In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell took a wild idea - retrace Marco Polo’s entire 25,000-mile, land-and-sea route from Venice to China and back - and spent two incredible years of their lives making their dream a reality.

AIRED: April 04, 2017 | 1:26:45

>> Can you imagine

all those places,

just the magical names,

you know, Samarkand and Bukhara

and Beijing and Iran

and Afghanistan?

So I called up Denis

because, you know,

who else would be crazy enough

to maybe go along

with something like this?

And I said,

"What do you think, man?

What do you think, dude?"


>> We would sit there

and retreat

into our imaginations.

What was this like for Marco?

You know,

how would it have been for him?

We were going to try

to make this whole journey

like we were living

in Marco Polo's world.


[ Explosions, machine gunfire ]

[ Heart beating ]

>> On the road

to Balkh this morning,

we drove right smack into

the middle of a firefight.

Pulled from our Jeep and forced

to our knees in the street,

the muzzle of an AK-47 shoved

into the back of my head.

I was convinced I was about

to be executed.

My family would never find out

what had happened

to me out here.

My body would never be found,

and all for what?

[ Heart beat slows, stops ]


>> ♪ I used to rule the world

♪ Seas would rise

when I gave the word ♪

♪ Now, in the morning

I sleep alone ♪

♪ Sweep the streets I used to

own ♪


>> Funding for

"In the Footsteps of Marco Polo"

was provided by...

The Starr Foundation...

and by the Center for

Cultural Interchange,

dedicated to cultural


environmental consciousness,

and world peace

through student exchange.


>> Years ago,

I was totally broke.

I had no money,

but I had a lot of possessions,

a lot of old things

that were worth money,

and I thought to myself,

you know, "I love these objects.

They have some sentimental

value, but really, ultimately,

it's just trash that

I'm carrying around

with myself."

So what I did was I sold them,

and I went to Guatemala,

and I stood on top of the

pyramids, and I looked

over the rainforest.

Then I thought to myself,

"I would trade every possession

I own to travel."


>> At the end

of the 13th century,

a book was written

that would change the course

of human history.

Its prologue proclaimed

the author to be the world's

most traveled man.

It read, "Emperors and kings,

dukes, knights, and townsfolk,

and all people who wish to learn

of the various races of men

and regions of the world,

take this book,

for here, you will find

all the great wonders

and curiosities of Persia

and the land of the Tartars

and of India

and many other countries

as related by Marco Polo,

noble citizen of Venice

who has seen them

with his own eyes."

Even today,

scholars debate Polo's claims

about the grand journey he took

with his father and uncle.

Did the noble citizen of Venice

really make it to China

and back,

spending decades exploring

the lands of the great Mongol

emperor Kublai Khan?

Two noble citizens of Queens,

New York, wanted to find out.

They were just two

ordinary guys who set out

to do an extraordinary thing,

2 years on a mission,

leaving everything behind

without any idea what lay ahead.

>> We're going right

through that.

>> Bing, bing, bing.

That way.

>> Their names --

Denis Belliveau and

Francis O'Donnell.

>> Ow!

>> They weren't scholars

or historians.

They weren't connected

to major museums.

They weren't on the faculty


They was no prospect of glory,

and they sure

weren't going to be paid.

It was the early '90s.

They were in their early 30s.

Denis was a wedding


Francis -- a veteran

of the U.S. Marines.

They had a few sponsors,

including photographic companies

that donated cameras,

film, and some video equipment

that's way outdated now,

but most of all,

they were on their own,

just a couple of buddies

who took this trip

because of what they loved.

They loved art, history,


and they loved adventure.

And they were about to try

what no one had ever done --

successfully retrace

Marco Polo's entire route,

some 25,000 miles to China

and back...

across forbidding mountain

ranges, forlorned deserts,

wondrous cities,

and dangerous war zones.

Their only guide

was Polo's own account

of his travels,

and they made a few simple rules

for themselves.

They would document

every instance where they found

what Polo had described.

[ Camera shutter clicks ]

They would go

only by land or sea.

Flying was unknown to Polo,

so flying was out,

and no matter what,

they would not turn back.

>> We had made a pact that,

under any conditions,

no matter what,

we were only coming back

to the United States two ways --

either dead or successful.

>> In March 1993,

they began where Polo had --

in Venice.

