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.
So Did Marco Polo Really Go to China?
Travelers count on Buddha for a safe journey. It is still common to adorn Buddha statues with offerings at stops along the Silk Road.
November 2, 1999
Web posted at: 2:40 p.m. EST (1940 GMT)
By John Fox
In the town of Zhangye I had one of my last opportunities to gather clues on the Marco Polo mystery. Marco Polo says that he stayed a year here with his father and uncle on "business that is not worth mentioning." What's not worth mentioning?
He does mention a temple with several reclining Buddhas, the biggest being "ten paces in stature." Well, in Zhangye, I think I found the temple that Marco Polo describes. It's the temple of the Dafo Si, the reclining Buddha. It was huge and contained an altar filled with offerings of food and incense. But there was only ONE Buddha, not several, and by my count it was at least 70 paces in length, not ten as Polo claimed. How could he turn one 115-foot (35 m) Buddha into several 16-foot (5 m) Buddhas?
This is just one of the many flaws I've found with Marco Polo's description as I crossed China on AsiaQuest. Over the past five weeks we've traveled almost 3,000 miles (4830 km) across China by bike, camel, train, bus, plane and horse. We've ventured through deserts, mountains and cities, experienced temperatures ranging from 0 to 90, attempted (with little success) to speak Mandarin, Uighur and Mongolian, and eaten some downright frightening food, all for one reason: to determine whether Marco Polo ever came to China as he claims.
So what have we found?
Well, his descriptions of places and people, though weak on detail, often ring true. In Kashgar, for example, people still live by trade and handicrafts, and crops like cotton and grapes are still grown. He mentions the jade still found in the rivers near Hotan and Yutien and his description of the Taklamakan Desert is fairly accurate, if short on detail and experience.
Often, we found direct connections between his account and our experiences on the road. The one place where we found people suffering from goiter, for example, was in Yarkand, the same place where Marco Polo mentioned it over 700 years ago. He also describes many characteristics of Chinese society that continue to be important today, like paper money, using coal for heating, different religions and their practices, rice, and noodles.
On the other hand, there are a number of problems with his account that make me doubt that he went to China, that his account is not what it pretends to be. First, he left out many big details. He never mentioned the Great Wall, despite passing close by it at several points. He never mentioned tea, a drink that was served and continues to be served everywhere in China (even when you don't want it!). He never mentioned chopsticks or Chinese writing despite these being everywhere and so different from what was the norm in Europe.
John has had a great deal of time to ponder the clues the team has gathered during AsiaQuest. Did Marco Polo really go to China?
His account often doesn't follow a real itinerary. After Kashgar he describes Samarkand, a city in modern Uzbekistan, over a thousand miles to the west, then goes on to describe Yarkand! Marco Polo the man rarely appears in his account and there's little of his personal experience to be found anywhere in the text. Crossing the Taklamakan, a truly remarkable and dangerous journey, is barely described in 200 words! In many parts, his account reads like more like a refrigerator list of places rather than an actual travelogue. His account of Zhangye, where he says he lived for a year, suggests no more than an overnight visit! Could he have traveled the same roads as me? Did he get sick, or long for home?
In Hotan he says nothing about silk or carpets, despite this town having been a major producer of these items in those times. And in Dunhuang, he fails to mention the spectacular Mogao Grottoes as well as the "booming sands" known to every other traveler who passed that way.
Was Marco Polo the great traveler we think he was, or did he just cobble together interesting tales from the accounts of other travelers whose names have been lost to history?
Did Marco Polo go to China?
It's your call. Cast your vote in today's Daily Survey!
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