Small Group Tour in Central Asia 2024-2025

Marco Polo - Great Silk Road

For many centuries the Great Silk Road connected a complex network of trade routes from Europe with Asia. It was a way to establish contact with the great civilizations of China, India, the Near East and Europe. Trade caravans, diplomatic missions, merchants representatives of religious circles, dervishes, warriors – millions people have passed on this road through time with nothing frightening these brave travelers, neither the difficult roads, nor the waterless deserts. Those were extraordinary hardy and strong-willed people. Among them was Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant who embarked on the Silk Road for trade and good fortune. He was awe-struck by all he had seen during his years of travel through the countries of East, and his journey lasted almost a quarter of a century, as he became the inquisitive researcher of unknown grounds. “This Spellbound wanderer” left his descendants a most interesting “Book” in which he tried to explain how Europeans perceived the East – a writing that has made a great impact on the development of world culture.

By the 13th century, of all the countries on the Great Silk Road, the most extensive and powerful country was the Mongolian empire, which spread across Northern China, Eastern and Western Turkistan (Central Asia), Iran, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The khans controlled the markets which sold jewelry, fabrics, furs, and various items of luxury. These markets attracted, firstly, Asian tradesmen, and later merchants from Western Europe.

In 1260, two Venetian merchants – Nikkolo and Maffeo (the father and uncle of Marco Polo) left for the East taking the “northern way”. This caravan journey lasted for a whole year, and finished in the residence of great Kublai Khan. From Marco Polo’s “Book” is known that his father and uncle made a successful trade agreement during this first year of travel and when returning to China after two years, the brothers decided to take seventeen year old Marco with them. They had no idea that this decision would be such a historically significant decision.

Marco Polo’s journey with his father and uncle in China, bearing a message to the great Kublai Khan from the Head of the Catholic Church, Father Gregory X, began in 1271. Their route passed through modern Akka (Israel) to the Persian Gulf, then to the north through Iran to Amu Darya, and on to Oksus (Aral sea) through the Pamir mountains to modern Sinkian (an Uigur area) and then finally through the Gobi Desert to Shangtu.

The Venetians were greeted with great honor and soon appeared in the presence of the great Khan. Young Marco was especially liked by Kublai Khan who gave him authority as his personal envoy. Using this authority Marco Polo traveled to the provinces of China, carrying out numerous, mainly diplomatic assignments. These trips, coupled with his natural curiosity and extraordinary memory, allowed Marco to get acquainted with the lifestyles of the people of this mysterious country, and subsequently, to document a unique and descriptive story about his findings and impressions. It is known that he went overland from Bukhara to China. In one of the versions of his “Book” he describes his visit to Samarkand.

The Venetians stayed for 17 years in the service of Kublai Khan. Most of their return journey was done by sea around the coast of South-East Asia, Hindustan, visiting many seaports on the way. They arrived in Venice in 1295, completing the greatest journey of that time both distance wise and time wise.

The merit of Marco Polo exists in his work, which was originally referred to a “Book about the variety of the world” in which he describes various Asian countries, cities and regions, along with life and customs of their inhabitants, the court of the great Khan of the Mongols and Chinese Emperor, Kublai Khan. This book is especially valuable not only as a great reference work, but also because of the personal input of the author – the first European to have crossed all of Central Asia. It contains interesting personal accounts of his travels as well as information about his father and uncle. The “Book” was originally written in French, and then translated into many other European languages. It has become one of the most famous literary compositions of the 13th century, and has influenced the development of culture in Western Europe – the only piece of writing of its kind. It is said that Christopher Columbus studied the “Book” before leaving for his historical journey to the coasts of the New World. The famous traveler, Vambery (19th century) also refers to this book in terms of Iran, Afghanistan, and India.

Marco Polo’s book was known in Italy as the “Book Million about miracles of the world”, or simple “Million”. The origin of this name is such: when he returned from his travels and spoke of the luxury of the court of the great Khan, Marco Polo frequently mentioned that the daily income of the Khan was estimated between ten and fifteen million in by gold. Or perhaps he got this nickname because of the considerable riches he returned home with.

The diversity of the interests of Marco Polo is amazing. The nature, climate, state protocol, trade, architecture, religions, traditions and customs, magnificent palaces of the rulers, the disposition of the courtiers, the eastern bazaars, national cuisine, legends and stories is all addressed and explained in his book. Marco Polo begins his description of Asia from Armenia, writing about areas of present Persia and part of Turkey, and on to the Central Asia. He includes interesting information about Mongolia, China, Japan and India. In his description of the northern areas of Persia (Khorasan), verging now on the borders of the Caspian, he emphasizes the difficulties, the traps the traveler experiences in the desert: lack of water, heat and vicious sand.

He remarks on excellent pastures in the valleys of the Pamir Mountains and the variety of animals. The valley passes through gorge below, which becomes steeper and steeper with a treacherous mountain pass as the only way of getting through. One side of the mountain feeds the Amu Darya River and other side feeds the River Ind. The snow collects in the winter, and during the summer the waters flow down from here to Central Asia. He describes many animals in detail including mountain goats, which in 1960 would be named by the famous zoologist, Severtsev Ovis Polii, as the “rams of Polo”.

Balashan, according to Marco Polo, is an extensive state, controlled by a line of kings, all of them from Alexander and the daughter of Darius, the Persian king, calling themselves “Zulkarnein”, i.e. Alexander. This land is rich in jewels – balas (rubies). They can be found in the high mountains, but only in Sikinan. The country described by Marco Polo – present day Badahshan, a province of Afghanistan, and Sikinan – Shugnan of Pamir, is where the ruby mines are.

The travelers also passed through the Kashmir valley where Marco Polo did not forget to include the legend about the local inhabitants who were engaged in witchcraft and black magic – forced to speak to idols, and able to change the weather and other natural forces. He remarked in his “Book” that even Kashmiri women are black, but beautiful: “Kashmiri women were glorified by their beauty far from India”.

Many pages of the “Book” are devoted to the description of areas of Central Asia, the modern territory of Uzbekistan. He describes Samarkand as a noble and great city, where there are many of gardens with fruits in abundance. Muslims and Christians live side-by-side and they are religiously tolerant to each other. Polo left Samarkand for Karkan, a place where people were skilled in art and needlework. He could have been referring to Fergana under Karkan.

Marco Polo’s father and uncle were the first Europeans to have seen Bukhara. The city seemed perfect to them. It was surrounded by high towers among which shone light-blue domes, glowing under the sun. The walls of the mosques were beautifully decorated with colorful mosaic. Bukhara was one of the busiest trading centers of silk, porcelain, ivory, spices, metal ware, and everything else that was made with the greatest artistry and precision.

Marco Polo revealed much to the Europeans about life in the Far East. But shortly before his death in 1324, the great traveler admitted that he didn’t even write about half of what he saw.

Centuries have passed since the travels of Marco Polo and the creation of his remarkable “Book” but people will never forget his humanistic feat. In 1994 the World Tourist Organization, together with UNESCO, carried out an international seminar in Tashkent called “The Great Silk Road”. The Samarkand declaration was accepted where Uzbekistan was officially named the center of the project to bring the Great Silk Road back to life as a major channel for cooperation between the states through which this famous route passed. The participants of this conference remembered the name of Marco Polo with respect and gratitude and he was named the first tourist to pass through the Silk Road. Probably, this brave Venetian man would be proud of this title, because the noble purpose of tourism is to educate, fascinate, and draw the hearts of the people.