East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Tracking Marco Polo

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51ki+wP7fXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_So it’s summer, and I’ll be spending a lot of my (little) free time reading Tim Severin.
In case you missed him, Severin is an award-winning explorer, traveler and writer who specialized in tracing the steps of famous historical and literary voyagers.

Severin is one of my all-time icons (together with the likes of Jacqes Cousteau, Folco Quilici, Thor Heyerdahl and more recently Barry Clifford), and all of his books are currently available in ebook format for very cheap price tags, so, why not.

And why not start with Tracking Marco Polo, the 1964 chronicle of Severin’s first expedition?

In 1961, while still a student in Oxford, Severin dreamed up a project of following Marco Polo’s The Description of the World to see if the Venetian traveler was for real or if – as many thought back then and some still do now – his book was a collection of hearsay and legends, much in the manner of John Mandeville‘s travels.

Severin talked Stanley Johnson into the project, amd later the two young men recruited Michael de Larrabeiti as expedition cameraman – and riding two motorbikes, they set forth to China, in what was a strange mix of underfunded academical expedition and an adventure vacation.


The book is a fast read (160 pages, snappily written) and it is really great.
While describing sketchily but with obvious savvy the logistics of an intercontinental expedition, Severin describes the mishaps, disasters and assorted catastrophe that bugged the expedition.
Inexperience, political and economic problems and other assorted events turn the happy-go-lucky expedition into a proper adventure.
The three adventurers find time to get friendly with the locals, get lost (often), lose their papers (sometimes), crash their rides (often) and in general act like a real life version of the classic British abroad comedy cliché.
Like when they crash into the journalist that’s there to interview them at the exit of the French airport – and still they get their interview, and Severin has time for a little French-bashing in describing the event.
And all the while, the three men follow closely the tracks of Marco Polo, checking out facts, visiting places, finding traces.
Their film is stolen, their motorbikes disintegrate, the Chinese authorities won’t let them enter China… but all in all, this is a great, successful adventure, and a great read.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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