Here, they hoped to set eyes

on their first Marco milestone

in the archive

of the city library.

>> Marco Polo's last will

and testament

is the only document

we know he had his hands on.

He actually touched this piece

of paper, so for us,

that was kind of a holy grail.

We wanted to touch it.

We wanted to see it.

And they turned us down.

It was kind of devastating.

>> As we're walking down

the steps of the library,

I said, "Two years later,

when we get back,

they're going to serve us

up Marco Polo's

will on a silver platter."

Marco Polo!

>> Modern Israel,

the holy land --

this was their entrance

into Polo's account

of his travels.

>> Jerusalem was just amazing.

I mean, we just fell in love

with the place.

>> [ Singing in foreign

language ]

[ Bell tolls ]

>> On his trip here,

Marco Polo had obtained

holy oil from the Church

of the Holy Sepulchre,

the traditional

site of Christ's burial.

For their journey,

Denis and Francis collected

some of the same on Eastern

Orthodox Easter Sunday.

[ Bells tolling ]

The vividness of the holy land

had fired their imaginations.

The inspiration remained

as they made their way up

toward Anatolia, today's Turkey.

>> We tried to make it

the 13th century in our heads.

If there was a telephone

wire there,

it was cropped out of the scene.

If the car went by,

we didn't notice it.

Another tourist, foreigner,

we deleted him.

We were going to try to make

this whole journey

like we were living

in Marco Polo's world.


For instance,

when we landed in Ayas,

now, you know, it's just

a small fishing village,

but when we stood there,

we were like,

"This was New York Harbor

of its time."

European ships would have been

there to get all these goods

coming from Asia,

dropping off their caravans

to make their way.

It would have been a really

bustling port.

>> The journey was

going along breezily,

just two guys on a road trip,

only this trip happened to be

on the famed Silk Road.

[ Camera shutter clicking ]

They visited caravanserais,

the kind of medieval

roadside hotels

where Polo must have stopped,

places where merchants

could spend the night safe

with their pack animals

inside protective walls.

>> And we started a tradition

that we did throughout the trip

was to try to get ourselves

into local newspapers.

It's written in their language.

It makes you very official.

We weren't just tourists.

People would stop us

in the street like,

"Hey, Marco Polo guys!

Marco Polo!"

And it just opened up doors.


>> [ Singing in foreign

language ]

>> And we almost can't spend

any money in that country.

I mean, you can on rugs

and souvenirs, I suppose,

but the friendship and the help

that you get, and you always

have a friend in Turkey.

>> [ Singing in foreign

language ]

[ Laughter ]

>> ♪ Row, row, row your boat

♪ Gently down the

♪ This is the end

♪ My only friend, the end

♪ Desperately in need of a

stranger's hand ♪

♪ In a desperate land

♪ This is the end

♪ My only friend, the end


>> But would the whole journey

be such a breeze?

The next country

on Marco Polo's path

was called Persia in his time.

We know it as Iran.

With no diplomatic relations

between Iran and the U.S.,

the country was virtually

closed to Americans,

but Denis and Francis

had planned ahead,

contacting Turan's U.N.

ambassador in New York before

they left.

They had explained

the historical

and nonpolitical nature

of their trip.

>> He was very pleasant.

He was very warm to us.

He loved the idea

of the project, and he told us,

"Your visas will be waiting

for you in Ankara, Turkey."

And we believed him.

And we got to Ankara,

and we went to

the Iranian embassy,

and they were like,

"We never heard of you guys."

So every single day, we would go

into the Iranian embassy,

and every day,

it was, "Oh, yeah.

Oh, yes. We do know about you.

It's stuck now in the Ministry

of Islamic Guidance."

And they just gave us

the runaround, and then after 6

aggravating weeks

of being stuck there,

they finally said, "No."

And that was,

I mean, it was devastating.

That was it. The project's over.

You know, we might

as well pack it up and go home.

>> ♪ This is the end

♪ My only friend, the end

>> In a cheap hotel in Ankara,

only 3 months

into their journey,

having seen only

three countries,

Denis and Francis found

themselves face-to-face

with failure and then

took a left turn around it.

Inspired by the way Marco Polo

had told his story

not as a set itinerary

but rather as simply

a description of the world.

In his account,

Polo told of how his father

and uncle had visited Bukhara

in present-day Uzbekistan.

