Did Polo Really Go To China?

WallsAn article published in the Telegraph yesterday questions whether Marco Polo really went to China. This is one of those questions that can never be definitively answered. I certainly have my opinion on the matter, having read a great deal of the literature, including three versions of Marco Polo’s work.

In the past the major crux of the argument falls on Polo’s failure to mention the Great Wall, foot-binding, tea drinking and chop-sticks.

Let’s take these one by one: the Great Wall in Polo’s time quite possibly might have not been so great. You have to remember the Ming Dynasty, which came into power in 1368–long after Polo passed from the scene–built the wall that we see in movies and photos and legend today. Up until that point the great wall was better described as a series of long walls across the northern and western frontiers. But they were sorely neglected during the Yuan Dynasty. After all, why would Mongols, nomads par excellence, build walls?

As for foot binding. Let me be blunt and very politically incorrect: why would a European man of the 13th century notice a woman’s feet?

Tea drinking and chop-sticks? All I can say is that in my travel writing I have missed some very, very obvious things. Sometimes I missed them because I didn’t find them interesting to me. At others I missed them because I had been ‘in country’ so long that they no longer seemed important, or had become so commonplace to the experience as to be beyond notice. Kind of like having tea in the UK.

All that being said, I think there is some very real substance to the latest critique:

”When he describes Kublai Khan’s fleet he talks about the pitch that was used to make ships’ hulls watertight. He used the word chunam, which in Chinese and Mongol means nothing. In fact it is the Persian word for pitch. It’s also odd that instead of using, as he does in most instances, local names to describe places, he used Persian terms for Mongol and Chinese place names.”

If textual analysis bears out that many of the words Polo used were indeed Persian in origin, when there were very real Chinese or Mongol words for identical things, well, that’s problematic. Although, having a bit of experience with Mongolian (sounds like a cat trying to spit out a furball and eat peanut butter at the same time) and Chinese, which is tonal and quite difficult to transliterate, I sympathise if Polo found it easier to to transliterate an Indo-European tongue into Italian. (But this again raises the question of what role Rusticello played in the process. Remember, Polo didn’t write his memoirs, he dictated them to a French romance writer while in a Genoese prison.)

It’s a big if. I haven’t read the Italian archeologist’s full story of the account so I can’t say. But let’s suppose this is true and Polo ends up being known as a fraud like Mandeville. Who, you ask? Mandeville was for about 300 years, just as popular as Polo in the European imagination and in some cases, moreso. He humanized the other in a way no European had yet to do. Of course, Mandeville, it was later discovered, had cobbled together medieval accounts in a monastery in northern England. He never traveled at all. Regardless, Mandeville’s manuscript was included in Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic and influenced many other early-modern European explorers.

So, does it really matter in the end if Polo never made it past the Black Sea? If he ends up being a semi-fraud? No, I don’t think it matters. Polo expanded the European imagination at a critical point in European history. There is a direct line of influence from Marco Polo to Henry the Navigator, the great Portuguese prince who subsidized the expeditions around Africa and into Asia via the Indian Ocean. That influence is incontrovertible and really cannot ever be taken away from Polo. Polo didn’t begin the great age of European exploration, but he influenced in vast ways that reverberate to this day.

On Characters With Character

Books of the Chinese Silk RoadThe last few weeks have been tough. I’ve been battling a recurrent infection, one that seems to crop up once a year. It’s pretty dreadful. By the time it is in full swing I am lethargic, full of malaise and generally feeling sorry for myself. I told myself, last time it occurred, that I would go to the doctor immediately once the symptoms appeared. Due to America’s horrible health-care system I had to wait two weeks to see a specialist, which was more than enough time for the symptoms to worsen. I walked into the doctor’s office with a significant gait in my left leg. He looked at me and shook his head. “Why didn’t you come earlier,” he asked.

“Had to wait for approval from my HMO. Took a week. You were booked the next week,” I said.

The doctor looked at me kindly and said, “next time call me and I’ll prescribe you something before you come in, okay?”

