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Volume 33, Number 4July/August 1982

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The Marco Polo Route

Written and photographed by Michael Winn

From Venice to Cathay … almost

For four nights this spring - May 16-19 — millions of Americans spent long hours watching NBC-TV's 10-hour, $23 million mini-series on Marco Polo. This was the story of the famous - if also controversial - 13th-century Venetian who may have been the first European ever to reach China - and who later wrote one of the most famous books in history.

Because of the film's length and cost - and because it was the first time in decades that a Western film company was permitted to make a film in China - Marco Polo began to attract media attention long before it was shown. The New York Times magazine ran a long article detailing the difficulties faced -and overcome - by producer Vincenzo Labella who, like his protagonist, also went to China from Italy. These difficulties ranged from page-by-page censorship to blackmail by the peasants; pay us, they said, and we'll get out of the way so you can film the Great Wall.

One article spawned by the pre-showing publicity challenged the entire concept of Marco Polo's travels. Written by sdiolar Craig Clunas, of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the article, for The Times of London, immediately drew replies and the debate was on: did Marco Polo really go to China?

No, says Chinas, and provides evidence. Though Chinese scribes kept meticulous records about visitors to China at that time, Marco Polo does not appear in them. And in his book he fails to mention one of the great inventions of history, then widespread in China: printing. Worse, he fails to mention that the Chinese drink tea. Clunas claims Polo's facts on China are garbled and second-hand.

Not everyone agrees with that view. As Caroline Stone suggests in one of our articles, Marco Polo's Travels proved to be extremely accurate, at least with respect to the Middle East. And Harry Rutstein, author of In the Footsteps of Marco Polo , is so committed to the traditional Polo story that he has spent years trying to retrace the Marco Polo route to China. On the first leg he had to abandon the journey for five years and on the second leg - where Michael Winn joined him to write the following article - he was stopped at a crucial point: the border of China or, as he calls it, the "back door to Cathay." But, says Rutstein, he hasn't given up; someday he'll go all the way.

The Editors

In the year 1295, the citizens of Venice scoffed in disbelief when a trio of ragged travelers rode into the city, worn and weary, and claimed that they were the Polos - who had left Venice 24 years before to go to China. To prove that they were indeed the Polos - Marco, father Niccolo, uncle Maffeo - the trio sponsored a public banquet and, legend has it, dramatically ripped open the linings of their ragged coats — disclosing robes of satin and velvet, and spilling a hidden fortune in gems onto the tables - proof that they had not only gone to China, but reaped its riches.

Exactly 704 years after the Polos' departure on that historic trip - in 1975 -three Americans gathered on the doorstep of Marco Polo's 13th-century home in Venice to start out on exactly the same trip: Harry Rutstein, a Baltimore merchant fascinated by the Marco Polo story, his son Richard, then 19, and Joanne Kroll, Cornell University anthropologist, artist and nurse.

Fascinated by the Marco Polo story, Rutstein, years before, had decided that one day he would re-trace the Silk Route to China, the road that the Polo family had taken in the 13th century - and that no one in the modern age has completely retraced.

For 3,000 years, the Silk Route was the longest road on earth. Originally connecting the two great empires of Rome and China, the Silk Route in its heyday stretched more than 12,850 kilometers (8,000 miles) from China to Spain. More a system of roads than a highway, the Silk Route and its branches linked regions as diverse as Russia, Africa, Arabia, India and Persia with China and the Mediterranean.

Over the Silk Route, to the West, came nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves from India; perfumes from Arabia; rubies and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan; pearls from Baghdad; turquoise from Persia; and silk and brocade from China. Sent from the West in return were gold and silver.

Because the Polos were merchants, such riches were, of course, tempting. But their motives for traveling so far were not purely economic. On an earlier trip to China lasting 15 years (1254-1269), the two elder Polos had been asked by the emperor Kublai Khan - ruler of an empire stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Black Sea - to return to China with 100 scholars. To insure that they would, he gave them a "golden tablet" - a pass granting them safe passage in the empire.

Harry Rutstein, unfortunately, did not have a "golden tablet," but he did have a better idea of what lay ahead; to pinpoint Marco Polo's exact route, Rutstein, starting in 1971, had painstakingly sifted through the vast literature on the subject, for four years.

It was an exceptionally difficult job. For one thing, Marco Polo described many places that he hadn't actually visited. For another, Rutstein had to decipher a bewildering array of 138 early editions whose texts, written in a dozen different languages, were often in conflict.

Nevertheless, in July, 1975, satisfied that he had exhausted the scholarship on the subject, Rutstein set off from Baltimore to Venice where, from precisely the same place, the Polo family had set out in the 13th century.

Though the building had changed - the main house was now a hotel - the Polo family's coat of arms was still over the stable, and, significantly, the courtyard beside the hotel still carried the pejorative nickname "Del Milione." This phrase, suggesting "teller of a million lies" was applied to Marco Polo by critics of his bestselling The Travels and suggests that medieval Venice -jewels or no jewels - considered Marco Polo's fabulous stories to be tall tales, if not outright fiction.

