Riffs on The Travels of Marco Polo by James Gallant

Riffs on The Travels of Marco Polo*

James Gallant

The white oxen at Rudbar lie down like camels to be loaded. Spices in the Rudbarans’ excellent date wine induce intense diarrhea in a person unaccustomed to drinking it, but after the purge, one gains weight rapidly and becomes rosy-faced. Partridges abound, but the Rudbarans dislike the taste. The oxen make good eating.

If the fierce Tartars of Turkestan have shot all of their arrows in battle, they take up clubs and charge their opponents screaming, sometimes in pain.

A misbehaving Tartar, depending on the seriousness of the offense, receives various numbers of lashes; but one who has stolen another Tartar’s horse is chopped in half.

Gentlewomen here are obliged to mourn daily four years when one of their kin dies, but since deaths are very common, they hire professional mourners to help out.

The wheat bread is bitter, owing to the water in its composition, but bathing in the water cures skin ailments.

The traveler leaving the province of Zar-darden descends along a path downhill two days and a half before reaching a great corn market evidently open only certain days because no one is about when we arrive. However, we feel we are being watched. The jungle below the corn market teems with elephants and unicorns. The great salt mountains to the south are of a magnitude to flavor mankind’s potatoes until the end of time. We see shaggy men with mallets and chisels entering the mountains to knock off a piece.

At Shibarghan, monstrous melons.

Porcupines abound in Ishkasham. The menfolk there prefer rounded women, and women’s trousers may contain up to one hundred ells of cotton cloth.

The people of Kernan are even-tempered and peaceable, but neighboring peoples slaughter one another constantly. The sages explain to us that this is owing to differences in soils.

A guest at Kamul receives a warm welcome, including whatever services he might like the host’s wife to perform during his stay.

Let us now change the subject.

After an arduous ten-day crossing of a desert plain on which partridges and lions abound, we reach the great fields of rhubarb at Su-chane. There is a poisonous herb here that animals fancy that causes their hoofs to fall off.

As the corpse of a great lord in the Tartar lineage of Genghis Khan is being conveyed in a long ceremonial parade to Altai Mountain, attendants address onlookers at roadside—“Go serve your Lord in the Afterworld!”—and put them to the sword.

If a young male child, and a young female child, have died here, their parents draw up a marriage contract for them and set fire to it so the children in the Other World will understand their relationship.

At Sinju, there are Nestorian Christians, Muslims, and idolaters. The idolaters have small noses and black hair. Women of Sinju have no hair on any part of their bodies except their heads. The men are very lecherous.

While we were in the employ of the Great Khan Kublai, we learned the history of the monetary system in the empire, which originated with the Khan’s father decreeing that only mulberry bark was to serve as currency in business transactions. (This bark, cut in rectangular pieces of various sizes and assigned various monetary values, emits a seductive aroma of peach and orange.)

After the establishment of this system, the Khan ordered all the gold, silver, and precious stones in the kingdom delivered to his palace, where they were exchanged for mulberry bark, and it was in this way he acquired his fabulous wealth.

Inflation rages throughout the kingdom owing to widespread forgery, and the skinned mulberries look just awful. Kublai Khan’s financial advisors insist that an alternative currency must soon be found because the mulberries are dying. One possibility would be the bark of the Ylang Ylange tree, which grows very rapidly.

 “Does it smell good?” the Khan inquired.

“The Ylang Ylange gives off a delightful perfume of jasmine and banana, with overtones of honey,” an advisor reported.

“That ought to do the trick,” the Khan mused.

Kublai occasionally summons to his palace four or five hundred choice maidens from his vast kingdom. A committee of evaluators rates numerically girls’ hair, facial features, and posterior. Maidens with the highest overall scores receive a second examination by barons’ wives to ascertain if they are virginal and whether they emit foul odors or snore at night. Those who do not make the grade are trained in embroidery and glove-making.

The Great Hall of the Khan holds six thousand people. A guest entering the hall for a festivity wears pristine white slippers so as not to dirty the sparkling marble floor and carries a little bottle to spit in. If a guest touches an entrance door frame when entering, guards strip the offender naked, and to recover the clothing, he or she must pay a fine. This rule is not enforced, however, when guests leave the hall, since then the assistance of a door frame may be required for a person to remain upright.

