Marco Polo’s journeys reprised

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Marco Polo’s journeys reprised

Did Marco Polo ever get to China? The question has been laid out by, among others, Frances Wood, a curator of the British Museum. Her book “Did Marco Polo Go to China” reflects the author’s skepticism about the Italian voyager’s written account of his trip to the Far East 700 years ago.
If he did make it, Marco Polo would have been one of the first Europeans to visit China. Historians, though, have doubted the possibility over the years, citing Marco Polo’s omissions of some of the most important cultural properties of China, such as the Great Wall, the tea and the chopsticks, in his travelogue. He did, however, tell of finding jade, porcelain, silk, ivory and other riches of Asia.
A photographer who describes himself as “a chronicler of history,” Michael Yamashita, a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine, began a journey in 1999 in which he revisited every place Marco Polo described in his book, and photographed what was there. The American photographer fired off a query to Bill Allen, the editor of National Geographic, and began an assignment that took more than two years.
Mr. Yamashita visited 10 countries, traveled 10,000 miles and shot about 2,000 rolls of film. Some of those prints ran to more than 80 pages in a three-part series in National Geographic in 2001, and were published again in a 500-plus-page book.
“I’ve conclusively proved after visiting the sites he mentioned in the book that Marco Polo did go to China,” says Mr. Yamashita, who was in Seoul this week for the opening of his outdoor exhibition in front of City Hall.
“It became an obsession,” he said. “Marco Polo has been my traveling companion.”
“Retracing Marco Polo’s Journey” follows the footsteps of the ancient Venetian traveler and merchant who sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to go to China.
The journey begins at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, where Mr. Yamashita captures the scene of a large ferry arriving at the port with pigeons flying off into the sky.
The camera moves on from the peaceful canal to the gateway to the Persian Gulf, a horrifying picture of a Kurd shepherd leading his flock to pasture with an AK-47 in his hands. Another picture shows women celebrating a wedding with machine guns slung over their shoulders.
In Afghanistan, however unintentionally, Mr. Yamashita was documenting the nation in the period just before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America and the U.S. war on Afghanistan that followed.
Photographs include an incredible shot of the Taklimakan desert with a line of camels passing by, scenes of devastation in Afghanistan after 20 years of war and the last portrait of Ahmad Shah Masood, the head of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, who was killed by the Taliban just before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Throughout his journeys, Mr. Yamashita says he was constantly amazed at how accurately Marco Polo reported the details of his trip.
“It would have been much more difficult to make up those facts than to describe them after visiting the sites,” he says.
In Iran, for example, he says the ancient travelogue led him right to the same green hot spring Marco Polo had written about.
In Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, Mr. Yamashita says, he encountered the “black-skinned Muslim,” the descendants of African slaves who were mentioned in Marco Polo’s book.
In Afghanistan, he found the bighorn sheep named after the Italian traveler, Ovis Poli (or “Marco Polo sheep”), in the Walkhan corridor. In China, he saw the jade mines of Hotan and the singing sand dunes of Dunhuang, all documented by Marco Polo. He met the “people with golden teeth” and “raw meet (sic) eaters” at Erhai Lake.
Among other things, the exhibit is a moving commentary on the conditions of our world, devastated by the wars since Marco Polo wrote “The Description of the World.” One wonders how much worse things might be centuries from now.


by Park Soo-mee

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