Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle

Marco Polo's Travels in Cathay

After leaving Pianfu Marco travelled steadily westward, always seeing something new and curious that deeply impressed itself on his memory. He was surprised at the great size of many of the rivers he crossed, some of which far exceeded in width any he had ever seen in Europe, and which could not be spanned by bridges. When he came to such a stream, he and his train were transported to the further bank on large rafts and barges.

He was especially struck, too, by the size, numbers and splendid plumage of the birds which peopled the Tartar forests, and the plenteous and luscious fruit that grew in the river valleys. Sometimes his road led by zig-zags to the summits of lofty mountains, whence he had fine views of all the country round, and where were spacious inns and royal houses wherein he rested. One bridge that he crossed was constructed wholly of marble, and upon it were long ranges of shops where a lively trade was going on. This much reminded him of the Rialto, at home in Venice.

At last, after travelling many weeks, he reached the important province of Thibet. As he crossed the borders of this country, he found himself constantly in danger from the bold and barbarous brigands that found safe retreats in its mountain fastnesses. More than once Marco and his companions had to fight these fierce robbers for their lives. As an envoy of the khan, Marco would have been a rich prize and the treasure he carried with him, to be given as presents to the vassal kings of the khan, would have been no despicable booty. Bur every time that he encountered the Thibet robbers he repulsed them, and got off with a few slight wounds which soon healed.

Marco was very much struck with the wealth and rich productions as well as the picturesque aspect of Thibet. He found gold very plenty, so plenty that many of the commonest people wore golden ornaments on their arms and around their necks. Cinnamon was one of the most valuable resources of the country and the women displayed a great deal of coral on their persons. Thibet was full of wizards and astrologers; but Marco thought them, unlike those of Kambalu, wicked men, who served rather the devil than mankind.

He saw many very large dogs in the country, which seemed to him as big as donkeys, and which were excellent hunters and he was amazed at the height to which the canes grew in the jungles, These canes were used by caravans who passed through the jungles at night, to make fires with and thus to keep off the lions, tigers, and bears that prowled in the dark, dismal swamps.

There was a long tract of country in Thibet which was uninhabited; and Marco and his companions were obliged to take enough food with them to last until they had crossed this tract. Every night they camped in the dreary solitude, making eat roaring fires of the gigantic canes. On reaching the limit of this waste, Marco found a country that was inhabited, indeed, but by a degraded and wicked people, who robbed every one who came into their neighborhood without scruple and lived on the fruits and on what game they could procure in the woods. They used lumps of salt as money and clad themselves in the skins of wild beasts and in the coarsest cloths. Marco saw cinnamon, cloves, and ginger growing in this region, and examined them with eager curiosity.

On crossing the wide river which formed the frontier of Thibet, Marco reached a kingdom ruled over by one of the great khan's sons. Here again he saw plenty and prosperity, noble castles and thriving cities. He paid a visit to the king, the khan's son, from whom he received a very gracious welcome, and who entertained him h much honor in his palace.

Marco was glad to once more find himself in a land which appeared thrifty and civilized. The people seemed to him more like those of Kambalu than any he had seen; and he narrowly observed their various customs and industries. He saw a great deal of grain and rice growing, and noticed that here the money was made of a kind of porcelain, taken from the sea. Vast quantities of salt were dug from pits near the principal city; and not far off there was a great lake, a hundred miles long, from which an abundance of fish of many kinds were taken. The people ate their meat and fish raw in garlic sauce.

While Marco was in this country, he enjoyed a strange sort of sport—that of snake-hunting. It appeared that the region abounded in huge reptiles, some of them twenty or more feet long, with heads shaped like a loaf of bread, and big mouths wide enough to swallow a man. These snakes lay, in the daytime, in underground caves, where it was dark and slimy; crawling for h a night in search of prey, and to drink in the rivers and ponds. They thus made long tracks in the sand.

Marco set out late one afternoon, with a party of snake-hunters, and soon came to a place where these tracks were visible.

Some of the natives at once set to work, fixed a kind of trap across the tracks, and covered it all over with sand. They then lay in wait till a snake should squirm out of his cavern, and make his way toward the neighboring river. Presently one was seen, slipping rapidly along through the sand, straight towards the spot where the trap was concealed. In another moment the trap had caught his huge body. The snake's head rose high in air, his fangs shot out, and a sharp hissing noise was heard. The natives rushed up, and found that the teeth of the trap had nearly severed the reptile in two and a few blows soon settled him. The party returned in triumph, and Marco was delighted to have seen so novel a sport.