Annually on the date we know as August 28, the Khan orders prepared a libation of mares’ milk wine which he flings into the air as a treat for the spirits.

Religions interest him greatly, though he hasn’t one. He enjoys listening to discussions of them by adherents. Nestorian Christians and Muslims question his lending an ear to idolaters. “Idolaters make things happen,” the Khan replies, “which is more than I can say for you fellows.”

The retainers of the notoriously unwarlike Golden King at Caichu are fair young damsels, four of whom, hitched to a chariot, convey him on joy rides about the palace grounds.

No self-respecting man in this remote village of Tibet will take a virgin as a wife since the idols have obviously not favored her with male attention. Travelers in this rugged terrain are rare, but should one turn up, matrons with virginal daughters will gather around his tent and plead with him to lie with their girls. A girl who gets lucky will ask of her benefactor afterward some trinket or bauble as proof she’s been had.

When a person falls seriously ill in this province, the magicians are summoned. The symptoms of the ailment having been observed, the magicians take up their musical instruments and twirl about until one possessed by a demon collapses, frothing at the mouth. His associates then request information concerning how the ailing person has offended the spirit who caused the illness. The possessed magician, awaking from his fit, relates what he has been told of this. If the transgression is unforgivable, the patient will die. Otherwise, a suitable sacrifice might be one of the patient’s black-headed sheep, nicely roasted with all the fixings and served up piping hot in the temple.

The circular tower at Mien, thirty feet high, is covered with gold, a finger’s breadth in thickness. When the wind blows, little gilded bells embedded in its side tinkle.

Young damsels of Cathay do not gad about, smile from windows at passers-by, or listen to improper stories. When they leave home to worship the idols or visit relatives, they wear pretty hoods that prevent their seeing anything but their own feet, and they proceed to their destinations in mincing steps; because a maiden with a spring in her step, when subjected to the pigeon’s egg test preceding a marriage arrangement, may not pass muster.

When the sackcloth-attired relatives of a deceased noble at Manzi reach the funeral pyre, they see papier-mâché female and male slaves, horses, dogs, and camels standing alongside the heaped kindling and logs. Once the fire is blazing nicely, and the steaming corpse’s intestines are popping, the relatives toss the effigies onto the fire to assure that the departed won’t lack any necessity on the Other Side.

At Manzi, a humble person offended by some high-ranking person, and without hope of recourse, retaliates by hanging himself or herself by the neck at the offender’s door. The high-ranking offender must then honor the offended person with an elaborate funeral.

Astrologers at Kinsai require time-keeping. Guards in the towers along the town wall haven’t ordinarily a lot to do, so they assist the astrologers. Each tower contains a big wooden drum and a gong. Hour one in the summer is at nightfall, the moment crickets and locusts start their nightly furor. Each of the guards then pounds once on his drum, once on his gong. At the second hour, there are two beats on the drums, two gong-bongs, and so on throughout the night until the crack of dawn, when the hour reverts, at last, to one. An anti-astrologer faction at Kinsai bears the code name we translate, perhaps incorrectly, as “Insomniacs United.”

Upon leaving Vuju, one passes through a country remarkable for canes that may grow to four palms in width and fifteen paces in height. However, there are so many of these along the roadway they soon cease to astonish, and there is absolutely nothing else to hold one’s attention thereabout.

There are many papiones at Unken. Their incessant gnawing damages the sugar cane grown there. Papiones resemble our foxes physically, although they are not known for cleverness. To trap them, Unkens cut small openings in the tops of gourds and insert fat for bait. Seeking the fat, the papiones gnaw excitedly at the openings and enlarge them so they can insert their heads. However, in their eagerness, they commonly fail to open the hole wide enough to withdraw their heads and become easy targets stumbling about with gourds on their heads. They make good eating.

The people of Ferlec, quite religious in their way, worship the first thing they catch sight of every morning upon waking. This makes a kind of sense because the One surely underlies Multiplicity. In our own lands, when one of our gifted prophets scries, he or she may focus concentration on practically anything in Nature, anything being a key to everything.

