From speed-crazed Italians on narrow roads to traffic control by mutually assumed telepathy, driving can make foreign travel a white-knuckle adventure.
June 25, 2012
With all the excitement of the Olympic games, you might have missed hearing about the premier of “Marco Polo,” performed at the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing. It was a virtuoso ballet, orchestrated in a choreography of,” fearsome energy,” based on his journeys.
It’s no wonder the Chinese love Marco.
According to Polo's 1298 book, “The Travels of Marco Polo,” he was the original Indiana Jones. He implied the civilization of the West was second rate. China, by contrast, was a country where paper had already been invented, books of philosophy could be found, a large encyclopedia had been printed; it was simply far richer in goods, services, and technology than anything in Europe.
Rather than taking offense at Polo's comparison, Westerners embraced it as a romantic fantasy and made it Europe's most popular book. Due, perhaps, to such lavish details as Polo's description of China's Kublai Khan as a mythic leader, a chivalrous "Lord of Lords" who employed 10,000 falconers, 20,000 dog handlers and hosted banquets with 40,000 guests.
The catering bill must have been something.
In 1324, as Polo lay on his deathbed, a priest implored him to retract his "fables." His reply: "I have not told half of what I saw."
Now, 7 centuries later, Polo's credibility again is under attack. Had he been to China, his critics argue, he would have surely reported a few details of 13th-century Chinese life that went unmentioned. Like tea drinking, the binding of women's feet to keep them small, and, a little something hard to ignore, the Great Wall of China.
Could have been the low-lying clouds.
In a 1995 book, "Did Marco Polo Go to China?" Frances Wood, head of the British Library's Chinese department, argues that Marco Polo did not make the fabulous journey he documents in his book. And why, she suggests, "given China’s extensive and even obsessive record-keeping, is there no mention of Marco Polo anywhere in the archives."
But it’s not so easy to dismiss the man with a few hundred well-chosen words.
And it should be mentioned that a century after he was ridiculed as "the man of a million lies," a Renaissance geographer hailed him as "the most diligent investigator of eastern shores." Another reader, Christopher Columbus, who owned a copy of "Travels" and made annotations in the margins, sailed west in hopes of finding a better route to the riches Polo described in the East. And made it.
Who to believe? I prefer the Hollywood version, “The Adventures of Marco Polo.” And if Gary Cooper traveled the Silk Road to China, who are we to dispute it?
Fantasy or reality, Marco Polo got his world to look beyond their collective noses.
Care to share a few great adventures of your own? Either the ones you've had. Or those still residing in that lovely spot the Marco Polo's of this world helped shape.