He’s certainly one of the best doctors I’ve ever interacted with. He has an exceptional bedside manner, listens to everything I tell him, queries me fully, often time spending upwards of thirty minutes with me. For a doctor that’s priceless.

The prescription is for a heavy anti-biotic. The kind where you spend 10 minutes in the sun and it leaves you feeling like you’ve crossed the Taklamakan without water.

As a side note, I’ve read on several occasions that ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘goes in, doesn’t come out,’ in an ancient Chinese, or possible Tokharian dialect. Having flown over the Taklamakan several times and circumambulated its edges, I have to say that I agree.

One May when my father and I were in Dun Huang, the last great oasis before the Taklamakan, I got to thinking about Xuanzang, a 7th century Buddhist monk who sneaked his way past the T’ang guards at the Jade Gate, into the Taklamakan. He then proceeded to cross it, disproving its meaning as a toponym, but no matter. He then crossed the Tien Shan, chilled at a Buddhist monastery in Samarkand–just a few years before the Arabs irrupted into Central Asia, and then did a backwards dogleg into Afghanistan and India where he spent a decade plus collecting Buddhist manuscripts to take back to China.
Dun Huang Dune
Buddhism was not new to China, but it’s safe to say its roots were nothing compared to those which dug deep after Xuanzang’s return to Chang’an, the capital of the T’ang empire. What course might Chinese Buddhism taken were it not for Xuanzang’s efforts at travel, discovery and exploration? And what course might my life have taken had I not been exposed to Chan Buddhism in China in 1999?

This diminutive monk spent his remaining days translating the Buddhist corpus is a spartan monastery cell, eschewing all glory and worldly goods and his good works echo down the centuries to my own time and my own debt of gratitude to him.

Now that’s a character with character. Central Asia is littered with them, from the monstrous Timur–aka Tamerlane, who left a trail of human skulls from Damascus to India–to the poignant Omar Khayyam.

I tend to think about people like Xuanzang and Polo and ibn Battutah when I am feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes it works: I feel better, realizing my pedestrian concerns, minor ailments and the general discontent I feel with my post-modern life do get the better of me.

But sometimes it fails: I want to be Polo, or Rabban Sauma, Wilfred Thesiger, people who lived a full life so far away from home. People who made the world their home, citizens of this great and tragic blue ball spinning off into eternity.

And then I get a text message and the world comes roaring right back at me.

Alone And Small, Surrounded By The World

Lost in Gansu in HDR
We weren’t lost, but there were moments, out in the harsh glare of the Gobi that we felt it. In this part of Gansu nothing grows. The soil is a rough gravel–ten thousand miles of conglomerate and worn sandstone turning to dust, empty. More barren than any desert I’ve ever seen, except the Rub-al-Qali.

“Out here,” I wrote in my journal, “listening to sand whistle off the dunes one feels alone and small. Everything is so much bigger, in real time, than it is anywhere I’ve ever been.”

Like all good photos, this one was an accident. I was taking test shots of the mountains in the background. If you look closely you can see a jagged line, hanging on the horizon like low lying clouds in a luciferin haze. When I uploaded the photo later that evening it was this shot that caught my eye, and in the days to come I returned to it many times.

An epochal feeling pervades the scene, as the rough edge of the Kunlun Shan, that great rippling sheet of scraping rocks crumples into the Tarim Basin.  Uplift and subsidence before me as geology comes alive, the power of unfathomable forces in the silence of a cool April afternoon.

But more than that it has a feeling, and although all is still there is movement in the photo. Gao Xuan, our driver, runs fingers behind his neck, in consternation, looking backwards at the young Khazakh standing out in the middle of no where—what was he doing out there, dressed in a suit jacket, fifty miles from the nearest town and miles away from any water? Evocative of the entire day, from Dun Huang all the way to the Jade Gate, this curious meeting of Han Chinese, Kazakh and American not three miles from that great and ancient Eurasian entrepot, the Jade Gate. History repeating itself in an off-rhyme; Occident, Orient and Nomad. Modernity eye to eye with the past.

And the sign in the foreground? I have no idea what it says. Although in my imagination it says something like, “Welcome To The Last Outpost of the Great T’ang Empire.”