The Rutsteins, however, did not and, not long after, set sail across the Mediterranean to Marco Polo's first stop - the 3,000-year-old port in Palestine known today as Haifa.

Like Marco Polo, Rutstein also made a side trip to Jerusalem - where Polo had obtained chrism oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as requested by the Chinese emperor. Rutstein's crew then sailed for Cyprus, Rhodes and Turkey and, once ashore, hitchhiked past Mount Ararat -where Noah's ark is said to be buried - and passed one of the battlefields where Alexander the Great and Darius, Emperor of Persia, met in battle in the fourth century B. C. - sites that thrilled Marco Polo.

In Turkey, on the original journey, two Dominican friars sent by Pope Gregory in hopes of converting the Mongols quit the expedition and returned to the Holy Land, thus ending the Pope's plan to wrest control of Silk Route trade from the Muslims. From Turkey, Rutstein, on his journey, headed south for the Arabian Gulf, but as the map showed a 480-kilometer (300 miles) road stretching south through the Iranian desert and the Arabian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas, he and his companions decided that backpacking - an attempt to authenticate the trip - wouldn't do; instead they rented a car.

"We left about 4:30 a.m. because we wanted to get there before the temperature went above 100 degrees," recalls Rutstein. "We expected the trip to take a few hours, but there was no road. We thought it had stopped and would start again, but it did not. There were just ruts... In some places we could go only one mile an hour."

It was late afternoon when the party finally arrived at Bandar Abbas. "It was one of those times when I said to myself, 'What in the hell are you doing here? What kept me going was the thought of how easy I had it compared to Marco Polo. He spent two years traveling the same distance I covered in three months. I had to think like an explorer, not as a tourist."

In some ways, Marco Polo did just the reverse; he thought like a tourist instead of an explorer. Polo, for example, on this leg of his journey, described Dhofar and Aden - on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula-but, scholars agree, never actually went there. Rutstein, consequently, didn't go either. Marco Polo did go to Hormuz, however, so Rutstein did too, although now it is the village of Minab, not far from Bandar Abbas. He was able to confirm the Polo description: "So hot the houses are filled with ventilators to catch the wind" - a reference to the unique cooling systems still in existence today.

From Hormuz, the Polos decided to continue by land because they quite mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that the Arab dhows, "held together without a single nail," were unseaworthy. Thus Rutstein, heading northward from Hormuz, crossed the great Salt Desert of Iran, and, after a stop in Mashhad, followed the Russian border for hundreds of miles up to the rounded brown folds of the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Marco Polo

Even today, the town of Chitral seems an ideal place to recuperate from illness-with a climate warm enough to grow rice and fruit, yet cooled with snowmelt, and, dominating the town, the Masjid Shahi, the Grand Mosque, whose towers rise like a vision from Shangri-la over houses of wood and stone built on hills overlooking a string of bazaars two miles long.

As they always were, the streets of Chitral are alive with tribesmen - the local Khowaris in brown woolen caps, turbaned Afghan refugees, sharp-faced Pathans and smiling Gujars - and the markets are filled with woolen goods, antique weapons, fruits of all kinds, spices, and stones of a dazzling variety: amythyst, tourmaline, sapphires and rubies. Since Marco Polo had dealt in precious gems - and had reported that the local king seven centuries ago insisted on fixing the prices on all gems - Rutstein bought uncut rubies and lapis lazuli from a Chitrali who said he found them lying in the mountains.

People of the Chitral region today still wear the shalwar kamees, the national dress of Pakistan, which is probably similar to the costume - of short, pleated baggy pants - described by Marco Polo. The pleats on these baggy pants, he said, were intended "to give the impression of plumper hips, because their menfolk delight in plumpness."

In Chitral, it is impossible to ignore the brilliant white pyramid called Tirich Mir. Towering four vertical miles above the Chitral valley, and exaggerating its lush greenness, Tirich Mir, 7,700 meters (25,264 feet) high is the highest mountain in the eastern Hindu Kush - and the gateway to even greater wonders beyond: the Himalayas. Polo described these mountains as being so high and so cold that not even birds would fly there - yet to get from central Asia to China, he himself had to cross at least one of what are surely the most intimidating mountain ranges in the world: the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, the Kunlun and Tien-Shan and the Karakorum Himalayas - all converging into a single spiraling massif.

There are over 10 different routes Marco Polo could have taken through these mountains," Rutstein explains, "with no way of proving absolutely which one he took. It is the most controversial part of his entire route. Most adventurers who have tried to follow Marco Polo illogically assumed that he climbed back down the mountains from Chitral into Afghanistan, and from there up the Wakhan corridor along the Oxus River into China." But when Rutstein resumed his journey in 1981, after a six-year break, he chose the well-marked caravan route from Chitral over Shandur Pass down to Gilgit and up the Hunza Valley into China, because, he explains, "it was the easiest and most direct, and therefore Polo's likeliest route."

