Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened. — Winston Churchill

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle




Marco Polo Reaches Cathay

After passing across the great Gobi, Desert, where he endured many hardships, and once came near being lost, by being separated from his companions, Marco encountered a very different country and people from those he had before seen, Before he had met with Turcomans only; for the most part fierce, wandering tribes, given to plundering and murder, and going from place to place, without any settled home. Now he found himself among a quiet, busy, and to a large degree civilized people, the greater portion of whom seemed to be farmers, devoted to the tilling of the fruitful and abundantly yielding lands.

Instead of the tall, large-featured, heavily-bearded Turcomans, the people were short and squat, with squinted eyes, high cheek bones, hair braided in long queues behind, and a peculiar yellow complexion.

They were, indeed, Chinese. There loose costumes, their hats turned up at the brim, their small shoes turned up at the toes, their taste in dress, marked them as a quite distinct race from the inhabitants of the mountain regions Marco had not long before traversed. Instead of the plain mosques, too, with their glaring white exteriors, their bare interiors, and their big bulb-like domes Marco now saw gorgeous temples decked out both inside and out with the greatest profusion of ornament, and containing huge idols that fairly glittered with gilding and gems. The towns, instead of consisting of low, plain buildings, were full of variety and adornment in their architecture, and displayed the high degree to which the arts had even then been carried by the Chinese.

Everywhere the fields were aglow with rich and plentiful crops. Marco could not but perceive the air of home-like contentment that everywhere prevailed, in contrast with the restless and savage customs of the Turcomans and as he passed through the Chinese villages towards evening, he was visibly reminded of home when he saw the Chinese families cozily seated in front of their doors, or in the little shaded balconies over them, enjoying, after the day's labor, the serenity and repose of the twilight hours, very much as the Venetians were wont to do.

He was much struck by the great number of temples and of monasteries which he saw as the party penetrated the country. Instead of the worship of Mohammed the Prophet, the people were Buddhists, and paid their devotion to countless idols everywhere set up. Marco soon learned a great deal about the manners and habits of this race, which greatly excited his curiosity. Every Chinese who had children was wont at a certain festival, to take them, with a sheep, to one of the temples, where the sheep was cooked and offered as a sacrifice to the chief idol. After the meat had been left for some time at the feet of the idol, it was taken away, and the man invited his friends together to feast upon it. The bones were then collected, and kept in the house with much reverence and care. When a man or woman died the body was burned. It was first carried to a sort of pavilion, erected for the purpose, and placed in it; then the friends brought wine and food, and put it before the corpse. Arriving at the funeral pyre, the mourners cut out of paper a number of little figures, representing men, horses, camels and lions, which they threw upon the flames as they enveloped the dead person; believing that by so doing they insured their relation the possession of the realities thus represented, in the other world.

One day, the Venetians arrived at a city called Kamul, which struck Marco as a very gay and lively plate. The people here seemed to think of nothing but having a perpetual good time. Their main occupation was that of farming but they seemed to work very little, while their store-houses were full to overflowing, and they evidently had an abundance of good things. From morning till night, while Marco staid at Kamul, he heard nothing but sounds of music, singing, and dancing. He was awakened by the playing of strange loud musical instruments, and went to sleep with their sounds still ringing in his ears. The people were exceedingly hospitable, and vied with each other to receive the strangers as their guests. The master of the house where Marco lodged, having seen to it that he was comfortably ensconced, went off to another house, leaving Marco to do as he pleased, and for the time master. Marco could not fail to observe that the women of Kamul were not only fall of gayety and fond of amusement, but were singularly handsome. Every evening there were dancing and singing in the open spaces in front of the houses, in which all seemed to join with the heartiest gusto.

Marco found that sorcerers and magicians we held in awe and high respect here, as in other countries through which he had passed. The Chinese sorcerers were very different looking personages, however, from those he had so often seen in Turkistan. They wore long moustaches, that flowed down on their breasts; but no beards on their chins. Instead of long black gowns, they appeared in tunics, blazoned all over with the figures of dragons, dolphins and other fabulous animals. They carried long wands, often of silver or gold; and on their heads they wore high caps, richly fringed, Whenever a sorcerer passed along the street, the people uncovered until he had gone by. These Mysterious men lived apart from the rest of the world, often in monasteries that stood on hills on the outskirts of the town; and it was the custom of the people, whenever any special event occurred in their towns, such as a birth, a death, a journey or a fire, to seek in all haste their magicians to learn its significance and bearing upon their lives.

The sorcerers, of course, charged a large round sum for their prophecies; and so were all rich, and lived in much grandeur and luxury. As soon as any one died, the sorcerer was applied to, and informed of the exact date of the dead person's death. He then went into his room and performed a number of strange incantations; after which he was able to tell the relatives what day and hour it would be lucky to bury the dead. He would also inform them by what door the corpse should be carried out of the house; and sometimes told them that it must be brought into the street through a hole made in the wall, so as to give good fortune to the living relatives.

