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Follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo

by Martha Hales

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Marco PoloMarco Polo, one of the most celebrated sons of Venice, was still in his teens when he set off in 1271 to deliver valuable gifts and letters from the Pope to the Great Khan of China.

Marco Polo’s father and uncle had spent nearly a decade journeying to China previously, and had been gladly received by Kublai Khan, who wished to learn more about western culture and religion. He sent them back to Europe to gather information and goods for him. So, when they set off back to the east, the Polo family first crossed Armenia and Georgia before turning south through Persia.

Mountains of Georgia

They headed from Tabriz to Hormuz, where they were planning to go by sea to China. However, the boats they found there did not appear to be seaworthy so they decided to travel overland instead. They followed a well established and thriving network of trading routes, now known as the Silk Road. Merchants would ply sections of the route, creating a relay of trade which saw goods and treasures making their way east to west and vice versa. One important legacy of the Silk Road was that ideas and philosophies were also sent from place to place, bringing a better understanding of other cultures.

Burana Tower on the Silk Route

When Marco Polo set out towards the east in 1271, the ensuing adventures were not destined to be recorded in written form for another 28 years, when he found himself incarcerated in Genova for a year. He recounted incredible tales of his travels to Rusticiano di Pisa, who transcribed them into a book. The stories in its pages have gone on to influence and inspire readers for centuries.

Many of the fantastic and fascinating tales that Marco Polo recounts in his book occurred while on this journey into deepest Asia and, if you are hoping to follow Marco Polo, here at TravelLocal we work with expert local tour operators in many of the places he visited.

Camel trekking along the silk route

The Caucasus

It is documented that Marco Polo, together with his father and uncle, traversed Georgia and Armenia. He commented on the quality of the local woven fabric, buckram, made for bookbinding and was also very impressed with the hot springs. He declared them ‘the best baths from natural springs that are anywhere to be found.’

Entrance to Borjomi hot springs in Georgia

Iran

The Polos first travelled south from Tabriz through Yazd and Kerman to the port at Hormuz. This particular port no longer exists but was at the time an important hub for trade and travel. Marco Polo observed, ‘Merchants come thither from India with spices and precious stones, pearls, cloths of silk and gold, elephants’ teeth, and many other wares … In fact ‘tis a city of immense trade.’ However, when they couldn’t find a sturdy enough ship they left Hormuz and travelled north east through Persia towards Balkh in Afghanistan and beyond. They returned to Hormuz on their return trip, many years later, where they arrived by ship from China.

Yazd in Iran

Central Asia

Marco Polo himself does not seem to have travelled the section of the Silk Road which is perhaps the best known today. However, this doesn't mean it's not worth a visit - if anything, it's Central Asia as its finest. Traversing Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the road takes in Bishkek and Tashkent, the glories of Uzbek architecture and the treasures of Samarkand.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

China

By definition, the Silk Road was often used to transport silk fabric from its sources in China to the west, where it was highly prized in the top echelons of society. Marco Polo’s route across China took him through Kashgar, in Xinjiang province, which was an important focal point. Standing at the intersection of the ancient trading routes connecting the empires of Rome, China, Mongolia and Persia, mercantilism was the area’s lifeblood. On Kashgar, Marco Polo wrote ‘There are a good number of towns and villages, but the greatest and finest is Cascar itself. The inhabitants live by trade and handicrafts; they have beautiful gardens and vineyards, and fine estates and grow a great deal of cotton. From this country many merchant to go forth about the world on trading journeys.’

Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, China

Marco Polo travelled eastwards from here to Beijing, and remained in the court of the Great Khan for many years. It is recorded that when they returned to Venice after 24 years absence, the Polo family could barely speak their mother tongue and their family did not recognise them. Tales of these incredible adventures have inspired many travellers in the centuries since his book was published. Some of his stories have been subject to speculation about their authenticity, but on his deathbed, Marco Polo said:

‘I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.’

Children playing outside yurt in Tajikistan, China

Make it happen

TravelLocal’s knowledgeable local experts in each of these destinations can put together a bespoke trip just for you. Check out the 'Mysteries of the Silk Route' itinerary for an overview or send an enquiry to create your bespoke Silk Road adventure. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.

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