Alone and small, surrounded by the immensity of the world. There might be a word for that, but for now I will settle for a picture.

Nota bene: Other photos from Gansu and Xinjiang can be found here, here, here and here.

Silk Road Trivia

I’ve been meaning to blog about this article for a while now, and since I am utterly bored here in Bangkok–I mean, anyone who blogs about Thomas Friedman and evolutionary questions concerning Battlestar Galactica in a single 24 hour period must have too much time on his hands–I figured now would be a good time to do so.

It’s unfortunate that Chinese imperial politics are keeping the Tarim Mummies away from the scientific community. The proper study of the mummies would more than likely reveal that their origins are from a far, far earlier period than either the Uighurs would be happy with or the Chinese.

In fact, the vast majority of the oldest mummies are more than likely of Indo-European extraction who probably spoke some form of Tocharian. The Tocharian language, the language of the Tarim Basin until the 10th century when the Uighurs invaded, is a distant cousin of the modern Indo-European languages. What’s even more interesting about Tocharian is that it has more in common with the Celtic languages that are now mostly extinct than with the Indian or even Iranian languages one would expect them to share affinities with. This doesn’t mean the mummies are the long lost ancestors of Molly Magee, however. It does mean that at the time when they broke off from the main body of Indo-European speakers was about the same time the Celts did.

Their languages evolved in similar ways, but that’s a whole ‘nother post on linguistics, one where I’d have to get into the whole raging debate about Indo-European languages, their origins and whatnot. I just don’t want to go there today, bored or not.

Another interesting aspect of this is Mair’s contention–a scholar I was unaware of before reading the article–is that human migrations are far more common than previously believed. As the article notes:

he says that he has been obsessed with pinpointing the origins of the mummies, intent on proving a theory dear to him: that the movement of peoples throughout history is far more common than previously thought.

I personally find this quite fascinating because in the course of researching my own book on the Silk Road I developed a similar thesis to his. Similar but not quite the same. Mine is also based on the findings of a Danish archaeologist named Karl Randsborg, who has a novel but quite compelling theory on human migrations and barbarian invasions. You’ll be able to read about it more when the book is finished. Needless to say, all this is very inconvenient to the Chinese in their claim that the Tarim Basin has been as indisputable part of the Chinese empire since General Pan Chao conquered the area in the first century AD.

The historical record is much at odds with the official Chinese line. There has been consistent Chinese influence in the region since Pan Chao’s time, but it has been punctuated by stretches of time–some of them quite long–when the Tarim Basin was ruled by nomads, Buddhists, Manicheans, Nestorians, city states, Mongols and Turks. To this day, massive Chinese immigration aside, it remains a melting pot.

If only history, even our own, would just fit nicely into the party line then everything would be ok, you know what I mean?

The ‘Conversation’

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long, long time. Finally, after traveling through Cambodia it coalesced into something meaningful. It’s about a ‘Conversation’ that the developed nations of the world and the undeveloped nations of the world are having. And it is a conversation that is going to get more intense in the next two decades. It’s a simple conversation, but one I do not think the developed world understands. I also don’t think the undeveloped world understands it either. Or, rather, neither side understands the stakes, both are in denial about it and it isn’t going away.

I’ve seen 43 independent nations on this planet. The majority of them have been developed countries, or those just on the cusp of developed status when I was there. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Mexico being the top four in that category. For those of you who’ve been to Mexico and don’t consider it developed, well, visit Ethiopia or Cambodia or India and compare and contrast. Mexicans have it much better than most of the world. The reason immigration is so intense is that America has had so much better. And that is the main point. The conversation is this: there is no way all the inhabitants of this planet are ever going to have a standard of living equivalent to that which we have in the West. It’s not going to happen. And those in the undeveloped world I believe are in just as much denial about it as those of us in the West who aren’t talking about it. I’m not a Malthusian by any means, but I’ve seen enough of the world, enough of the deforestation in place like China, Malaysia, Cambodia to know that there isn’t enough wood. I’ve been to the Middle East and know there isn’t enough oil. I’ve seen countries like Ethiopia where famine is just one poor rainy season away. Too many places on this planet are on the brink of systemic ecological breakdown. China being chief among them. The ecological devastation in China is immense beyond words.

