On Playing Marco Polo and Journeying into the Unknown

Introducing National Geographic Traveller India's August Issue.  
Marco Polo statue
A Marco Polo statue in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Photo by Pavel Gospodinov/Moment/Getty Images.

Marco Polo was 17 when he left Venice for China. The world hadn’t even begun to seem old yet. There was the sea, unforgiving and choppy. There was the Gobi Desert, barren and treacherous. And then there were the people, strange and mystifying. In Pem, Marco tells us, women could marry other men if their travelling husbands left for more than 20 days. In Mongolia, the funeral of a patriarch also announced four weddings. The eldest son married his stepmothers. Marco wasn’t an anthropologist. He wasn’t a historian. He was a traveller, and like all travellers, he liked telling stories.

Kublai Khan, the founder of China’s Yuan dynasty, liked the stories Marco had to tell. He didn’t let him leave his court for 17 years. In Xanadu’s opulent summer palace, a Venetian merchant whispered into the ears of a Mongol ruler, secrets of a distant Europe. The city Marco came from was built on water, but while describing it, he did presumably also build a few castles in the air. Exaggerations did after all sometimes come to Marco rather easily. In his book, The Description of the World—one that would famously come to be known as The Travels of Marco Polo—he wrote about giant birds that picked elephants in their talons, dropped them from great heights, and then devoured their carcasses for lunch.

Though controversial, Marco’s travelogue was a bestseller. Often mistaken for fiction, the book was considered a fairy tale. No country, claimed 13th-century Europeans, could run on paper money. No land could have had a network of messengers that elaborate. Infamously this time, Marco’s written account came to be called Il Milone (The Million Lies). He didn’t have photographs to prove the veracity of his experience. His readers didn’t have the internet to fact check writing they both loved and disbelieved. But while they suspected his assertions, Marco’s courage was never doubted. When he returned, the Venetian struggled with his native language. He had risked his life. Marco Polo, the merchant, was an Icarus who’d flown too close to the sun, but as a writer, he was Prometheus too. He’d brought back fire.

Marco wrote in his book, “I believe it was God’s will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world.” Unlike Marco, our safety is more guaranteed, but we do believe in similar discoveries. There are parts of the world that have not been exhausted by tourists, and so in this issue, we bring to you pieces from the mosques of Iran and the deserts of Namibia. Lilies in Manipur and mountain gorillas in Rwanda are both rare, so we tell their stories with an equal fondness. Lithuania, Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh and Japan all showed us what we hadn’t seen. Given his influence, we give Marco the last word—“I have only told the half of what I saw!” Sadly, we too were given a tough word count.

  • Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He works as the Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?