khan. He welcomed them and Kukachin was married to his son, Ghazan, who was closer to her age and so made a really better match than the late Arghun. After the ceremony, the Polos took their leave and via Trebizond and Constantinople, made their way back to Venice.
Back in Venice
They had been gone 24 years and all their relatives and friends had long presumed them to be dead. Their return―especially as fabulously wealthy men, laden with precious jewels and other riches caused quite a sensation, but the stories of their travels were greeted with skepticism. There are still some concerns in modern times about their veracity. Marco Polo had failed to mention many important Chinese cultural details, like the fact that they ate with chopsticks and mutilated their women's feet in the name of fashion, that they were building the Great Wall to keep out the barbarian hordes and so on; but these omissions can be explained away, many other details are correct, and Marco Polo himself famously swore on his death-bed, "I have only told the half of what I saw!"
In any case, the Venetians found it hard to swallow the tales, especially given Marco Polo's habit of repeatedly using the word 'million'―we traveled millions and millions of miles, the Khan has millions and millions of soldiers and millions and millions of jewels, etc. They nicknamed him Messer Marco Millioni and marveled at his million-watt imagination.
War and Imprisonment
Three years after their return, war broke out between Venice and neighboring Genoa. Marco Polo, rich enough to get himself an entire war-ship, joined in the fight on the Venetian side. Venice was defeated and, along with many others, Marco Polo was taken prisoner. He narrated the story of his travels to a fellow prisoner, Rusticiano of Pisa, who transcribed it during their imprisonment together. It was published after his release several months later and became an instant best-seller―an achievement in times when books were hand-written and not many had the habit.
Marco Polo seems to have forsworn adventures after this. He married a girl called Donata, fathered three daughters, Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta, and settled down to an orderly existence hereafter. He died on 9 January 1324, at the age of 70. He left behind detailed information about the old world that later proved invaluable to map-makers and travelers, notably Columbus.