As I said, there is no way all the inhabitants of this planet are ever going to have a standard of living equivalent to that which we have in the West. So something is going to have to give. And I don’t know what that means. Does it mean the West will see a decline in living standards? Will some global cataclysm occur to change the dynamics? I just don’t know. Mind you, I’m not an alarmist. But I know enough about history to realize the worst can happen–and will. Anyway, these thoughts, as I see above, are still ill-formed. But it struck me as I drove across Cambodia that there was no way they would ever have our standard of living and it saddened me. But it also disturbed me on a very deep and profound historical level. I guess you could call it one of those, “what does it all mean,” moments. Color me confused.

Frank’s Cousins Or Han Gao-Tzu?

Penguins!So, I’m in Saigon and the stomach bug seems to have experienced its Waterloo yesterday. Now that I’m feeling better it’s time to start thinking about my next moves. I’m definitely going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. That goes without saying. But as to what comes next? I’m actually rethinking my plans. It seems the boat from Singapore to India is pretty regular, running every twenty days or so, which makes this method of travel reliable and relatively cheap. It also means I can put off the journey for any amount of time to see some other places in the region I really want to see.

One of those is the Komodo Islands in Indonesia. I’ve always wanted to see a komodo dragon up close and personal (although not too close, as one bite would lead to massive infection and quite possibly death). I’d love to see one of those six to eight feet bad boys eat a live goat. That would be cool. And besides, it would give me a chance to visit East Timor and do some reporting on the place for The Young Turks. But it’s a damn long haul down there. I’d have to backtrack all the way down the peninsula (I’ll have to anyways to catch the Tiger Breeze) and then travel down Sumatra, Java and catch a ferry to an island in the Flores Sea. Add to all that, a new country, new bacteria, and more damned heat. I know to you winterbound folks up Minnesota and Canada way that’s a pretty babyish thing to whine about, but I’m sick of the rain. The 75 degree weather in Da Lat was a nice reminder of what fall should be like. And it is November, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now in this steamy South-East Asian metropolis they call Saigon.

Which leads me to option two: I’ve been offered a short-term teaching gig in Xi’an, China. It’s only for one semester, mid-December through late April. It’s part time, includes housing and the pay is reasonable. The benefit is that it is Xi’an–the imperial T’ang capital, a place I have visited twice and written about in my book. And it would afford me some time to explore the battlefield where the Xiongnu beat back the great Han army of Han Gao-Tzu two thousand years ago. It was a pivotal battle in Chinese history. And any chance to explore the arid Ordos Loop is a chance I’d really like to take. I’d also be able to experience some cooler weather, maybe cooler than I’d like, but still. It would also give me a chance to brush up on my Mandarin and Xi’an is the absolute best springboard into Central Asia. It’d be quite easy to take the Khunjerab down into Pakistan as soon as it thawed and then into Afghanistan.

We’ll see what happens. I’m still waiting on some more info from Xi’an, but I’m really leaning that way right now. But it would mean no komodo dragons. And I think it would make Frank very mad!

The Sleeper Bus

A Sleeper BusEver wondered what a sleeper bus looks like? Well, wonder no more. This photo is from the bus I took from Hoi An to Saigon. (I’m just not going to type the whole frigging name anymore.)

I’ve taken them before, but only in China. One time I took a sleeper bus for 47 hours between Golmud in Qinhai, China to Lhasa, Tibet.

It was sheer hell.

Most of the trip was spent at 4,000 meters or higher in a bus full of spitting, vomiting and farting Chinese. There were plenty of Westerners on the bus that got sick from the altitude as well.

But as buses go, sleeper buses are great. You’ve got enough personal space to be comfortable, the windows open and they stop frequently for food and other necessities.

All in all, not a bad way to travel. Besides, a flight would have cost $80 to $100. The bus? It cost $6 for a twenty four hour trip.

Besides, I got to see countryside roll past me in the window of the bus that I would never have seen on a plane and that is what really counts.