What we have seen of the unicorns at Basman (which are as large as elephants, though not as stout) does not confirm their fabled obeisance to virgins. The virgins of Basman want nothing to do with them. These unicorns do not use the large black horns in the center of their foreheads to hunt but lick prey to death with spiky tongues.

The men, women, and children of Nicobei Island go about stark naked. They manufacture lovely silk fabrics in many colors, which they hang on railings as demonstrations of wealth and sensibility.

There is an unlucky hour each day at Malabar known as cloiach. On what we call Monday, cloiach is at seven in the morning; on Tuesday it is at nine, etc. During cloiach, men avoid business dealings. The same is true if they should observe a hissing tarantula approaching from an unpropitious direction.

People here know that if accused of a serious crime they may or may not actually have committed, they will be beaten to death, so they carry about with them at all times a small quantity of a deadly poisonous leaf, and if accused of a felony, they swallow it. The authorities, aware of this evasive tactic, force the guilty parties to eat cow dung and cough up the poisonous leaf.

If the monks at Malabar determine that the god and goddess have become estranged—and they should know—they order local maidens to prepare a feast for the idols at the monastery. The meal having been served, the naked girls dance and cavort, singing, “Isn’t the goddess lavish with endearments? Hasn’t she a lovely posterior?” The attentive monks will know when the dancing has continued long enough so that the god and goddess are reunited, and then the girls go home to their parents.

If a monk at Malabar has died, and a man aspires to replace him, he is laid out nude on a table in the monastery, and one of the temple women caresses him head to toe while the monks look on. The caressing inspires uttermost bliss, of course, but if the monks detect any evidence of physical response, they cast out the probationer.

Brahmans who eat very little may live 150 or 200 years. They drink a mixture of mercury and sulphur twice a month and anoint their naked flesh with powdered cow dung. Should they pass some person in the street in whom they detect kindliness rather than contempt, they bless that person by smearing a little powdered cow dung on his or her forehead.

The magicians at Socafra in the Indian Sea can quiet an ocean or divert a storm, but since our readers are Christians, we had best not dwell on this. Nothing else being worthy of mention at Socafra, we pass on to Madagascar, where there are said to be ostriches tall as elephants that are very mean, but we never see any.

Claims that the creatures known as “gryphons” in the islands south of Madagascar are half-bird and half-lion are incorrect. In fact, they resemble monstrous eagles. We saw one lift an elephant to a height and drop it, smashing it to a pulp, then feast on it.

In Russia, the coldest place in the world, there are many warming houses where fires are kept blazing constantly in the winter. Roof holes vent smoke. The warming houses may be no more than sixty paces from one another, but the cold is such that one sees people running in all directions from one to the next, sometimes colliding.

Noble Russians, men and women alike, are very fond of the stravitsa: a drinking contest in which the last person standing wins. Russian women, commonly sturdy, willful lasses, sometimes win these competitions. Women loathe to leave a stravitsalong enough to relieve themselves will have handmaidens who wield large sponges.

We heard a tale of a woman returning home from a stravitsa, full of brew, who, feeling an imperative need to relieve herself, found her lower hairs frozen to the ice; and when her husband attempted to liberate her by breathing warmly at the source of the difficulty his beard was also trapped in ice. We were accustomed to hearing of marvels in our travels, and we are eager to entertain our readers by describing them, but we confess a difficulty visualizing this one.


* Marco Polo (1254–1324) was a Venetian merchant who became acquainted with the Tartar Kublai Khan, then ruler of a vast Eastern empire. Polo traveled widely throughout the empire while serving the Khan in administrative roles between 1271 and 1295. The Travels of Marco Polo (1300) described his adventures in the cultures of the East, which were complete mysteries for most Europeans at the time.

About the Author

James Gallant contributed “Practical French Lessons” and “We, the Melungeons” to earlier issues of the Lowestoft Chronicle. He was the winner of the 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature for his story collection, La Leona, and Other Guitar Stories, published in 2020. Fortnightly Review (UK) published, in 2018, a collection of his essays and short fiction, Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations, in its Odd Volumes series.