by Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell
“You’ll never get out alive,” Barney Rubin declared, thumping his desk for emphasis. “There’s a civil war raging in Afghanistan! Even the kids carry guns. Believe me, you can’t get in, but even if you could . . .”
It wasn’t exactly “bon voyage,” or even “good luck.” But we weren’t surprised. Ever since we began thinking of retracing Marco Polo’s entire route in time for the 700th anniversary of his return, people had been giving us reasons why we shouldn’t go—couldn’t go—and why it would be utter insanity even to attempt a journey that would take us 25,000 miles through twenty countries and eight war zones. Barney Rubin, a distinguished Asia scholar at Columbia University, just added a few more.
All we wanted from him were some leads. Who could we talk to about traveling through Afghanistan? Who could give permission when there were no diplomats? Who could speak for the warlords who now fought each other for tribal domination? But the professor had little information to offer, and when we mentioned our Afghan contacts, he shot them all down. There was no way they could help. He spoke as if we were daydreaming boys in need of a reality check. In fact, we were way beyond daydreaming and well into obsession.
What does it mean to retrace the route of Marco Polo? There have been numerous attempts, with many inﬂated claims, but all have fallen short. One writer in the 1970s published a book and never even got into China! Another in the 1980s avoided Afghanistan altogether and was arrested before he reached Beijing. More recently, a photographer for a famous magazine claims to have achieved it, when in fact he only traveled 7,000 miles and ﬂew to most of his locales. In other words, no one has taken the time to retrace the route of Marco Polo, all 25,000 miles of it.
Alone, without a crew, and using Polo’s book as our guide, we decided to try to become the ﬁrst to follow in his footsteps, for however long it took, nonstop, no flights, from village to village, city to city, and along the way see for ourselves whether or not Marco’s words rang true.
We studied every version in print of The Travels of Marco Polo, and the book became our bible. For over a year we researched the route, charted maps, and read everything we could ﬁnd about the journey and the countries we’d visit. Who else had traveled in his footsteps? How far did they go? Why did they fail? We consulted scholars of medieval Chinese and European history and attended lectures at the Asia Society, NYU, and Columbia University.
Despite all our research and hard-won knowledge, we couldn’t seem to conquer the biggest barrier of all: bureaucracy. With the great Kublai Khan’s golden tablets in their possession, the Polos could travel the vast Mongol empire at will, their only worry that bandits might rob and kill them—but at least they weren’t strangled by red tape.
We knew we’d have unforeseeable delays, and because most countries issue visas for only one month, we decided it was best to obtain them once on the road. Afghanistan was different. It was in the throes of what historians now call “the warlord period.” There were no visas.
Returning to our Afghan contact, we added a zinger to our plea for help by telling him what Barney Rubin had said: “His organization is a relief operation. They send food and clothes to Afghanistan. He can’t do anything for you.” It was a challenge and we knew it. He rose to it—and from his chair—and with deliberate movements picked up the phone. We anxiously watched as he spoke for a few moments in Dari and then handed the receiver to me. A deep voice asked why we wanted to go to Afghanistan.
I made our pitch: We weren’t with the CIA, DEA, or any other government agency. Our project was historical, not political, and Afghanistan was a crucial part of our quest. When I’d ﬁnished, our contact took the phone and spoke again in Dari. He scribbled down “Mr. K” and a phone number on a scrap of paper and handed it over.
“This is the man who will get you into Afghanistan. You will have to go to Washington to meet him. When you get to the airport, call this number.”
We ﬂew to D.C. the next day, feeling as if we were living a chapter from a cheap spy novel, except that danger, real danger, still seemed far away. When we landed at National Airport, we called Mr. K from the ﬁrst phone booth we found.
“Go to the Sheraton hotel,” he said. “Then call me at this number in ﬁfteen minutes.” He gave us yet another phone number. We found the hotel in time and called again.
“We spoke to Mr. K; he told us to call.”
“Okay,” said a new voice. “Take a taxi to the Springﬁeld Hilton. He’ll meet you there. Do not take long.”
A half hour later we sat down in the hotel lounge with Mr. K and told him about our plans, listing the regions that Polo traveled through. “Marco Polo, for most Americans, is a game you play in the pool,” I told him. He smiled.
“Afghanistan, for most Americans, means war,” he said. “I want people to know more of the history and culture of my country.” He wrote out seven letters to various warlords on our route. “Do not get caught with these by a different faction,” he said.
“Make sure they go to the right people. Whatever you do, don’t get them mixed up.”