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Marco Polo (1254-1324) was an Italian explorer reputed to be one of the first Europeans to cross Asia. In 1271 the 17-year-old set off for China from Venice, accompanied by his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo. They took three years to get there, travelling via Palestine, Persia, central Asia, and across the Gobi desert in Mongolia, reaching Beijing in 1274. Marco visited the court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in 1275. Kublai Khan made the Europeans very welcome, and took a liking to Marco, who became a government official in China. He spent 17 years at Kublai Khan's court. His account of life there showed that the Mongols in China now lived the life of luxury promised them earlier by Genghis Khan.
Marco was sent on many missions to distant parts of his vast empire, even making him governor of a province. In 1284 Marco became China's envoy to India. His return to Venice in 1295 sparked great interest in the East. In 1298, Marco was locked up in Genoa, Italy. There he dictated the story of his journey to a fellow prisoner called Rustichello. The tale amazed Europeans and was translated into several languages; it was widely read.
The Polos brought home a fortune in precious stones, and fabulous tales of the wealth and magnificence of China. The use of paper money had begun in China in the 7th century, and Marco wrote about it in his account. Venetian merchants, who still used gold and silver coins as currency, could not believe this. He told terrifying tales of wickerwork kites. These hoisted live prisoners into the sky, both to test the wind and to bring good luck before ships sailed. Few of the prisoners survived. Polo described Eastern springs that gushed oil. Europeans had doubts, but Polo had not lied: he had seen the Baku oilfields in what is now Azerbaijan. He spoke of rocks that could be ground up and spun into a fireproof cloth: they were asbestos rocks, well known in China, but unheard-of in 13th-century Europe. In around 1300 he referred to a mythical southern continent.
Italy owes two of its most famous dishes, pasta and ice cream, to Marco Polo. Italian merchants returning from the East brought back recipes. In the 13th century, Venice was the busiest port in the world. Venetian traders supplied Europe's markets with the precious products of the East: silk, spices and porcelain. On their second journey the Polos had travelled the ancient Silk Route of central Asia, which, before the Mongol Empire, could only be used by Arab traders.
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