In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: A Companion to the Public Television Film


Did Marco Polo reach China? This richly illustrated companion volume to the public television film chronicles the remarkable two-year expedition of explorers Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell as they sought the answer to this controversial 700-year-old question. With Polo's book, The Travels of Marco Polo, as their guide, they journeyed over 25,000 miles becoming the first to retrace his entire path by land and sea without resorting to helicopters or airplanes.

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Did Marco Polo reach China? This richly illustrated companion volume to the public television film chronicles the remarkable two-year expedition of explorers Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell as they sought the answer to this controversial 700-year-old question. With Polo's book, The Travels of Marco Polo, as their guide, they journeyed over 25,000 miles becoming the first to retrace his entire path by land and sea without resorting to helicopters or airplanes.

Surviving deadly skirmishes and capture in Afghanistan, they were the first Westerners in a generation to cross its ancient forgotten passageway to China, the Wakhan Corridor. Their camel caravan on the southern Silk Road encountered the deadly singing sands of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts. In Sumatra, where Polo was stranded waiting for trade winds, they lived with the Mentawai tribes, whose culture has remained unchanged since the Bronze Age. They became among the first Americans granted visas to enter Iran, where Polo fulfilled an important mission for Kublai Khan.

Accompanied by 200 stunning full-color photographs, the text provides a fascinating account of the lands and peoples the two hardy adventurers encountered during their perilous journey. The authors' experiences are remarkably similar to descriptions from Polo's account of his own travels and life. Laden with adventure, humor, diplomacy, history, and art, this book is compelling proof that travel is the enemy of bigotry—a truth that resonates from Marco Polo's time to our own.

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Editorial Reviews

Smithsonian Magazine
Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell followed Marco Polo's route through Afghanistan and twenty other countries, traveling 33,000 miles over two years, in jeeps, trains, and rickshaws, on horse and camel. They are certainly the first to retrace Polo's steps entirely by land and sea, all this without resorting to helicopters or airplanes.
The New York Times
Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell have turn[ed] the coolest vacation idea ever into a film. . . . Back in 1993 these two men, friends from Queens, decided it would be fun to try to follow the trail supposedly blazed by Polo more than 700 years ago. It was a brash concept, since that trail is thousands of miles long and goes through places like Afghanistan and Iran. Add in that the men vowed to spurn air travel and were sort of making things up as they went along, and you have a delicious, self-imposed obstacle course. . . . Fun, derring-do . . . and heart is what Mr. Belliveau and Mr. O’Donnell give you as they recount their remarkable journey.

(Praise for the public television film)

We are given stunning proof of Marco Polo's essential veracity, for the geographic realities and enduring ethnographic facts overwhelm any doubt. . . . They reflect poignantly on the timeless nature of the many Asian cultures they encountered, so many of them threatened by endless conflict. . . . When what you experience exceeds what you can imagine, the physical and spiritual costs can be very high. Is it worth it? Get this book, go along for the wild ride, and see for yourself.
Sacramento Bee
If you missed the PBS special, you can still join the authors on their two-year, 25,000-mile journey that retraced the route of young Polo, his father and his uncle. The text is illuminating, the photos are revealing.
ForeWord Reviews
An extraordinary travel book. . . . This is a book well worth reading, filled as it is with adventurous stories and wonderful photographs taken by Belliveau. . . . The book is a touching record of the beauty and charity of the human spirit, a charity undeterred by want, hunger, war, and grief.
[A] lush, stimulating, and often thrilling chronicle. . . . The text is well written and highly informative, and it conveys a sense of wonder and excitement, enhanced by hundreds of excellent photographs that reveal the past and present diversity and richness of the cultures. . . . This excellent work and companion to the public-television film is a valuable introduction to the life and times of one of the world's great adventurers.
Macon Telegraph
Stunningly evocative photography. . . . Chapters are framed with compelling and/or illuminating adventures along the way. . . . Historical/literary referencing is braided with camera-eye accounts of the Americans crossing borders illegally, getting caught in a firefight between warlords, speaking carefully with tribal chieftains and brawling with drunken Russian soldiers in the dining room of the Hotel Alootoo in Bishtek, Kyrgyzstan. All in all, a blend of fun, learning and thrills.
Flagpole Magazine
Belliveau and O'Donnell undertook a mad quest to trace the route of the 13th-century Italian explorer step by step. . . . Belliveau's incredible photographs . . . are worth lingering over and revisiting. The text is . . . fascinating when the travelers describe the people they meet along the road.
Stefano Carboni
An extraordinary initiative and travel experience. They set out to demonstrate that Marco Polo actually spent twenty-five years in Asia and reported first-hand about all the wonders he had seen, and I think that after Francis' and Denis' experience few people could still have doubts in this regard.
Bill Moyers
It was the best-documented journey of its time, inspiring the imaginations and ambitions of countless adventurers, including Christopher Columbus. Now we, too, can follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo, with guides as vividly exciting and engaging as Marco himself. With both their film and this book Denis and Francis have recreated what Joseph Campbell would have applauded as 'The Hero's Journey.' Come take it yourself—and you'll never turn back.
Publishers Weekly

