Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle

The Imperial Hunting Grounds

It had taken the Polos almost four long years to reach the hunting grounds of the great khan from Venice. Marco, who was seventeen when he set out from home, was now a tall and slender young man of twenty-one, bronzed by the suns and hardships of many months, and rejoicing in a slight moustache, which imparted a manly appearance to his features.

He had seen many strange sights in the lands through which he had passed had witnessed many singular peoples, gorgeous shows, and perilous sports. But when he beheld the splendid establishment of Kublai Khan at Shandu, he thought to himself that this far surpassed all that he had before witnessed. Here, at the further end of the world, at the remotest confines of Asia, was a display of riches and magnificent luxury such as, probably, no European potentate however mighty, could maintain.

It was not long before he had ample opportunities to observe everything in the great summer palace at Shandu and the vast hunting grounds, stretching away for miles over forest, hill and dale, which served as the scene of the hardy recreations of the Tartar monarch. Installed n the palace, and finding himself surrounded on every hand by its lavish decorations and its numberless comforts, he eagerly scanned all the objects about him.

The palace itself was a was though not very lofty edifice, constructed of marble, porphyry, and other beautiful stones. It comprised long series of spacious halls, and enclosed a number of wide, sunny courts, in the midst of which rare plants flourished and fountains forever played. The walls of the apartments were painted with figures of men, women, beasts and birds; and, however rude these paintings seemed to Venetians, accustomed to the most advanced art the world then knew their colors were brilliant and gorgeous and they presented to Marco’s eyes a dazzling effect. They much resembled, indeed, the pictures which now see that come from Japan. Between these pictures, the walls were lavishly gilded, and shone wonderfully. In the great hall was a raised dais, sheltered by a large canopy of the richest cloth; and upon the dais was a gorgeous throne, which seemed ablaze with gold, and upon which the khan sat when, as he often did, he held his court at Shandu.

Besides this main palace there stood in the park beyond, another palace which was put up when the khan went to Shandu, and was taken down again when he departed from thence to his southern capital. This building was quite as large as the other, but was made of thick, long canes, that grew plentifully in the neighboring jungles. These were cut lengthwise from one knot to the other, and formed the roof and the structure was supported by stout silken cords. It was, indeed, rather a kind of wooden tent than a building, and was so arranged that it could be taken apart and packed away and yet, when it was set up, its walls appeared decorated with gay pictures of hunting scenes, which were relieved by broad stripes of gilt. The roof of the edifice was so thickly varnished as to be perfectly water tight.

Polo and Kublai Khan


Surrounding these palaces were the vast hunting grounds devoted to the pastimes of the khan and his pleasure-loving court. They were enclosed by a wall which was no less than sixteen miles around. The tract thus enclosed presented the most attractive variety of Oriental scenery. There were dense forests crowded with huge trees, in which roamed not only stags, deer and wild goats, but lions, tigers, leopards and elephants. There were enchanting dells, through the midst of which flowed sparkling streams and in which the hunters might rest and dine amid their sport. There were broad spaces of lawn and .flower-garden, with many fountains playing on the turf and flower, and lovely groves that gave grateful shelter from the blazing summer sun of Tartary. There were delightful meadows, stretching of from the slopes of verdant hills to the borders of rivers, ponds and lakes and there were carefully-tended parks where, in the open air, the Tartar court held many of its solemn festivals and more joyous merry-makings.

But even all this did not suffice to content the khan in his summer pleasures. Three days' journey away there stood, a Cianganor, yet Another palace, whither he retreated when he wearied of the delights of Shandu. This palace was quite as large as the other two, and it had the advantage of being situated on a very broad and beautiful plain, and on the borders of a charming lake. It was here that the khan found the smaller game which it pleased him to hunt when he had got tired of slaughtering tigers and wild-goats; for the woods and lake-side about Cianganor abounded in pheasants, partridges and cranes. Marco, when he went with the khan and his train to this retreat, was especially struck with the cranes that he saw there. They were far more beautiful in form and color than those he had seen in Europe. Some were large, and of a dense, glossy black others were white, with their feathers "full of round gold eyes," like peacocks yet others were red and black, and others, again, were gray, with red and black heads.

