Chapter 5Marco Polo and the Two Admirals of the Sea

Hark, now hear the sailors cry, smell the sea, and feel the sky, let your soul and spirit fly, into the mystic.…

—Van Morrison

There is some myth and uncertainty regarding Marco Polo's travels and adventures in China, but there is no disputing that he was the first European to document in great detail the wonders to be found in the Middle Kingdom.

Marco Polo was born in Venice in 1254 to a successful and adventurous family of merchants. His father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo, became wealthy traders in Europe and Asia. Eventually, their travels brought them to the Far East where they joined a diplomatic mission to the court of the great Mongol, Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. There, over several years, they became intimate with and advisors to the ruler of the largest empire the world had ever seen. They traveled back to Venice in 1269 and, almost immediately, they planned their return to China and the Khan.

When they set out in 1271, young Marco Polo joined them for the adventure. It took them four years of brutal travel before they reached Kublai Khan at his summer palace, known as Xanadu. By this time, Marco had absorbed the sights and sounds of the Middle East and Central Asia, but nothing had prepared him for the splendor and plenty of China. Not long after his arrival, Marco Polo earned the admiration and trust of the Khan—so much so that he allowed him full access to his Empire and sent him ...

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