Marco Polo Museum Exhibition Scene: Through the Desert
From Acra our travellers reached Sis and Layasa by sea. In Sis they purchased horses, passed Mosul and entered Baghdad. There they boarded a ship and sailed down the Tigris River to Hormuz. In the port of Hormuz Marco Polo spotted vessels full of valuable spices, gold embroidered cloths, ivory and other goods from India.A hot desert wind blew in Hormuz which makes people breathe with difficulty if they are not by the river. To Marco it seemed as if his skin had peeled off from heat and wind.
Desert sand storm called samun may be so strong and poisonous that it once destroyed the whole enemy army that was marching on the town, turning dried soldiers’ bodies into dust.
Fleeing the hell of Hormuz they didn’t continue to China by sea as ships were far from secure and safe for voyage. They went by road to Kherman where horses were exchanged for dromedaries and supplies bought for eight days. They took bread, fruit, salted and smoked meat, mature cheese and water.
They stepped in the first desert on the way, the Void Desert. The water springing there was not drinkable but poisonous and often paralyzed passengers with its smell.
They trotted the desert for seven long days in miserable conditions of heat and smelly water, riding without stopping, passing by towns, villages and hamlets, meeting hermits, tramps, beggars and caravans. Right in front of them the Pamir Crossing, ‘the roof of the world’, covered in ancient glaciers, blocked the way. It took twelve riding days to Nicholas, Matthew and Marco Polo to cross the Pamir Plateau at an altitude of fifteen thousand feet.
Having descended the cold heights and still surrounded by snow and chill, they came to the edges of the huge Tacla Macan Desert or ‘ the desert of inevitable death’ or even better ‘ if you come in, you won’t get out desert’ as the natives traditionally call it.
Marco Polo was fascinated with the sea of dunes that would move at each step their dromedaries made. Chains of dunes were sixty metres tall and twenty long and as they were passing those chains would roll and toss as yellow waves carried by the wind.
On the edge of ‘ the desert of inevitable death’, they rode into Cotan and Charchan, towns where the only sign of life was a river flowing through.
Their dromedaries moved slowly, like big barges towards Lop Nur, which lies at the very entrance to the Gobi Desert, popularly known as ‘the infinite sea’. As they sat on their ‘vehicles’, they thought that the desert was a dried sea they were about to cross.
Lop was the last station before the big desert, the desert of all deserts which does not allow anyone a single mistake. Our travellers were only too aware of this, so before stepping in the desert they took a long rest, fed and watered the animals, had the supplies and fodder prepared for a month.
The way through one of the biggest world deserts started on dromedaries, animals which were the only ones capable of crossing it. And it all happened in the year 1275. Marco Polo was 21 at the time, and when they set from Venice he was 17.
The caravan went slowly through the everchanging landscape. Nobody dared even to look behind themselves. Sand rains carried by winds made it impossible for them to see further and from the inside of sand-banks, one could hear voices, screams, drums. The souls of those who got lost in the desert were thought to wander and follow people from caravans to feed on them.
Marco Polo was riding without turning back, but in his mind he was in Korcula, running through its streets, eating ripe figs, imagining his mother might be calling him. So they rode for days through an immense sea of sand, dunes, desert storms, finally reaching Noah Oasis. After thirty days they escaped from the desert embrace and lost only a couple of men.
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