Denis and Francis

would now pick up that trail.

Eventually, they'd figure out

how to get into Iran

by hook or crook

on the way back.


[ Train tracks clacking ]

>> We were able to get these

transit visas and cut through

Georgia and Azerbaijan,

and we made it into Turkmenistan

and Central Asia after that,

and it was just amazing

because there was

no other foreigners there.

>> I mean, those republics

are some of the most repressive

and difficult countries

to get into in Central Asia.

People came up to us,

and they were, like,

just so happy

to talk to a foreigner.

You know that, for 70 years,

they would have been arrested

by the KGB,

and they would come up to us

and, you know,

tell us, "Where are you from?"

They were so interested in us.

And Bukhara in particular,

we documented the things

that would have been standing

when Polo was there,

but the height of Bukhara

happened under Tamerlane,

so most of the architecture

that's there dates

from that time period,

but it's still spectacular

that Persian blue-tile domes

and just a really magical,

beautiful Silk Road city.


>> In Uzbekistan,

the regime required

a different visa

for every city they visited.

They dutifully obtained one

for the border town of Termez.

From there, they thought

it would be simple to cross

the so-called Friendship Bridge

into Afghanistan.

>> And we went to cross

the bridge,

and the Uzbek border guards were

like, "You don't have a visa

for the bridge."

And we were like, "What?

We have visas for Termez.

Our visas are going

to be expiring soon.

You know, let us go."

And they were really giving us

a hard time.

Every single day,

a guy from the FSB,

which is the former KGB,

was interrogating us,

"Why were you here?

What are you doing?

Why do you want

to go to Afghanistan?

Who are you guys?"

So we didn't know what to do.

We thought about swimming across

the Amu Darya River,

but there's guard towers,

and they're looking

for drug smugglers

coming from Afghanistan,

so we figured we'd get shot

if we tried to do that,

and then our visa

for Termez ran out.


>> October 11th,

if you would have told me

a year ago that I'd be

in a highly restricted area

of the former Soviet Union

with an invalid visa

in my passport and pissed off

because what used to be the KGB

wouldn't let me enter the chaos

and civil war raging

in Afghanistan,

I would have said

you were crazy.

Now I'm questioning

my own sanity.

Marco Polo never needed to forge

a visa.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Yeah.

>> And every day, we'd go back,

and we would present

our passports again

and the same monotonous

questions, and the forgery

was about to run out again.

You know, finally,

after all this,

Fran was like, "That's it.

I've had enough. We're going."

>> The next time

we got in front of the KGB guy,

he said, "Look.

Our visas for your country

have expired.

We're crossing

that bridge into Afghanistan.

We're American citizens.

What are you going to do?

Are you going to shoot us?

Do you want an international

incident or what?"

And all of a sudden,

the guy was like,

"Oh, but there's the fine

you have to pay.

You forgot to pay the fine.

If you'd just pay this fine."

So I think it was like 100 bucks

or something.

We gave the guy $100.

He stamped us,

and we entered Afghanistan.


Going from the former

Soviet Republic

where paved roads, electricity,

cars, into Afghanistan,

was really like taking a step

back into the 13th century.


There's kebab houses all over

the place, roasted lamb.

In fact, we joked about it.

We ate every lamb thing

you could imagine --

lamb eyeballs, lamb brains,

lamb tail, lamb intestines.

Everything of a lamb

you could eat we did for months.

>> But as they journeyed

deeper into the past,

it became harder and harder

to crop the present

out of the scene.

In 1993, Afghanistan's war

with Russia was over,

and the Taliban had yet

to take control.

Armed Mujahideen factions

ruled the country.

>> Rocket launchers.

>> Francis and Denis have

concocted a plan to get safely

across the country,

a plan inspired by Marco Polo.

On an equally perilous path

700 years before,

the Venetian had had the best

shield available,

a powerful patron.

Polo recounted that Kublai Khan

provided his party

a golden tablet

on which was written that

they should be given

all the lodging they might need

and horses to escort them

from one land to another.

The travelers

had no emperor to shield them,

but they did have

some connections.

They had obtained a letter

of introduction

from a comrade of a local

Afghan warlord.

>> We got dropped off

at their stronghold,

which was basically

a walled compound

with a Soviet tank

parked in front as the gate,

and we pulled up.

