13. The Mongolian Interlude

Marco Polo was a tourist par excellence before tourism had even appeared as an organized institution. He went to China without the conventional desire to trade goods for profit or the religious zeal to save souls. His wide-eyed curiosity enabled him to furnish pre-Renaissance Europe with a series of most unusual observations which seemed, by the standard of those days, to have touched all the far corners of the world. Credulous or exaggerated, his accounts speak with the experience of an eyewitness that could arouse the interest of other potential visitors. As he repeatedly and tantalizingly put it, "you have to see it to believe it"; he was inviting the listener to stretch his imagination to appreciate all the uniqueness and variety inherent in distant lands.

The towering figure in his narratives is undoubtedly Khubilai, grandson of Genghis Khan. The young Marco was in Khubilai's court when the Yuan forces closed in to wipe out the last contingent of the Song navy in 1279, which made the Great Khan the unchallenged ruler of all China, a position so far not attained by any alien prince. The emperor and the visitor from Venice treated each other with respect and affection. Marco ran errands for the great master, held high office in his government, and wrote interesting reports for him.

For Marco Polo, China was Cathay, the southern Chinese the Manzi, and Beijing Cambaluc or, as the Mongols called it, "Khan-baliq," or

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