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Marco Polo: story of an explorer

Marco Polo started his journey to China in 1271. In front of him: a path thousands of kilometers long that leads across the sea, through high mountains and deserts. Only years later does he go home again. Read what he experienced during this time. And why he is still considered the most famous traveler in the world today

One day in early summer 1271

Marco Polo takes one last look at the houses and bridges of Venice. Will he ever see his hometown again? The 17-year-old suspects: He will be on the road for years - to China! His father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo have already been to the Middle Kingdom, as China is also called. And they were amazed at the precious stones, fine fabrics and exotic spices.

Luxury that they had never seen before in Europe. Even the powerful ruler of China, Khubilai Khan, met the Venetian merchants. Now, on her second trip, Marco is allowed to accompany her. The ship rocks further and further out over the Mediterranean. Only in Akko, a city in what is now Israel, do the three Polos go ashore again. From here it is still thousands of kilometers overland to China.

In between: including the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. Some passes reach heights of over 4,000 meters there, and many slopes are glaciated. Icy wind whips the Polos in the face as they move through the high mountains.

The hardships are too much for Marco Polo

Marco falls ill. What? One does not know. But moving on is impossible. His body is emaciated, he is shaking with a fever. Niccolò and Maffeo are waiting by his side. Only a year later, the men can continue the journey - and get out of the cold into the heat: the Takla Makan and Gobi deserts stretch almost endlessly in front of the caravan of heavily laden camels.

"Everywhere mountains, sand and valleys, nothing edible", Marco reports later in his memoirs. The polos need help. To survive, they presumably hire local camel drivers to show them where to find watering holes. In 1275 they finally reach the summer residence of Khubilai Khan in the Chinese
Shangdu city.

Marco Polo is enthusiastic about Shangdu

Marco can't see enough: there are the ruler's palaces with all their gilded halls and magnificent gardens. The ruler even had a zoo set up with pumas, lions and other wild animals. When traveling, he sits enthroned on a sedan chair carried by four elephants. His court includes four wives, innumerable lovers, and thousands of servants and soldiers. What a life!

In general: in the eyes of the young Venetian, the empire is so modern. For example, the Chinese pay for their goods with paper money, which they make from the bark of the mulberry tree. In Europe one only knows coins. China even has a postal system: riders bring messages from station to station. More than 200,000 horses are available for this.

Marco will soon get to know even the most remote corners of the gigantic empire: Khubilai Khan likes the young Venetian and quickly appoints him as envoy because of his language skills. Marco will probably become the first European to set foot on what is now Vietnam and Thailand.

For years he traveled to distant provinces and neighboring kingdoms on behalf of the Khan. He also discovered Hangzhou in eastern China. Marco later raves about "the most glamorous city in the world" and the "public, warm baths".

Marco Polo longs for Venice

It has now been almost two decades since Marco left Venice with his father and uncle. Homesickness for his hometown seething in him. Khubilai Khan is now an old and sick man whose rule is coming to an end.

So it is a good thing that he asks Marco, Niccolò and Maffeo for a favor: They should bring a princess to Persia, where her future husband is waiting for them. From there they could then travel back to Venice.

20 years after leaving their homeland, the three Venetians left China in 1291 and sailed via Sumatra and India to Hormuz in Persia. The journey to then takes three years, and the journey to Venice takes another year. In 1295 they reach their home port.

Marco Polo no longer recognizes him at home

The long journey back took a toll on Marco, Niccolò and Maffeo, and the sun tanned their skin. Their clothes are dirty and torn, and through many years in China they speak with a strange accent.

Only when they unpack the precious stones and precious silk that they brought back from their trip do the people in Venice understand: The polos are back!