The harrowing route of Marco Polo's 13th-century trek from Venice to ancient Cathay over the traditional Silk Road to Kublai Khan's territories consumed 24 years of the famous explorer's life. Award-winning photographer Belliveau and sculptor/lecturer O'Donnell, a former marine, spent two years retracing the journey,, to "[t]raverse the world's largest land mass and back, climb its highest mountains, cross its most desolate deserts and seas." The curious, intrepid risk-takers forgo air travel to recreate the 25,000-mile experience, facing rolls of red tape, internecine politics, horrendous climates, language barriers, civil war and border authorities while traveling through what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Tibet, China and Mongolia, among others. The authors have a remarkable ability to form relationships in varied cultures, as with a group of rough Afghan soldiers: "All had in common... losses so terrible that we had stopped asking questions about families." Fascinatingly, many of the customs, locales and physical landscapes are identical, 700 years later, to Polo's descriptions. Alongside Belliveau and O'Donnell's enthusiastic narrative are marvelous full-color photos that bring the travelogue to vivid life. (Dec.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Seven hundred years after the great Venetian traveler Marco Polo and his uncles returned to Venice from their journey to Kublai Khan's court in China in 1295, photographer Belliveau and artist O'Donnell decided to follow in Marco Polo's footsteps-all 33,000 miles of them. (They claim no one else has ever traveled Polo's route in its entirety.) Their journey took two years. This companion to a PBS film documents their adventures. At times, their lives were at risk, e.g., in a shooting war in Afghanistan and crossing the Himalayas, where they almost crashed and froze. They discovered incredible beauty in the most hidden spots; everywhere they went, people they'd never met before helped them on their way. Marco Polo, in his own writings, may have exaggerated occasionally-Westerners reading of Polo's travels thought he lied because what he described seemed too extraordinary to be true-but these two men conclude that he was most often an exceptionally acute observer. The stunning photographs in this elegant book should please even the most casual reader, while the authors' unpretentious observations will satisfy those who want to know more about a still alien world. A travel/adventure book rather than a study of Marco Polo the man or a history of his travels, this volume deserves many readers. Warmly recommended.
—David Keymer

School Library Journal

Adult/High School

Following in the footsteps of arguably the greatest traveler in history is no easy task. In accessible, lively text, and with more than 200 striking photographs, Belliveau and O'Donnell make the enormity of the task abundantly clear. The determined explorers follow the long and arduous route Marco Polo took more than 700 years ago, becoming the first to retrace the entire distance on land and sea. The dangers were many: sand storms in the Taklamakan desert, subzero temperatures in the mountain passes of Tajikistan, horribly rough seas off the coast of Sumatra, and suspicious, gun-wielding soldiers at nearly every border and everywhere in Afghanistan. Marco Polo faced many of these same obstacles, but one he did not have to confront was the ridiculous complexity of postmodern bureaucracy. The greatest roadblock to the success of the authors' expedition proved to be the red tape and outright hostility involved in securing visas for travel in Afghanistan, China, India, and especially Iran. The two Americans resorted to some clever, and dangerous, maneuvers to sidestep overly zealous (and gun-toting) officials. In the end, their persistence was well worth the effort. Like Marco Polo in the 13th century, Belliveau and O'Donnell in 1994-'95 witnessed amazing sights, met wonderfully gracious and helpful people, and learned countless valuable lessons. This lavish travelogue in the grand tradition of exotic exploration should find a place in all collections.-Robert Saunderson, formerly at Berkeley Public Library, CA

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780742556836
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/15/2008
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 642,397
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 10.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Denis Belliveau's award-winning photographic career has taken him to over sixty countries. He is director of photography and senior cameraman for the award-winning PBS series Real Moms, Real Stories, Real Savvy. Francis O'Donnell is a freelance sculptor and lecturer.
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  • Posted July 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Adventures of Marco Polo

    A truly inspiring adventure

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