Not far from this palace, in a little valley that descended toward the lake, were a number of small houses, where the khan kept large flocks of partridges. When he went hunting a Cianganor, he usually carried falcons and hawks with him and many an exciting day did Marco spend there in the exciting sport of hawking

Sometimes these royal hawking parties comprised an immense number of men, carrying a perfect multitude of hawks and vultures. On more than one occasion, when Marco attended the khan, as many as ten thousand falconers went along, carrying half that number of falcons. When this army of sportsmen reached the bunting ground they dispersed themselves, by twos, over a wide space. One of them, at one end, would then let fly his falcon, which would be watched by the others as it receded, and flew for its prey; and it, with its prey, would be caught by the attendant nearest where they came in conflict. Each falcon had a silver label on its feet, on which was engraved its name and that of its owner; and thus, having done its work, it was duly returned into the right hands again.

The great khan himself set out on these hawking expeditions in splendid array. He always went with four enormous elephants, whose magnificent trappings betrayed the imperial rank of him they bore; and on reaching the hunting ground, he had a square tent, of gold cloth and lions' skins, erected in a convenient place, from an opening in which he witnessed and took part in the sport. When the game was started up, some of the falconers, riding to the royal tent would cry out, "Sire, the birds are passing;" whereon the khan threw open the side of the tent, let fly one of his favorite hawks, and then, throwing himself back upon his luxurious couch, watched the plunges and whirlings of the birds in the air, as the falcon swooped on its victims.

But exciting as was this sport, that which still more fascinated Marco was the fiercer and more dangerous hunting that he witnessed at Shandu. There the khan possessed a most imposing menagerie of wild beasts, which he used for attacking the ferocious denizens of his forests.

Not far from the palace was a long line of low buildings which, when Marco came to inspect them, proved to be nothing less than enormous cages. On peering within the massive bars, he saw a number of wild animals. There were sleek yellow and black spotted leopards, pacing stealthily and watchfully up and down, and now and then stopping and showing their sharp teeth there were cunning looking lynxes, with their keen, restless eyes; and in some of the cages were animals, the like of which Marco had never `before seen. At first he took them for lions. He had never seen a live lion, it is true, but he had seen the bronze effigies of the lions of St. Marc, which stood near the big cathedral at home, and these animals appeared to resemble theme They were not, however, lions, but tigers a beast not then known in Europe. Marco gazed with interest, not unmixed with terror, upon these ferocious creatures, with their smooth striped skins and their savage faces, with which he afterward became familiar in the hunting field. In other cages were stately eagles, sitting solemn and still on their perches, and glaring steadily at their visitor; and in kennels near the cages were many varieties of hunting dogs. Marco was soon to learn that the khan took the tigers out hunting with him and set them upon stags, wild oxen, wild boars and wild goats; and that the eagles were used to hunt animals as large as foxes, and even wolves. A fight between an eagle and a wolf was one which aroused him to the most intense excitement. It was with great interest that, one day, he saw the khan mounted and going to the hunt with a sleek little leopard squatted on the crupper of his horse, apparently as tame and contented as possible. This leopard the khan employed to run down and kill stags and wild deer.

Nothing surprised Marco more than the great establishment of dogs kept by the khan. Two of his nobles, who were brothers, were the keepers of the dogs and under them were no less than ten thousand men, who took the dogs to the hunt. These men were divided into two corps, one of whom wore yellow costumes, and the other, blue and it was a grand sight to see this numerous and brilliant company set out, on a sunny morning, with thousands of hounds and masts, growling and barking, leaping about, and when let loose, running with the greatest speed, while the trumpets sounded the calls, and the Tartar monarch, mounted on his elephant, advanced in the midst.

Besides his hunters, the khan had many pet dogs of every breed, shape, size and color that Asia afforded. Some of them had been brought from the far north, from the bleak regions of Siberia and a few of them were European dogs, such as Marco was already familiar with. These dogs were highly trained, and the khan and his court were often wont to spend long summer afternoons lolling on couches, or stretched upon the lawn, watching their funny antics.

Sometimes when the khan went a considerable distance from his palace in pursuit of the pleasures of which he was fond, a large number of tents was carried by his numerous attendants; and on reaching a favorable spot, the tents were pitched by some brawling river, or on a shaded plain, and thus a canvas city suddenly made its appearance. This "camping-out" of the Tartar court was on a most elaborate scale. For the higher nobles an enormous tent was spread, in which a thousand men were lodged. The khan himself had a gorgeous pavilion, sustained by columns of cedar and other perfumed wood and garnished, inside and out, by a profusion of lions' and tigers' skins. At the sides hung ermine and zibelline skins of vast value, elaborately worked with great art and skill. This royal tent, too, was supplied with gilded and painted furniture of the most gaudy description. Divans with huge silk-covered cushions, beds into which one sank almost out of sight, lounges and chairs of downy softness, hangings of the heaviest texture and most brilliant colors, enabled the khan to live in as luxurious comfort in his pleasure camp as at his palace.

