The Silk Road with Marco Polo

Uggla finalHave you thought about travelling the Silk Road, the legendary network of overland routes from the Mediterranean to eastern China?

You should, and there is no better guide than Marco Polo, the venetian who was the first westerner to do this journey describing what he saw. When Marco travelled from Venice to Beijing 700 years ago it was like going to the dark side of the moon.

Spellbound by Marco Polos book and its mysteries I followed in his steps some years ago. Who were the strange Assassins sect he writes about, or those worshipping an eternal fire in present Iran? What roads did Marco actually take and could they be travelled again? How could he even do this trip in medieval times without modern equipment? The Mongols, occupying most of Asia, were seen as the legions from hell by Christian Europe, so how did Marco dare to engage with them?

Physical Map of Asia

The Silk Road

The so-called Silk Road is a network of roads rather than a single route, leading from eastern China over land to the Mediterranian sea in the west. By Marco Polos time they had been travelled by traders and caravans for more than a thousand years already, but very few people travelled all the way. Trade was mostly done back and forth over parts of the network of routes and between great cities such as the silk centres of China and Kashgar, Bokhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Herat, Merv, Tabriz, Bhagdad and Istanbul. The historical importance of these routes is immense. Empires thrived controlling them and fell to armies following them.

Going all the way today you might want to start in Istanbul and end up in Beijing, like I did, going through Turkey, Iran and then either Afghanistan and Pakistan or through the central Asian former Soviet republics and finally across China. It’s a 4 000 miles / 7000 km journey as the crow flies, much longer on the ground.

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A tricky route

The “oveland trip” from Europe to India was popular during the 1960s and 70s and more or less for anyone though mostly attracting young people, many of which were “hippies” in search of alternative lifeways and seduced by Asian religions or philosophies. The hippie trail eastwards came to an abrupt end though, precisely in 1979 and due to political upheavels. The soviets invaded Afghanistan this year and a religious movement dethroned the Shah of Iran, creating an Islamic republic.

Since then there have been wars in Afghanistan and from time to time impossible to pass through Iran. Travelling the Silk Road today is tricky for the long and arduous road itself. You are, after all, journeying a considerable part of the globe and having to handle the bureacracy of the many countries you will have to pass is a trick in itself.

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In a way, Marco Polo had it easier. The Mongols may have been feared by the Christian leaders of Europe, but for smooth traders like Marco and his elder venetian relatives they were no difficulty. The same Mongol empire ruling most of the Silk Road area rather made things easier once the Polos had befriended the great khan. The Polo family even acted as ambassadors for the khan of the Mongols to the Pope, and vice versa, representing the Pope at the court of the khan.

Following Marco Polo

The curious thing about Marco Polo and his book are its many riddles which have kept historians and adventurers going for a long time. Marco recorded his route and his impressions of countries and cities, but he also recorded the many stories and legends told to him along the way. I had the opportunity to investigate some of them, which I will return to.

I followed Marco Polos Silk Road route through Turkey, visiting the lost city of Ayas, spent three weeks tracing his roads in Iran which turned out a very hospitable country to me and where I managed to see Shiraz, Persepolis and the holy city of Meshed. In Afghanistan I stayed with a mujahedin guerilla fraction in Herat before flying to Pakistan and going by the ruff Karakorum highway across the Himalayas to Kashgar in the Taklamakan desert area of western China. I visited the famous Dunhuang caves by the desert and rode steam trains through northern China to Beijing.

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Venice – an historical guide

Uggla finalVenice is beautiful, terrible and a great historical city. You will find fantastic historical sites to see and the main sight is the city itself, but choose carefully when and how to go.

Adriatic pearl and predator – historical outline
Refugees fleeing from invading Germanic peoples in the 5th century made a new home for themselves on islands in the marshy lagoons of Venetia.

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Venice became a lonely east-roman outpost in the west while the rest of Italy fell to invaders. Not much else to do in the swamp, the venetians became master boat-builders and traders in the Mediterranean. Before long they created a republic of their own.

They built a network of Mediterranean colonies and almost monopolized trade here, making the city prosperous in the 11th to 16th centuries by predatory pre-capitalism. The republic declined but lasted until 1797 and then soon became part of modern Italy.

The wealthy Venetian trade aristocracy built sublime palaces and was great patrons and collectors of art, making the city more or less one great art museum.

Around the Canal Grande
The main sight to see is the city itself. Its beauty is captivating; its historical layers are discernible in architecture and the best way to appreciate it to stroll around, taking the occasional taxi boat. If you do not come by ship, you will meet it first stepping out of the railway station. This puts you right on the Canal Grande about a kilometer’s walk from the centre at Piazza San Marco.

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Some palaces along Canal Grande are 12th or 13th century and in Venetian-Byzantine style with loggias, round arches and polychrome marbles. Many details such as columns and sculptures are of byzantine origin. The more common, though striking Venetian Gothic architecture of the following two centuries, with pointed arches, is seen splendidly in the Doge’s Palace or the Ca’ d’Oro. There are fine renaissance and baroque palaces as well and combined with the soft Adriatic light and the ever present water, the impression is mesmerizing.

Tourism and crowding is unimaginable. Be strongly advised to go in May or October. It’s expensive to stay in the city itself and if you’re not big on spending, I suggest staying in Mestre on the land side. It’s just a short train-ride away.

Piazza San Marco
St Mark’s Square is the major public square of Venice and here you find expensive but great cafés, the cathedral Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and, not least, the Campanile, which is great to climb for spectacular views of the city.

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Doge’s Palace
The palace of the Doges is a main symbol of the city, has the residence chambers of the Doges and the impressive Chamber of the Great Council, all decorated with great artworks. It’s a 14th and 15th century building though much changed, rebuilt and reconstructed. The palace is connected to a prison by the famous Ponte dei Sospiri, or bridge of sighs.

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Basilica di San Marco
The gold mosaics of the interior roofs of the Basilica will take your breath away. They were started in the 11th century but completed much later and has a complicated, religious narrative program.

Venetian merchants stole the alleged relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria in the 9th century. This act of theft gave the basilica its name and Venice its patron saint along with the winged lion symbol of the saint and the city.

The four bronze horses on the facade (now copies) and the famous statue of the Four Tetrarchs in an outer corner were all stolen from Constantinople at the sack of the city by the fourth Crusade in 1204 in which Venice played a significant part.

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There is a plethora of museums in Venice and what you should see is up to your preferences. I suggest visiting at least one or two of the palaces and why not the popular Ca’ Rezzonico or Museo di Palazzo Grimani. Museo di San Marco inside the Basilica lets you see the bronze horses in original as well as more of the cathedral itself.

The Museo Storico Navale is somewhat elderly but full of stuff and tells the story of Venice as a great maritime republic.

The Arsenal was the city’s main naval centre from the 12th century onwards with dockyards, armories and the like. It’s a large harbor basin surrounded by naval installations of all sorts and produced both military and merchant vessels.

This may have been the greatest industrial complex in Europe before the industrial revolution, Galileo Galilei worked there for a time and it is mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.

By its main gate, the Porta Magna, stands a famous great stone lion that was taken from Piraeus harbor in Greece and most interestingly has a rune inscription on it that must have been made by Scandinavians in byzantine times.

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House of Marco Polo
Finally, why not have a look at the site of the house of Marco Polo at Corte del Milion? The house where he lived after having returned to the city in 1295 is not preserved. Some details, such as arches, may have been reused from his house though that is not certain. The surroundings is a good place for a stroll and for reflections on travel and on Venice anyway.