We presented the letter.

The guard read, I guess,

the opening of it.

The tank moved out

of the way like a gate.

They started up the tank.

It moved up, and we entered

into this compound,

and the tank closed behind us,

and we knew,

right there and then,

there was no turning back.

We were now

in with the Mujahideen.

>> Hey, Mr. Mukamare,

where are you?

>> I'm in Oz.

>> So then they brought us up

into the villa

that was really a fortress,

and they brought us into a room.

>> [ Speaking foreign language ]

[ Chatter ]

And then, all of the sudden,

the door opened up,

and Commander Atta came in.

He was kind of majestic,

tall for an Afghan,

a big, black beard,

a phalanx of guards behind him,

and this is it.

If this guy doesn't help us,

we're done for.

You know, there's no way

we can make it

across Afghanistan.

So he read the letter,

and then he put it down,

and he said,

"The man who wrote this letter

is my brother,

and anything I can do for you,

it's within your grasp.

What could I do for you?"

So we took out our map,

and we said,

"We need to go from here to here

to here to here,

through Afghanistan."

He turned to his generals,

and they talked

for a little while,

and then he came back to us,

and he said, "Look, this part

of the country

is really dangerous.

I'm going to give you

a helicopter,

and we're going to fly you over

the scary bit,

and then you can pick up

Marco Polo's trail after that."

So now here's this guy who

made this generous offer to us,

and we looked at each other,

and then we kind of came back

to him and said,

"Thank you very much,

but we can't fly."

>> The Afghan warlord

was taken aback,

but the letter from his comrade

had all the power of

Marco Polo's golden tablet.

>> And he came back,

and he said,

"Look, it's really dangerous.

I'm going to give you

25 bodyguards."

We had eight Jeeps filled

with rocket-propelled grenades,

machine guns, the whole thing.

"You're going to move in here,

in the villa, with us.

We need to dress you as Afghans

because it's so dangerous.

You're going to have

to carry weapons yourself."

[ Machine gunfire ]



That's cool.

No, that's all right.

Yeah, I don't want to.

>> All right.

Well, a couple more.

[ Machine gunfire ]

>> That's cool.

I don't.

I'm not into guns.

When we were with those guys,

it was annoying after a while.

I mean, you'd want to go

and take a leak,

and the guy's following you

with a machine gun,

and you're like,

"Please, I really would like

to be alone right now."

And he's like,

"No, I protect you."

You know, it's like,

"No. Please."

At that point, we had been

in Afghanistan

quite a few weeks,

and we had learnt, just from

the sound of machine gunfire,

which we heard every single day,

to discern the difference

between a celebration,

a wedding, a child's birth,

where you hear...

[Imitates machine gunfire]

And that's just a guy

celebrating -- [Imitates machine


Or if you heard,

"Pop, pop," [Imitates machine

gunfire] "tat, tat, pop, pop,"

that's a firefight.

Don't go out when you hear that.

This -- [Imitates machine

gunfire] -- It's okay.

Somebody got married.

>> Denis and Francis had just

a driver and two bodyguards

when they set out from the town

of Mazar-i-Sharif

for a nearby Marco milestone.

Polo had described it

as a splendid ruin,

the city of Balkh.

>> So we're driving

to the ancient site,

and we hear, "Pop, pop,"

[Imitates machine gunfire]

You know, there's a firefight

somewhere close by.

We can hear it,

so we turn down this block.

I'm in the front seat.

Fran's in the backseat,

and then all of the sudden,

from the corner of my eye, 15,

20 feet away,

a kid comes out of the shadows.

"Bam," he's got his AK

pointing right at me,

and I said, "This is it, man."

>> So they put us up against the


These guys are guarding us with

machine guns, and they take our

guys, and they stick them

in the middle of the street,

and a gauntlet forms around

them, and they start beating

them and pushing them and

sticking them with the machine

guns and screaming at them.

So Denis turns to me.

He says, "Dude, if we get out of

this alive, man,

we're out of this country."

Well, actually,

we made a pact before we left,

and that was that, no matter

what, under any circumstances,

that we weren't

going to quit or turn back.

>> And then, when we were

against the wall,

we were like, "We're quitting.

We're turning back."

>> "We're quitting.

We're turning back."

>> There was another guy

with another 60-millimeter gun

who was right there,

and he had that kind of pointed

at me and Fran.