The huge shake's gall bladder was taken out and, on asking why this was done, Marco learned that it was an infallible remedy for the bite of a mad dog. The snake's body was then cut up, and sold for food; the people regarding it as a very delicate and palatable dish.

Marco saw in this land many magnificent horses, in which the people took great pride. The men were very skilful horsemen, and always went to the hunt or to battle astride of their steeds, Marco was very much pleased when, on parting from the king, the latter presented him with several of the finest of these horses.

The next province which Marco reached seemed to him a very curious place, so strange were the manners and customs of its people. He perceived that the first man and woman whom he met on the road had their teeth completely covered with plates of gold and he soon found that this was the general custom. The money of this people consisted both of porcelain, gold, and silver. They had no idols or temples, but each family worshipped its chief as a god. Nor did they have any doctors; but when any one was ill, they sent for a magician, who performed incantations over the invalid, and danced about and howled in the most dismal manner.

Their way of making a bargain struck Marco as singular. The two traders cut a piece of wood into two equal halves, and each took one of the halves and after the bargain had been completed, and the money paid over, he who paid the money also delivered up his piece of the wood. Another strange custom was this. When a woman had given birth to a child instead of remaining in bed and tending it, her husband took her place, while she went about her household work; and the man staid in bed with the child forty days, at the end of which period he rose, and entertained his relatives and friends with a bounteous feast. From this place, which was situated high among the mountains, Marco began what was called "the great descent." He went down hill for nearly three days, descending from the mountains into the valley below. This valley had scarcely a human habitation. It was nearly covered with dense forests, where roamed elephants, leopards, and rhinoceroses, at will. To cross these forests was a perilous task; happily a good road led through them, and Marco found convenient openings at night where to fix his camp.

But often, as he lay on his rude bed made of branches, while the flames of the big fire his attendants had built flickered through the opening of his tent, he heard the terrible roar of the wild beasts, which seemed only a few feet off. He half expected to feel their hot breath against his cheek, and their teeth burying themselves in his flesh. The fires proved, however, an effectual defence; and ere many days the party emerged safe and sound from the depths of the dreadful forest into the open country again.

Marco was delighted to find, just beyond, a fine and populous city, where he could see the faces of men once more, and repose in a comfortable bed. The most remarkable thing he observed in the city was a magnificent tomb, erected in honor of one of its kings. Above the tomb were two towers, twenty feet high, one of silver, and the other of gold; at their summits were round cupolas hung with golden bells, which tinkled merrily whenever they were stirred by the breeze.

The further Marco penetrated to the westward, the more numerous and dangerous did he find the wild beasts that infested the country. But wherever they were most to be dreaded, the natives were most skilful in hunting and destroying them. In one place Marco saw a lion-hunt which greatly excited him. The party went out on horseback, carrying a pack of large, ferocious, but well-trained dogs. As soon as they found a lion, prowling and roaring on the edge of the jungle, the dogs were unleashed and rushed for the lion with loud, fierce barks. Dodging around his shaggy head, they quick as lightning pounced upon his hind legs and thighs, into which they fixed their long sharp teeth. The lion whirled around to seize them but the dogs were always too quick for him, and kept their grip grimly on the hind parts of his body. Then the lion ran howling to a large tree, against which he set his back. But this was of no avail, for the dogs kept their hold, and made him keep turning round and round in a circle. Meanwhile the hunters pierced him through and through with arrows and javelins in front, until he fell dead at their feet.

Lion Hunting


In course of time Marco came to the vast city of Nankin, which is to-day second in size to the Chinese capital of Pekin. He found it a very busy place, all alive with manufactures, and the country round about exceedingly fruitful. He did not stay at Nankin long, however, but pressed on still westward.

All this time he was faithfully fulfilling the errand with which Kublai Khan entrusted hi Whenever he reached a province where it was necessary to reconcile the chiefs or the people to the khan, Marco used his persuasions, accompanied by lavish presents; and he so favorably impressed the chiefs everywhere, that he was usually successful in his aim. Now and then he found a province which could not be persuaded to yield to the khan's wishes; and such places Marco left to be subdued by force of arms.

