The Silk Road Today

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo     by Dennis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell

viii + 280 pp, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, NY 2008  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

      If your thing is reading true adventure stories in the comfort and safety of your armchair, this book is for you. Its authors--of whom Denis is also a professional photographer--set out around 1999 to retrace Marco Polo's journey down the "Silk Road" to China, returning like him by sea through Sumatra and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Don't even think about trying it yourself: too many political restrictions (the authors were not above crossing borders illegally), violent characters with Kalashinkov guns, together with the numbingly cold thin air of the Central Asian Plateau in winter, all these are best avoided. They traveled alone (though prepared with extensive supports and contacts), often by foot and camel or hitching a ride, at times venturing to places where they were not supposed to go. This kind of journey is best enjoyed vicariously.

Who was Marco Polo?

    Up to the 1200s, China was a tantalizing but forbidden kingdom to Europeans. It produced exquisite goods--especially, silk fabrics and superior white pottery, some with dazzling colorful glazes--but while such goods could be bought at steep prices from Arab middlemen, the country was distant and did not admit foreigners. Then however the Mongols--superb fighters on horseback--conquered China (as well of much of Asia and Russia, stopped only by force of arms), and the new Chinese emperor, Kublai Khan, opened China's gates just a wee bit. Two Venetian traders, the brothers Nicola and Maffeo Polo, visited him overland and returned with his blessing, bringing word of his interest in Christianity. A few years later the brothers decided to retrace the trip, bringing Kublai by his request some holy oil from Jerusalem, as well as a new pope's gifts. This time they took along Nicola's 17-year-old son, Marco.

    Twenty four years later, in 1295, they returned, with a small treasure in pearls and gems. Marco told his Venetian neighbors of an incredibly rich and advanced country, in which he spent 17 years serving Kublai in high positions--not unlikely, since the Mongols were conquerors and may not have trusted the Chinese (and Marco never learned their language, either). Those neighbors seemed skeptical, nicknaming him "El Milione"--Mr. Million (it may also have come from the name Emilio). The story of his travels might have been lost, except for a fortunate accident.

    Here is how it happened. A few years after Marco's return, in a war against Genoa, he was given command of a ship, was captured and spent a year in prison. There he met a romance writer named Rusticello, told him his story and Rusticello wrote it down. The book which resulted has been widely read ever since.

    And now here are Denis and Fran, young and full of pep, anxious to retrace Marco's steps. Marco's poorly defined and unpaved route, now known as the Silk Road, crossed the lands of many obscure tribes and some high-altitude deserts, but at least he was protected by a letter from Kublai, written on gold. Even though our authors also carried useful letters of endorsement, political realities forced some detours, especially around Iran. In northern Afghanistan they threaded their way amid warfare--that was a violent area even before US was involved. In China, they evaded officials but ended riding a train. Wherever they went, they met locals and sampled food and customs, and Denis took colorful pictures which brighten the book and no doubt enliven the film the two made for public television. Like Marco, they traveled home via Sumatra, first visiting a wild tribe in the rain forest. They arrived at Ceylon aboard a cargo ship whose crew was on deck armed and ready as it passed the pirate-infested straits of Malacca, and on Ceylon itself, they met Sci-Fi author Arthur Clarke.

    This is a book published to accompany a video presentation, but it stands on its own merits and deserves to be savored slowly. Ease into that armchair and enjoy a one-of-a-kind adventure.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 10 June 2009