Marco Polo was just 17 when he set out with his father and uncle, Venetian merchants who had already travelled through Asia, on their return visit to the court of the Mongol, Kublai Khan, in China. From Venice, they sailed to Acre and then veered north to avoid the warzone of Palestine, which was in the middle of a crusade. Travelling through Rum and Mossul they arrived at Hormuz, filled ‘with ships loaded with spices, precious stones… elephants’ teeth’, before turning north again through the Mongol Ilkhan Empire and Herat. From Kashgar, the ‘biggest and most splendid city in Turkestan’, they crossed Asia’s highest mountains and driest deserts to reach Khanbalik, Kublai’s capital. The khan received the travellers courteously in a palace, ‘so vast, so rich, so beautiful, no man could design anything superior’. Marco Polo did not return to Venice for 24 years, and recounted his travels to a fellow inmate while held in a Genoese prison.
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