British historian Man (Samurai: A History, 2014, etc.) chronicles his journey to Asia where Marco Polo first led the Western traveler. The book was first published in the U.K. in 2009 as Xanadu.
Interest in Polo’s 13th-century travel account seemingly never wanes, as more knowledge is gained about the Mongol Empire in particular. The author has sifted through Polo’s fanciful tale—ghosted by his fellow inmate in the Genoa prison, romance author Rustichello da Pisa—separating fairy-tale self-aggrandizement from truth. Moreover, Man has trekked across China in pursuit of the site of Kublai Khan’s legendary “upper capital” and summer palace, Shangdu (“Xanadu” in English, thanks to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s dreamy poem), where Polo would have stayed. Man even reconstructed the “Pleasure Dome,” virtually and in painstaking description. Marco’s 17-year stay at the court of the khan was preceded by a first visit by his father and uncle, and the khan greeted them rapturously, eager to learn about Europe and Christianity (he tolerated the Nestorians, as well as Buddhists and Daoists). Marco was 17 when he made the three-and-a-half-year trip back to Xanadu with his relatives, through eastern Turkey, Armenia, Iraq and into Persia, a route carefully plotted by Man (with useful maps). Polo’s observations are compelling, but his omissions are intriguing, and Man rushes to fill them with accounts of his own travels with a guide across the Asian steppes and desert. Polo’s admiration for Kublai Khan is remarkable. He was amazed by the beauty of the women and paper money, yet he did not mention foot binding or the Great Wall and lied about providing the engineering prowess for the catapult necessary to break the siege of Xiangyang in 1273.
Marvelous tales that first inspired the Western traveler to see and learn more.