From Chitral, Rutstein jeeped for two days up the Yarkhun valley 97 kilometers (60 miles) north to Mastuj, where an old fort with six-meter-high (20 feet) walls marks a spot where centuries of political intrigue among a legion of invaders converged: Greeks, Kushans, Parthians, Sassanians, White Huns, Chinese, Tibetans, Mongols, Turks, Russians, and, later, the British. As a crossroads between the Middle East, China and the Indian subcontinent, this portion of the old Silk Route has always had high strategic value.

In 711, for example, under the brilliant generalship of Muhammad ibn al-Qasim, the Muslims won their first foothold in this region - though it took three successive invasions to consolidate their control.

Traces of this period have been found in the trading centers on the plains of Pakistan, the jumping off point for caravans following the route that Marco Polo took through the Himalayas. In the National Museum of Pakistan, for instance, there rests a gold coin belonging to Caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, and a copy of the earliest known manuscript of the Holy Koran. In four volumes, it is transcribed in Kufic style on deerskin and is said to have been transcribed by 'Uthman the third Caliph.

From these centers Islam eventually passed over the Silk Route through the Himalayas into China and by 950 A.D. Kashgar, the westernmost Chinese trading outpost visited by Polo three centuries later, had accepted Islam.

Rutstein, in Mastuj, met with the local prince, Sikander Ul-Mulk, whose family, descended from the Mongol emperor Tamerlane, ruled the area for 500 years until, in 1972, the Pakistani government took control. The prince now occupies himself with farming and coaching the local polo team - whose games are often played atop the 3,719 meter (12,200 feet) shoulder pass, the world's highest polo field.

As much of Rutstein's travel had been by jeep, he - and I, when I joined him for the second leg of his journey in 1981 - had been concerned that there would be no "feel" for the land. As an alternative to the traditional modes of Himalayan travel - cooks and porters, pack animals bleating, bandits' bullets and rickety bridges - jeeps seemed much too tame. Actually, though, jeeping proved to be a far more terrifying form of transport than hiking, what with unending ribbons of hairpin turns -15 of them on one cliff side - and tracks so narrow that the side view mirror once had to be bent inwards so the jeep could inch by.

On the other hand, Marco Polo's Travels are so filled with the stories of dangers encountered that our jeep hazards hardly compare. He faced shipwreck, brigands, extortion, piracy, wild beasts, torrents, illness, impassable mountains and wars. Neither Rutstein nor I was very surprised, therefore, when, during the Pakistan leg, we felt the first tremors of an earthquake as we pulled into a mud-walled roadside tea house to relax. Since the earthquake measured 8.6 on the Richter scale, loosed landslides on the road ahead of and behind us, and, unbeknown to us at the time, wiped out a village of 300 people, it is no exaggeration to say that elements of unpredictable danger have changed little since the days of Marco Polo's travels on the Silk Route.

Polo, in fact, mentioned a king who had lost many men in these mountains because "the roads were narrow and bad," and our driver, Hassan Abdal from Chitral, who sipped his tea calmly during the tremors, afterwards informed us that five jeeps had fallen into the gorge that year.

As we proceeded, things got worse, not easier. Once, we had to cross a 15-meter (50 foot) bridge made of vines, tied to boulders on either side of the gorge - some of the vines frayed and broken. Another time, while descending from the Shandur Pass to Gilgit (first by horse and later by jeep) we stumbled upon another reminder of travel in the 13th century as described by Marco Polo: a boatman on a raft of inflated pigskins floating by on the river far below.

Gilgit, however, was a disappointment. The roads were paved, and the shops rilled with modern imports ranging from disco cassettes to American tractors. Only the silk gowns and porcelain from China suggested the trade of Marco Polo's day.

Still, Gilgit, for 2,000 years, has been the terminus of trade with western China in this region and today, that trade has been revitalized by a new Silk Route: the paved Karakorum highway that winds 900 kilometers (560 miles) through the Himalayas. Built with the aid of the Chinese - at the cost of hundreds of lives - the new silk route snakes its way along the headwaters of the Indus River and takes the modern trader whizzing at 110 kilometers an hour (70mph) past Gilgit and up the Khungerab Pass into China. There, unfortunately, the Rutstein expedition, having no "golden tablet" from the Khan, had come to a halt. Though a sign in English welcomed him - and us, later -"Welcome to Honourable Guests" - China did not. We were forbidden to get any closer than 25 miles from the border.

Harry Rutstein, nevertheless, had succeeded in filling Marco Polo's shoes on his travels along the Silk Route. Though he certainly would never boast, as Marco Polo did, that "no man has explored so many parts of the world... since our Lord God formed... our first parents," there are similarities. Both men began life as merchants, and both, in their fashion, served as cultural ambassadors between East and West. Rutstein, in fact, believing that 700 years after Marco Polo, there is still no mutual understanding, hopes - by eventually completing the last 5,793 kilometers (3,600 miles) of Marco Polo's journey, across China - that he may bridge the gap between the cultures - an adventure as challenging as any found on his travels so far.

Michael Winn is a free-lance writer recently returned from a trip through Muslim areas of the Far East.

This article appeared on pages 30-36 of the July/August 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1982 images.