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AsiaQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For five weeks a team of scientists and explorers will take a journey of discovery, following Marco Polo's footsteps along China's Silk Road. Follow along here for daily reports on the Quest.

Marriage Mystery

man
Strict Muslim men are quite protective of their wives. When you take that into consideration, do you think Marco's stories of temporary marriages seem plausible?  

October 20, 1999
Web posted at: 2:25 p.m. EDT (1825 GMT)

By Dan Buettner

For the first time since we arrived in China, I want to go home.

It's 6:33 p.m. and the sun is starting to droop over the Taklamakan, bringing on a desert chill. We're holed up in the Hotel of the Yutien County Committee of the Communist Party. It's a big dusty block of a building with cold bare floors, sagging beds, spittoons outside every room and the lingering smell of stale cigarette smoke.

I'm sick. I have a fever, chills, body aches and a headache that feels like there's a little man behind my eyeballs shooting hockey pucks. It feels exactly like malaria, but malaria is unlikely this far north. It could be Typhoid fever, meningitis, or hepatitis-all of which are common in this part of China.
 VIDEO
Asia Quest - Report: Day 13
 
It could also be some gastro-intestinal infection. As my guidebook states, "Remember, in China, the waste you deposit in the public toilet today is tomorrow's fertilizer." So, maybe I got sick from the partially washed apricots I ate for lunch yesterday. Or, maybe it was that pigeon I had for dinner.

More on AsiaQuest
from Classroom Connect:
     • Team Update
     • Myths & Legends
     • Get a Clue!
     • Mystery Photo
     • Quest Map
     • What's New?
   

Traveling here today got me thinking about Marco Polo and really questioning whether or not he came here 700 years ago. Today we came 108 miles from Hotan to Yutien along the southern rim of the desert. We rolled through tree-shaded oases green with melon patches and bustling with street vendors and horse-drawn carts. Between the towns, the desert practically clobbered you over the head with its vistas of rolling dunes and vast nothingness.

Marco Polo's account of traveling here is boring. It reads like a merchant's shopping list. How could he not mention the colorful towns and the details of the deserts? Did he ever get sick like I am? He must have, and probably worse given the more primitive conditions. Why not mention anything? Unless, of course, you just heard about the place from someone else and wrote it down.

woman
Many Muslim women cover their faces and are very modest  

Marco Polo does actually write one thing about Yutien, which he called Pein, but I don't believe it. He says of the people here, "They have a custom I must relate. If the husband of any woman goes away upon a journey and remains away for more than 20 days, as soon as that term is past the woman may marry another man, and the husband also may then marry whom he pleases." He writes as if he experienced this himself. But is it believable?

Islam came to this part of China in the 11th century and quickly spread, well before Marco Polo was born. Strict Muslim men here are exceedingly protective of their wives. The strictest women cover their faces, and most of them tend to stay close to home. Today the women are so modest that they won't even talk to strange men. The other day I asked a woman directions, and she hurried away like I had the plague! The idea of these women taking new husbands at the drop of the hat seems a little hard to believe.

That said, a tiny footnote in the Yule-Cordier Edition of "The Travels of Marco Polo" points out this possibly refers to a custom of temporary marriages which prevailed in most towns in Central Asia at the time. Still, I question it. I think Marco and his ghostwriter, Rustichello, threw these tidbits in with a bestseller in mind.

Now I'm off to bed. And that's no lie.

Pedals Down,
Dan
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