5 Things Marco Polo Discovered on His Travels

Find out the many strange experiences and encounters legendary adventurer Marco Polo uncovered during his Eurasian travels.

Oct 21, 2022By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History
marco polo leaves venice mosai


Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant, most well-known for his book The Travels, penned while he was a prisoner, after almost a quarter of a century of travelling through Asia in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. He was born in around 1254, and travelled along the Silk Road, documenting his experiences of fascinating and brand-new cultures which he came across. As well as cultural, social, religious, and language differences, Marco Polo also came across some other interesting things, five of which are outlined below.


1. Marco Polo’s Encounter with Crocodiles

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Mosaic of Marco Polo, displayed in the Palazzo Doria-Tursey, Genoa, Italy, 1867, via Historyofinformation.com


We may now think of crocodiles as something we would only see in a wildlife documentary on television, or in a zoo or safari park. However, imagine describing a crocodile to people who had never even heard of one, let alone seen one. That is what Marco Polo had to do when he was on his travels in a place he called Kara-jang, which we now know as Yunnan Province, China.


He came across the reptilians and described them as “loathsome creatures”. He went on to add that “their mouth is big enough to swallow a man at one gulp.” The sheer fascination is clear when reading The Travels, although some historians and naturalists have disputed whether this really was a crocodile he was describing, or whether he used some generous poetic licence and sprinkled in some descriptions from Chinese mythical dragons.


medieval crocodile
Medieval depiction of a crocodile from Marco Polo’s time, c. 13th century, via the British Library


Marco Polo describes the creature as a “serpent”, identifying it as a separate animal from snakes, which he mentions earlier, and is likely already familiar with, having hailed from Europe where there are various native snakes. The descriptions are quite accurate for a crocodile too, and suggest that he has observed them for some time.

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He also goes on to mention how the natives captured crocodiles in order to sell their gall bladders for a high price. The natives laid down traps where the crocodiles made their way from their dens to the water. In these traps, they placed a razor-sharp steel blade facing towards the crocodile’s den. They would then cover the blade with sand so that it was invisible. When the crocodile made its way down to the water to hunt and feed, it would pierce itself on the blade and cut right through its body. The natives would then know the crocodile was dead when birds were hovering above it.


They extracted the gall bladders and sold them for a high price, due to its medicinal uses. Marco Polo described three main uses of it: to treat a person who had been bitten by a “mad dog”; to relieve the pains of childbirth; and when any person “has a growth” — it was used to treat the lump, and the growth would allegedly subsidise after a day or two.


2. Paper Money

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Portrait of Kublai Khan, artist unknown, c. 1294, via Britannica


Another discovery he made which was unknown to Europeans at the time was currency in the form of paper money. Marco Polo came across this in his travels in the city of Khan-balik, which literally translates to ‘City of the Khan’. This city was in what is now central Beijing. It was the winter capital of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty of China, under the reign of Kublai Khan, a great-great grandson of Genghis Khan.


Marco Polo noted how the Khan had paper money created for him for ease of transport, and to carry lighter loads of cash around, rather than tons of metal coins. The money was created from the bark of mulberry tree. The fine bast between the bark and the wood of the trees was pounded down, and stretched out with glue, and then marked with the Khan’s seal.


Marco Polo also attempted to value the currency with familiar European currencies, adding that the smallest note was the same in value to half a small tornesel, which was a small silver coin. The largest of the notes were equivalent in value to ten gold bezants, which was approximately 90 times the value of a tornesel.


As for the amount of the money created, Marco Polo states that “the Khan has such a quantity made that with it he could buy all the treasure in the world.” He also added that the subjects of the Khan willingly paid their taxes in paper money, or other precious items such as gemstones, pearls, and gold.


3. Postal Service

marco polo route
Marco Polo’s route, via Britannica


One of the most highly-regarded things that Marco Polo wrote about with great vigor in The Travels was the postal service under Kublai Khan. Marco Polo wrote about how Khan-balik was a focal point of communication throughout the Mongol Empire, and had to have an efficient postal service in order to be able to communicate efficiently with other imperial locations.


The system used post-horses, whereby riders would only have to ride a maximum of 25 miles over the main roads to the next location where another post-horse and rider would be waiting to carry the message further.


