Although Polo introduced European readers to the wonders of China, the great voyage from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan owes as much if not more to the courage and daring of two older Polos. Polo’s father, Niccolò, and uncle Maffeo first braved the 5,600-mile trip in 1253 despite a popular western belief that the Mongols who ruled China were a bloodthirsty lot who would butcher the strangers on sight. In fact, Mongol emperor Kublai Khan proved to be a curious monarch who made the visitors feel so welcome that they returned to China, with young Marco, on a second journey that began in 1271.
It took the Polos three and a half years to travel from Venice, located in modern Italy, to the Chinese court of Kublai Kahn. Nearly three decades later Marco’s Description of the World, co-written by Rustichello da Pisa, introduced readers to an emperor who found the Venetian youth “wise and far-sighted above the ordinary, and the great Khan was very well disposed to him.” Marco spent 17 years in China, often traveling the country on diplomatic missions that broadened his understanding of the Eastern customs and way of life.