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The Travels

Polo, Marco
13th century
Text

Marco Polo, The Travels, translated by Nigel Cliff, Penguin Classics (New York: Penguin, 2015), 150-153.

Marco Polo was an Italian merchant, explorer, and writer from Venice. In 1271, when he was a teenager, he traveled with his father and uncle from Venice to the Khanate of the Great Khan in China. He stayed in the Mongol khanate until 1295. Kublai Khan hired him as an official, because Polo spoke many languages and the Mongols often hired foreigners to help govern their lands. When he got home to Venice, Polo wrote about his many adventures and travels. In this excerpt he describes the Mongol postal system. Besides couriers on foot, there were also couriers on horseback. There were stations with fresh horses, food, and shelter all along the main roads. How do you think this postal system would help the Mongols rule their huge empire? How do you think this system would help merchants and other travelers?

Vocabulary

Khanbaliq: the capital of China under the Mongols; today it is called Beijing

province: region of the country, like a state of the United States

courier: messenger

 

ten days’ journey: approximately 300 miles; at this time, most roads were not paved and people traveled on horses, in wagons, or on foot. On horseback they could travel between 20 and 50 miles per day; on foot and in wagons they could travel between 5 and 20 miles per day.

Venetian adventurer and merchant Marco Polo traveled to China in 1271 and lived in the area until 1295. For 17 years he held high posts in Kublai Khan’s administration. Kublai Khan sent Polo on special missions to the remote parts of the empire. Polo knew languages of East Asia, such as Turkish, Persian, Uighur, and Mongol; in combination with his great passion for traveling, it made him a great man for the job. After his return to Venice, Marco Polo created his famous book Il Milione, known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo, about his adventures and work for Kublai Khan. In the excerpt cited, Polo describes the postal system created by the Mongols called yam. Established during the rule of Chinggis Khan, it was greatly expanded by Kublai Khan. The stations on the major routes were set up about 20 miles apart on average and were fully equipped to accommodate messengers, merchants, and other travelers with food, shelter, and horses.

Now you may take my word for it that many roads lead from this city of Khanbaliq through many provinces; or, rather, one road leads to one province while another leads to another. …
The fact is that between one post and the next, at intervals of three miles, there are villages consisting of as many as forty houses occupied by unmounted couriers who also play a part in the emperor’s [Kublai Khan] postal service. I will tell you how. They wear large belts covered all round with bells, so that when they are on the move they can be heard a long way off. They always run at full tilt, and never for more than three miles. And the other couriers who are waiting three miles down the road clearly hear them while they are still some way off and stand at the ready. As soon as the first courier arrives, the second takes what he is carrying, along with a little ticket given to him by the clerk, and sets off to run the second leg of three miles, at the end of which the handover is repeated. And you can take my word for it that by means of these couriers the emperor gets news from places ten days’ journey away in a day and a night. For you should know that these runners cover the distance of a ten-day journey in a day and a night, and in two days and nights they bring news from places twenty days’ journey away; and so in ten days and nights the emperor would have news from places a hundred days’ journey away.