At these post-horse stations, there were “300 or 400 horses ready” to carry the messages, and comfortable lodgings for both the initial horse and rider to rest and recover, ready for their return journey or next mission. Marco Polo also mentioned how even throughout the most remote regions of the empire, there were postal stations with horses and accommodation, but these were stationed every 35 or 40 miles instead.


It was not just horses that helped the Mongol postal service work like a well-oiled machine: “unmounted couriers” were also present throughout the empire. Across the main roads, these unmounted couriers, who were expert runners, were stationed every three miles. They would run to the next station, three miles away, and pass on a message to the next runner, who would do the same, and so on and so forth until the message found its desired recipient.


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Horse and Groom, handscroll by Zhao Yong, China, Yong Dynasty, 1347, via the Smithsonian


These runners also wore large belts, decorated with bells, so that they could be heard before they were seen. This would the give the next runner the right amount of time to get ready, so that they could run straight away to the next location. This way, Marco Polo adds, it took these runners “no more than a day and a night to cover ten days’ journey, or two days and two nights to cover twenty days’ journey.”


Marco Polo also added that it was not just letters and notes that these runners delivered. In the fruit season, he wrote, fruit gathered in the morning in the city of Khan-balik could be delivered to the Khan by the next evening in the city of Xanadu (the summer capital of the Yuan Dynasty, now a city in ruins in Mongolia), ten days’ journey away.


The sheer efficiency of the postal system amazed Marco Polo, and it is little surprise as to why. In Europe, merchants and messengers were often sent with messages via horseback, but they would not sprint and run like the Mongols, so communications would take so much longer.


4. Spices

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A seventeenth-century French depiction of the Spice Islands, Indonesia, c. 17th century, via cilubintang.com


Another commodity that was unusual to many Europeans which Marco Polo discovered on his travels were huge quantities of spices. This would inevitably go on to inspire future generations of merchants to go out and discover (and sell) these spices back in Europe for their own profit, and to coin the term the “Spice Islands”, a refererence to the Malaku Islands, in Indonesia due to their huge quantities of mace, nutmeg and cloves which were found there.


The spices which Marco Polo found varied greatly, depending on where he was in Asia. For example, he described the signature nutty taste of sesame oil while in Afghanistan, and the ginger and cassia found in Peking — flavors which we still associate with Chinese and other oriental cuisines today.


He also wrote that many of the poorer people in China and India used vast quantities of garlic in their food — even mentioning that poorer people who were around at the capturing of the crocodiles chopped up the crocodiles’ livers and ate them raw, in a garlic-based sauce for flavour.


maluku spice islands
The Malaku Spice Islands, Indonesia, by Jordan Siva, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the major spices which he came across was pepper, and there was a lucrative trade for it throughout Asia, which would soon reach Europe. In the city of Hangchow (modern-day Hangzhou, in eastern China), he wrote that 10,000 pounds of pepper was brought into the city every day.


Further south, in Java and other islands in the South China Sea, he described how even more huge quantities of pepper were planted here (along with nutmeg and cloves) which was then transported to mainland China and sold on throughout the kingdom. Over on the Malabar Coast of India, he described how there was an abundance of ginger, cinnamon, and pepper. In all, this is still true — large quantities of these spices still grow here today, and are transported across the world. They are also key components in Indian cooking as we know it today.


5. Marco Polo’s Shock at Marriage Customs

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Marco Polo leaving Venice, from Johannes and his school, illumination, c. 1400, via the Bodleian Library, Oxford


Throughout his travels, Marco Polo came across various different marriage customs. In a province called Pem, south of the Taklamakan Desert in China, he wrote how women took husbands almost as they pleased. If her husband had been gone on a journey of more than twenty days, she could legally take another husband. Equally, when men had been gone for over twenty days, they could legally take another wife. This concept of marriage is ridiculous to us today in the twenty-first century, let alone to Europeans in the Middle Ages!


Marco Polo also describes an unusual marriage custom of the Tartars (a derogatory medieval term for the Mongols) in Cathay (China). If a Mongol couple had a male child who died in infancy (four years old or below, according to Marco Polo), and another couple had a female child who had also unfortunately died aged four or below, the two couples would arrange a marriage ceremony for the two dead children. They would draw up a marriage contract, then burn it, believing that the wind would carry the smoke up into the air and would reach the two dead children in the next life, confirming them as husband and wife in the afterlife. They would also scatter food from the wedding feast, and draw pictures of slaves, and then burn these so that these would also reach them in the afterlife.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.