Around the royal tent were other smaller tents, only less splendid than itself. Some of these were occupied by his ladies, others by his astronomers, doctors and chief hunters, and still others by his dogs and falcons. A strong guard was posted night and day near the royal tent and in it, every night were held feasts in which every delicacy of dish or fruit was partaken of, no matter how distant the camp might be from the nearest city.

All this was so new and strange to Marco, that for the first few months of his stay with the khan he did nothing but gaze and wonder. He seemed to be in a new world to have been transported from our globe to some distant planet, where every scene and custom were wholly unfamiliar. The khan, pleased with his appearance at first, liked Marco more and more as he came to know him better. He indulged the young Venetian in many privileges from which even his own nobles were excluded; learned from him to speak Italian pretty well; and always insisted on his going with the royal party on its expeditions. Marco might roam in the palace or through the hunting grounds as he pleased the best that the palace afforded was set before him when he dined or supped and when he went abroad, he could, if he chose, call a guard to attend and protect him.

Sometimes Marco, as well as his father and uncle, was admitted to the royal table itself. The first time that he enjoyed this privilege, he saw a sight which deeply impressed him, and at first completely deceived him. No sooner were the khan and his company fairly seated, than the magicians (who were solemn looking men, with long beards and long black robes) rose and waved their wands whereupon the cups of wine and milk, intended for the khan, and which were on a table apart, moved as of themselves, and placed themselves before the monarch. Marco found that the Tartars, and even the khan himself, believed that this was done by real magic but he soon suspected that the cups were moved by mechanical contrivances, secretly arranged by the magicians themselves.

The magicians of the court, indeed, greatly interested Marco. They often dressed in more splendid costumes than the nobles themselves; and they were no only magicians, but priests. The religious festivals of the Tartars were held very frequently, and were attended by much pomp and ceremony. Fireworks, such as Marco had never imagined, were let off at night and troops of women filled the air with strange, wild songs. The khan was always very anxious that all due respect should be paid to his idols on their feast days for the magicians threatened with all sorts of misfortunes, as a result of his neglect to celebrate these occasion and o the wrath of the idols thereat.

Besides the magicians, there was a vast number of monks in the vicinity of the imperial hunting grounds, whose monasteries crowned the hills and crags in every vicinity. Some of these monks were married, and lived with their families in little huts near the monasteries but most of them, like the European monks, remained unmarried. They ate nothing but the boiled husks of corn, shaved their heads and beards, wore a very coarse attire, and slept either on rude mats or on the bare ground, Marco was surprised to find an order of men, in distant Cathay, so nearly resembling the monks of his own country.

Marco's first summer in Cathay, amid all these scenes and excitements, passed very rapidly. The month of August was fast drawing to an end; and from what he observed of the movements around him, it was evident that the Tartar court would soon leave Shandu, and proceed to the, khan's southern capital. He soon received confirmation of this conjecture; for, one day, the magicians announced to the khan that the 28th of August was near, and reminded him that he must be at Kambalu, his capital, on that day, "to sprinkle the milk of the sacred mares."

On asking a young Tartar noble, who had been very friendly to him, and of whom he had made quite an intimate companion, what this meant, the former replied:

"There is, in the south, a race of sacred mares which are as white as the driven snow. Their milk is also sacred, and must not be drunk by any one who is not of imperial blood. It is said to preserve life and to impart wisdom. Well, on the 28th of August the great khan takes a large quantity of this milk, and sprinkles it in the air, in every direction. By his so doing the spirits are able to drink in abundance of the sacred 92) ?> beverage and in their gratitude to the khan, they protect him and all things that are dear to him."

No sooner had the magicians announced the approach of the time to sprinkle the sacred milk, than the khan gave orders to his court to prepare for their return to Kambalu. All became bustle and confusion in the palace and its neighborhood. It was no small task to get ready for a journey of several hundred miles, and to provide, during its progress, for the luxurious travelling of the monarch and his vast train of nobles and ladies; and thousands of servants were busy night and day making the necessary preparations. The khan meanwhile enjoyed for the last times the hunting in his grounds, and made the most of the brief interval that remained.

At last it was announced that everything had been made ready for departure. Provision trains and guards had started on ahead to post themselves at convenient distances on the route and after a monster feast, in which all the great people of the court took part, the khan set out on his tour southward.