Not far from Kamul, Marco and his party came to a large mining district, where he had an opportunity to witness another instance of the skill and intelligence of the Chinese. There were mines of copper and antimony, and also mines from which a very peculiar mineral, called asbestos, was taken. The ore of this asbestos, it seems, was taken from the mountains and broken up, and then became a sort of stringy mass. It was dried and crushed in a mortar, and then formed a rough, strong thread. This thread was woven into cloth, and being bleached by fire, became as white as snow, and very strong. The idea of making at cloth out of a mineral, dug from mountain gorges, was a new and surprising one to our young traveller.

As Marco advanced through the country, which was that of Tangat, he observed that the temples became larger and more magnificent, and that the idols in them also increased in size and splendor of decoration. He saw, at one of the more populous cities, idols ten or twelve feet high, of wood, stone, and clay, completely covered with thick plates of gold and ivory. In some of these temples, the priests, unlike those of other parts of China, lived with great sobriety and even self-denial. During one month in the year these priests would not kill any animal, or even insect, however small, and in this month they only partook of flesh, and that of the plainest kind, once in five days. The people of this region, on he other hand, lived in a very gross and beastly way, giving themselves up to self-indulgence and indolence. The richer men had many wives, whom they divorced as soon as they got sick of them; and often married their cousins and other near relatives. They devoted a great deal of time to eating, drinking and sleeping, and impressed Marco as a much lower order of beings than the other Chinese he had seen.

The travellers were about to resume their jouney westward, when they heard news that greatly disappointed them and caused them to delay their departure from Campicion, the thief town of Tangat. This news was that a great war had broken out between two nations whose territories were directly in their path to Cathay. Their way, indeed, lay through the very region where the war had already begun to rage. To attempt to reach Cathay by any other road was impossible; for the countries north and south were unknown to their guides, and they would probably get lost, or fail into the hands of hostile races, if they tried an unknown, roundabout road.

They were, therefore, forted to content themselves with awaiting the return of peace at Campicion, an idea which was far from pleasant to Marco, who did not think it an attractive place, and was, moreover, very impatient to reach his journey's end. He made the best of circumstances, however, and finding that the war was likely to last some time, resolved to spend the time of waiting in making explorations in the neighboring regions. He accordingly set out with a small company, and made his way from place to place as best he could, narrowly observing all the curious peoples and customs that he encountered.

He soon found himself once more on the edge of the great desert; and came to a large and ancient city called Ezina, which was more than half in ruins. He soon learned that it had once beer a thriving capital, and had been taken by the famous Tartar warrior, Genghis Khan. Now it was inhabited by a roving and sport-loving population, who only lived in it in summer, descending into the valleys and there dwelling in the winter season. These people were much given to the rearing of camels and horses, and were exceedingly fond of hunting in the vast pine forests that spread over the neighboring hills.

From Ezina Marco went to a still larger city of Karakorum, which seemed to him at least three miles in circumference, and which, as he heard, had once been the capital of the Tartar conquerors of China. It stood on a very picturesque spot. A beautiful river flowed near its walls, on the banks of which were numberless tents, occupied by wandering Tartar tribes who preferred this mode of life to dwelling in the city itself. The mountains were not far off and on many a crag and spur Marco could espy the lordly castles where once had dwelt the proud Tartar nobles.

It was at Karakorum that Marco for the first time heard the wonderful story of the conquests of Genghis Khan, the mighty Tartar chief whose descendant, Kublai Khan, was then reigning in Cathay. He listened with wrapt attention to the accounts which some of the natives, whose acquaintance he made, gave of the terrific battle in which Genghis Khan had overthrown the haughty tyrant, Prester John, and had himself won sway over all the surrounding region. Genghis Khan, it seemed, had asked Prester John to give him his daughter to wife and Prester John had returned a haughty refusal. "What is this Genghis Khan," Prester John had exclaimed, but my dog and slave! Go and let him know that I would burn my daughter to ashes before I would give her to him. Tell him he is a dog and a traitor!" Genghis Khan was beside himself with rage when he heard this insulting message, and swore that he would humble Prester John's pride in the dust. He gathered in all haste a vast Tartar army, and sent word to Prester John to defend himself as best as he could. Then Genghis invaded his foe's territory, and on the beautiful plain of Tenduc met Prester John's forces in terrible conflict. The battle raged furiously for two days; at the end of which the invader's victory was complete. Prester John himself fell dead in the midst of his host; and Genghis Khan over-ran his kingdom without resistance. Thus the Tartars had come into the possession of all China, from the great desert to the eastern seas; and everywhere, in the region where Marco now was, he saw the vestiges of their wars and triumphs.