Marco had not for many a long month set eyes upon the sea; and born, as he had been, on the sea coast, he had always been fond of the briny deep. He was much rejoiced, therefore, when in the course of his wanderings he reached one of the Tartar seaports, and could gaze out once more over the expanse of waters. This port was a very thriving one; Marco thought there must have been no less than five thousand craft in its harbor certainly there was a perfect forest of lateen sails and curious sloops and brigs. It was at the mouth of a very broad and deep river, whose waters were in their turn fairly covered with vessels of all kinds, which were drawn through the water with ropes made of a limber sort of cane.

Not long after leaving this seaport and proceeding inland again, Marco came to a city the size and beauty of which, although he had already seen many beautiful cities, fairly astonished him. This was called Kinsai, or the chief city, and was the same place as that now called Hang-chou-fou. He was told, and could almost believe it, that the walls around Kinsai were no less than one hundred miles in circumference as he neared the gates, the buildings stretched out on every side as far as the eye could reach, presenting the same idea of vastness which London now does to the eyes of the approaching traveller. He found it harder to believe that there were at least twelve thousand bridges within the limits of the city, all built of stone beneath many of which ships of the largest size could pass.

As he passed through the streets of Kinsai, he wondered more and more at the great wealth and extreme beauty and activity of the place. Many trades were evidently pursued there, for great warehouses and factories covered block after block, and long lines of bazaars bordered the side-walks, or ran though the centre of the broad avenues while palatial residences, belonging to the merchants, crowned the hills above the business quarter.

Marco, a comely young man of twenty-three or four, could not fail to remark that the women of Kinsai were "of angelic beauty," and that in their apparel they were as elegant and showy as the ladies of the European courts. The men were tall and stalwart and full of vigor and enterprise in their movements. The streets, in whatever direction Marco turned, were well paved with large stones and he observed, at brief intervals, large square buildings which, he learned, were the public baths. Of these he was told there were no less than four thousand in the city, in each of which a hundred people could bathe at once; and now Marco was at no loss to account for the very neat appearance that all the natives made. Marco had the curiosity, one day soon after reaching Kinsai, to go into one of these large bath-houses. He found a wide square pool of clear, cold water in the centre, with broad flights of stone steps leading down into it and there was a crowd of forty or fifty men, women and children, of all ages and sizes, with only a cloth band about their waists, floundering about in the water, and evidently much enjoying themselves.

In the very centre of the city Marco found the royal palace, which had been occupied by the ancient kings of the country before it was conquered by Kublai Khan. It was scarcely less magnificent than Kublai's palace itself. Like the latter it was surrounded by vast, high walls and between these walls were orchards, lawns, parks, sparkling fountains, glossy little lakes, and artificial hillocks thickly planted with rare trees and shrubs. The great hall of the palace was decorated in gold and azure, and covered with pictures of beasts, birds, knights, beautiful women, and enchanting landscapes. Other buildings stood around the palace, and in all, Marco was told, there was ample room to seat ten thousand men at table. In the palace were no less than one thousand bed chambers.

Not far from this right royal edifice was a high mound, on which was placed a large wooden table; and upon this, when there was a fire in any part of the city, a man struck heavy blows with a hammer, which resounded sharply to a considerable distance. In another part of the city was a large stone tower, whither people whose houses were on fire carried their household effects for safe-keeping, until they could procure a new abode.

Marco made quite a long stay at Kinsai, for it was by far the most important place he was to visit in the western portion of the' khan's dominions. Many of the customs of the people interested and amused him. It appeared that every dweller in the city caused his own name and those of his wife children and servants, to be written on his front door and whenever a child was born, his or her name was added. When any one of the family died, the name of the deceased was erased from the door. There was a beautiful lake at a short distance out of Kinsai, in which were two very picturesque islands. On one of these stood a splendid palace; and whenever a couple of the higher class were married, they always went to this island palace, with their relations and friends, there to celebrate, amid lovely scenes and on embowered terraces overlooking the lake, their wedding feast. At funerals, the friends of the departed made images of horses, camels, cloths, money, and other things that mortals enjoy on earth, out of stiff cards and when the funeral pyre was lighted, threw these images into the flames, saying that in the other world the deceased one would enjoy the realities which these represented.