Discovery Kyrgyzstan
Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008

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Marco Polo

As far as we know, Marco Polo never made it as far north as Kyrgyzstan; he crossed from what is now Afghanistan to Kashgar, but this intrepid explorer holds a special place in the story of the Silk Road…and attention is once more focused on him as Europe discovers a reawakening interest in China and Central Asia.

Marco Polo was born in 1254 into a wealthy family of Venetian merchants, who travelled wherever business led them. His father, Nikolo, was on a “business trip” to Xanadu for the early years of Marco's life and they did not meet until 1269.
On his travels his father had met and become friendly with Kublai Khan and had returned to Europe as his ambassador to the Pope. Unfortunately, the most recent pope had died and, tired of waiting for a new one to be appointed, he and the boy's uncle, Maffeo, set off again, this time taking the young Marco Polo with them.
They travelled to Acre and then on to what is now eastern Iran and Afghanistan where they stayed for a year. Setting off again, they reached Kashgar in what is now China. By then they were on the main Silk Road, which they followed to the then Chinese border. By 1275, they were back at the Mongol court presenting sacred oil from Jerusalem and papal letters to Kublai Khan.
For the next 17 years the Polos lived in the Emperor's dominions. Little is know of these years Marco Polo gives only vague details in his book written after his return to Europe.
Marco Polo was popular with Kublai Khan who sent him on fact-finding missions across the empire. Sometime around 1292, the Polos offered to accompany a Mongol princess, who was to become the consort of Arghun Khain in Persia. Sailing to Hormuz via the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Ceylon they continued on to Venice. One can only imagine the amazement of their family as the ragged figures in their outlandish clothing turned out to be those they had long given up for dead.

Three years later Marco was taken prisoner during a naval battle with the Genoese. In jail he met another prisoner, a writer of romances and chivalry. Marco began to tell his story and, slowly, his book, “Il milione”, began to take shape. When it was eventually published, it was an instant sensation. He was freed and returned to Venice, where he led a quiet life before dying at the age of 70. Some scholars have doubted the accuracy of his accounts. However, the details he gives suggest that he not only visited the places he describes, but that he did indeed have a position of influence in the court of the emperor. Amongst the curiosities he describes which were dismissed at the time as flights of fancy were the wild animals, particularly the large wild sheep which he described as having horns “three, four and even six palms in length”. In fact this largest of all wild sheep did exist though it remained an enigma in Europe for 600 years. It is now named the “Marco Polo sheep”.

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #3

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