During his expeditions Marco saw and heard much that was interesting about the Tartars. He found that everywhere he went, they were in the habit of living on the sides of the mountains in summer and in the sunny and well, watered valleys n the winter. They could move, their residence thus easily, as the tents they lived, in were made of felt, and being very light, could readily be carried from place to place. They were so superstitions that they always placed the openings of their tents to the south, as to put, them in any other way was a bad omen. The Tartar men did nothing but hunt and go to war; their wives did all the home work, the trading, and the cultivating of the fields. They lived principally on milk and the game they brought in from the forests and fields; though sometimes Marco found them feasting on the flesh of camels and even dogs.

These Tartars had each many wives, but they always held the wife they first married in the highest esteem. Husbands and wives were strictly faithful to each other, and a marriage was always the occasion of a great deal of feasting and, merry-making. Each Tartar family had an idol of its own, made, curiously enough, of cloth; and very queer-looking things, like rude dolls, did these idols seem to Marco. The idol was placed in a little room apart, and by his side were smaller idols, representing his wife and children. Before the family ate, they, smeared the idol's mouth with some fat meat, and lay some pieces of bread at his feet.

The richer Tartars, Marco observed, were often very handsomely attired in robes of silk fringed with gold, and in coats made of many beautiful furs. The soldiers had clubs, swords, and bows and arrows, in the use of the latter of which they were very expert. When they went to war, they wore heavy buffalo cloaks which served as armor.

While Marco was, away on one of his jaunts, he one day received a message from his father, saying that the war which had delayed them was, now over, and urging him to hasten back to Campicion, that they might proceed on their journey. He therefore hurried back, and as soon as he had arrived, the party once more set out. They had been detained at Campicion no less than a year; no wonder that they were tired of their long wanderings.

The travellers now passed through scenes marked by the ravages of a ferocious war. In some places the villages were entirely laid waste; in others, half-burned cities betrayed the savage nature of the contest. At last they emerged again into a pleasant and thriving region, and soon found themselves in the lovely plain of Tenduc, where, long before, the great battle between Genghis Khan and Prester John had been fought. Here Marco was surprised to learn that most of the inhabitants were Christians; and he saw for himself that they were very industrious, and were prosperous farmers and skilful artisans. This was the country which, it was said, was once upon a time ruled dyer by two mighty giants, named Gog and Magog. Marco heard with delight that Tenduc was not many days' journey from the place where at last his eyes would be gratified with the sight of Kublai, the great khan. The travellers were already in Cathay, and the end of their long wanderings was near. They had learned that Kublai Khan was at his summer palace at Shandu, in the northern part of his dominions; and they had accordingly directed their course thither. Nicolo knew well that they would be most warmly welcomed when they came into the Tartar sovereign's presence for when he had been in Cathay before, he had found it difficult to get away from the khan's court.

As they approached the goal of their travels, the Venetians passed through a mere and more thickly settled country, and larger and richer cities; until one morning they arrived at an imposing place called Cianganet, where were a stately palace and a vast park belonging to the khan. This was only a three day’s journey from Shandu; and Nicolo resolves to stay here until he had sent forward a messenger to Kublai Khan to apprize him of their coming, and to receive his reply. They had not long to wait; for within a week their messenger returned, with a numerous and brilliant cavalcade which the khan had dispatched to escort the Venetians to his palace. At the same time, he sent word that he was awaiting their arrival with great impatience.

No time was tryst in setting out for Shandu, the road to which lay through a smiling and thickly settled country. On the third day, about noon, they had arrived within sight of the vast palace which served the khan as his summer residence, and beyond which stretched out for miles, the hunting grounds where he enjoyed the rough pastimes of the chase, As the travellers approached nearer, they perceived a great multitude of horsemen coming towards them; and soon one of their escort exclaimed that the khan himself was there. Marco eagerly strained his eyes in the direction of those who were approaching and pretty soon was able to perceive a huge elephant in the midst of the horsemen, upon whose back appeared a glittering canopy of silk and gold. It was indeed the khan, coming out to welcome his guests.

As soon as he was near enough, the khan descended from his elephant, and the Polos and their party leaped from their horses upon the ground. Nicolo, Maffeo and Marco advanced toward the monarch with bowed heads, and fell at his feet. Kublai gently raised the brothers, and warmly embraced one, and then the other.

"Good Venetians," he said, "I am filled with joy to see you. Welcome back to Cathay. You have kept your promise to return, and I am grateful to you. But who," he asked, turning to Marco, "is this comely youth?"

"Sire," replied Nicolo. "He is your majesty’s servant, my son."

The khan looked at Marco from head to foot, and advancing to him, smiled very pleasantly.

"Then," said he, "your son is also welcome. I am much pleased with him."

Once more mounting, the three Polos rode by the khan's side until they reached the palace. That evening the khan gave a great feast in honor of the travellers' arrival; and that night, the Polos found themselves luxuriously lodged in some of the best apartments the imperial palace afforded.