Marco Polo, along with his father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo, set out from Venice in 1271 on a journey to the court of Kublai Khan. Niccolò and Maffeo had made the journey before, but it was a fist-time and eye-opening experience for young Marco. Between 1271-1275, the merchants sailed the Mediterranean and crossed by land through the Middle East, trekking a route between the Caspian Sea and the Arabian Sea deeper into Asia, eventually reaching Kublai at Shangdu, the Khan’s northern/former capital.
As the Polo family neared the Mongol Empire’s heartland in the vicinity of Mongolia and China, they had to pass through the deserts of Xinjiang, which, today, is the westernmost region of China. The journey through that sandy region made a great impression on Marco Polo. It was a place of beauty, mystery and danger. In particular, the sounds of the desert left the young adventurer awed, in both the senses of the word—fear and wonder.
According to Marco Polo, and corroborated by Chinese sources, the sands around the desert oasis of Luobuzhuang (called Lop by the medieval Venetian merchants) was especially perilous, due to its disorienting landscape and a natural phenomenon that causes eerie sounds to emanate from the desert. Such an environment, especially at night, was known to have caused people to become separated from their traveling companions, a situation which could easily prove fatal. Marco Polo, in a book about his travels, described the local folklore about that noisy desert region, writing, “Many people have become lost and have died in this way. And I can tell you, moreover, that men hear these spirit voices even during the daytime, and it often sounds as if they are accompanied by the strains of many musical instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms” (Marco Polo, The Travels, Book 2). Merchants and their guides, however, were not willing to let the ghostly sands be victorious. Before long, the travelers developed procedures to combat the disorienting influence of the desert.
As told by Marco Polo, his own traveling group put great emphasis on keeping an eye on each other, especially when it came time to set up camp. Innovations were also apparently made to better orient travelers toward their destination and to the locations of their fellow travelers. Marco Polo wrote of these desert travel procedures, stating, “bands of travelers have learned to stay very close together before they go to sleep. They also fasten bells around the necks of all their beasts, in the hope that the sound will keep them from straying off the path” (The Travels, Book 2). Such tactics worked for the Polo merchants, and they safely crossed through the singing sands to eventually reach Kublai Khan’s court by 1275.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Marco Polo traveling in a caravan, dated to 1375, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.