Journey to Cathay

Kublai Khan was the grandson of the fierce warrior Jenghiz Khan. Whereas his grandfather is remembered as a ruthless conqueror, Kublai is known for his wise leadership. His Yuan dynasty ruled the largest empire the world has ever known (courtesy The Granger Collection, New York/24455).

In 1271, Marco Polo set out with his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo on a journey to central Asia. After leaving Venice they travelled to Acre on the Mediterranean coast, from where they planned to head through Syria and Iraq. However, the area was in the midst of a bloody war, so the Polos made a wide arc that took them through Armenia and then south through Persia and Georgia. They continued on through parched desert areas and after escaping the threat of bandits reached the town of Hormuz, a major port. The Polos considered taking a ship to India, but had second thoughts when they saw the shabby vessels, "only stitched together with twine." So they headed north across a desert into Afghanistan in a route that took them south of the Caspian Sea and into the area of modern Tajikistan.

During 1273, the Polos' route took them into western China, onto the plain of Pamir, one of the highest areas on earth. As they descended from "the roof of the world," they approached the vast Gobi Desert, which Marco wrote was "so long that it would take a year to go from end to end… It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat." They loaded up on food and water and hired camels. They could only make about 20 kilometres a day but eventually they reached northern China and approached one of the palaces of Kublai Khan. When Kublai heard that the Polos were nearing, he sent out a special escort and welcomed them to his court.

In May 1275, the Polos arrived at Kublai Khan's original capital at Shangdu. By then it had been three-and-a-half years since they left Venice and they had travelled a total of 9000 kilometres on their journey.

Marco Polo’s Life with Kublai Khan

Marco claimed that he became a favourite with the Khan and that he was appointed to high posts in his administration. He served at the Khan's court and was sent on a number of special missions in China, Burma and India. Many places that Marco saw were not seen again by Europeans until the 19th century. Marco described Kublai's capital city, its ceremonies and life at court. He marvelled at the summer palace, "the greatest palace that ever was," with its walls covered with gold and silver.

Marco Polo was amazed at China's enormous power, wealth and complex society. China under the Mongol dynasty was a huge empire whose economy dwarfed that of Europe. Canals linked China's thriving cities and markets in a vast network in which paper money (unknown in Europe) and credit were highly developed. Chinese citizens could purchase paperback books with paper money, eat rice from fine porcelain bowls and wear silk garments.

Leaving China

The Polos stayed in Kublai Khan's court for 17 years, accumulating a small treasure of jewels and gold. They were by then anxious to return home since they feared that when Kublai died they might be forbidden to leave. The Khan reluctantly agreed to let them leave, on condition that they agree to escort a Mongol princess to Persia, where she was to marry Prince Arghun.

The sea journey took two years, during which 600 passengers and crew died of disease or in attacks from pirates. When they finally reached Hormuz, Persia, they learned of the death of Kublai Khan. However, the Great Khan's protection outlived him, for by showing his golden tablet of authority (a gerege) they were able to travel safely through the bandit-ridden interior and finally reach home.

Learn more: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo