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Who was Marco Polo?

The Great Sojourn: Travels of Marco Polo
Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the way to see Kublai Khan in China, the group traveled via trade routes in countries such as Persia, Indonesia, China and India (see the map at Metropolitan Museum of Art for their specific route), where they learned about new products -- including porcelain, coal, silk and the compass. They also viewed paper money for the first time [source: National Geographic]. As you can imagine, the sojourn took a great deal longer than it would in today's world of planes, trains and automobiles. The Polo family also had to contend with the elements: Rain, snow and other inclement weather caused the trip from Venice to China to be a three-and-a-half-year-trek. Another factor in this delay is the belief that Marco was very sick along the way for nearly a year, possibly with malaria [source: National Geographic].

The group finally reached Shangdu, China, in 1275. Marco was introduced to Khan and quickly won him over. The Mongols (to whom Marco referred as "Tartars") had ruled China and other Asian lands since they took them by force in the 13th century with their fierce horseback warfare. Traditionally, the Mongols lived as nomads; however, leaders such as Genghis Khan recognized that a successful empire would have to be built on different principles. As such, the Mongols supported foreign craftsmen, merchants and traders. They also welcomed religious missionaries and even recruited better-educated foreigners to supply administrative skills that the Mongols lacked [source: Metropolitan Museum of Art].

This miniature of the Bodleni manuscript of Marco Polo's travel book shows a scene from Venice.
This miniature of the Bodleni manuscript of Marco Polo's travel book shows a scene from Venice.
Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

Khan took such a liking to Marco that he made him a courier of the court, supplying him with a passport of gold and requiring him to travel to the ends of China and back. These travels made Marco the first European to see the width and breadth of the country. Marco also claims in his book that Khan appointed him to a position equivalent to governor, although detractors say that he probably topped out as a low-level official [source: National Geographic].

Overall, Marco viewed China as a hotbed of industry that far surpassed the rest of the world in terms of technological and cultural advances. Despite these luxuries, Marco, his father and uncle decided to skip town after 17 years in Khan's court. They foresaw political unrest -- the Chinese were growing resentful of the Mongols and the aging Khan [source: National Geographic]. However, Khan refused to allow them to leave at first. Luckily, salvation came in the form of Persian emissaries, who arrived to request a princess for Khan's great-nephew. Khan decided the Polos would be among the trusted crew to transport the princess by sea [source: National Geographic]. After delivering the princess safely, the Polos trekked home to Venice.

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