Two years later, Niccolò and Maffeo sailed to Acre in present-day Israel, this time with Marco at their side. At Khubilai Khan’s request, they secured some holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and then backtracked to Acre to pick up gifts, papal documents and two friars from newly elected Pope Gregory X. The friars quickly abandoned the expedition, but the Polos continued on, possibly by camel, to the Persian port city of Hormuz. Failing to find any boats to their liking, they instead took take a series of overland traders’ routes that, in the 19th century, would become known as the Silk Road. Over the next three years they slowly trekked through deserts, high mountain passes and other rough terrain, meeting people of various religions and cultures along the way. Finally, around 1275, they arrived at Khubilai’s opulent summer palace at Shangdu, or Xanadu, located about 200 miles northwest of his winter quarters in modern Beijing.
Khubilai, who generally relied on foreigners to administer his empire, took Marco Polo into his court, possibly as a tax collector. At one point, the Venetian was sent on official business to the port city of Hangzhou (then called Quinsai), which, like Venice, was built around a series of canals. Marco Polo also purportedly journeyed across inland China and into present-day Myanmar.
After many years of seeking a release from service, the Polos finally secured permission from Khubilai to escort a young princess to her intended husband Arghun, the Mongol ruler of Persia. In 1292 the Polos joined a flotilla of 14 boats that set out from Zaitun (now Quanzhou, China), stopped briefly in Sumatra and then landed in Persia 18 months later, only to find out that Arghun was dead. The princess was made to marry Arghun’s son. The Polos, meanwhile, stayed on with Arghun’s brother for nine months before heading to Venice via Trebizond (now Trabzon, Turkey), Constantinople and Negrepont (now Euboea, Greece). They arrived home in 1295, the year after Khubilai’s death sent the Mongol Empire into an irrevocable decline.