I had a pack of cigarettes

in my pocket right here,

and I saw him look

at my cigarettes.

I looked at him.

Our eyes met, and I went...

And he went...

And the machine gun came down,

and I was like...

I couldn't wait

to have a smoke myself,

and I went, "Here."

And the two of us --

He wasn't shaking, but I was


I lit his cigarette,

and, like, phew.

I was like, "Okay.

He's not going

to shoot me right now."

>> Finally, their captors

realize Denis,

Francis, and their bodyguards

pose no threat.

They weren't from the faction

that was attacking them.

The soldiers

that detained the travelers

were from a tribe

called the Hazaras,

believed to be descendants

of medieval Mongol warriors.

Such men had ambushed Marco Polo

and company some 700 years


Polo recalled that all

but seven of his group fought.

The rest, he said,

were taken captive and sold

and some put to death.

As for Denis and Francis,

they made it safely

to the city of Balkh.

>> We retreated into

our imagination,

to the 13th century,

and we read,

from Marco Polo's book,

about Balkh, and we sat over.

You know, we watched the sunset,

and that night, we went back,

and our guards told us

that 38 guys died in Hazara

during that firefight.

[ Wind gusting ]

Before we left, we checked

with the state department.

Pretty much every country

we were going to,

the state department said,

"Don't go."

That kind of violent death,

it really brought home to me

that, "Whoa. You know,

I could get killed doing this."

>> Still shaken from his

capture, Denis Belliveau

wondered whether or not

he should turn back.

Earlier that year,

his family had been ripped apart

by the death

of his beloved younger cousin.

>> He had just come into his


He was an actor.

He was going to go places.

You know, he was talented,

and it was around Christmastime,

and he had just come back

from Christmas shopping

with a friend from the play,

and as they were

getting out of their car,

all of the sudden,

a group of kids come around him.

They started to rob them,

and then one of them said,

"Do them."

And a 14-year-old shot

Rob right in the head.

He died before he hit

the ground,

so it just was -- it was just


It was just the worst time.

It made me sit back

and really re-evaluate

whether or not

I was willing to take the risk,

and I came to the realization

that, if I didn't do this,

that, you know, I didn't want

to be a middle-aged guy

who looked back and said,

"Hmm, I wish I had."


[ Camera shutter clicking ]

>> Continuing east,

the explorers entered

the perilous narrow cannon

at the eastern extreme

of Afghanistan,

a forgotten passage to China,

seldom, if ever, traveled by

Westerners, the Wakhan Corridor.

>> The Wakhan Corridor was one

of those truly wild places

where we knew

we were really walking

in Marco Polo's footsteps.

We were traveling the way he did

because the only way to get

through those mountains

is by horse and pack mule.

>> You know, one slip,

and it was some snowy paths,

and there's a 1,000-foot

drop down this icy abyss.

And even if one of the pack

mules went carrying our food,

we would've been in trouble.

>> There were few breaks

from the slow and arduous slog.

When they came, Francis

and Denis worked

on their on-camera skills

for the film they someday hoped

to make of their adventures.

>> Oh, my aching bones.

Them bones, them bones.

You see the light flashing?

>> Yeah.

We're in the Wakhan Corridor.

Wait a second.

>> We've traveled

through the country.

>> This is the Wakhan Corridor.

Marco Polo went through this way

on his way through the Pamir,

Tajikistan to China.

>> I mean, right now

it's November.

We're here a little bit later

than we'd like to be,

but it is freezing.

Right now it's not so bad,

but last night was brutal.

>> Hut!


>> You can't even imagine

that you can be that cold

for every second,

24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I mean, it didn't matter

how many blankets we had on,

you were just frozen.

But, for me, it was just

so transcendent and so pristine.

We were in a place

that was so remote and so rugged

and so raw

that all your senses were just,

like, tingling and alive.

>> In this land

that time forgot,

I'm truly immersed

in the 13th century

of Marco Polo.

I can feel his presence here.

>> [ Speaking foreign language ]

>> Polo said, "This plane,

whose name is Pamir,

extends fully 12 days journey.

And in all of these 12 days,

there is no habitation

or shelter.

The traveler

must take provisions with him."

The Wakhan starts at about

9,000 feet above sea level,

then rises to about 25,000

to what is called

the Bam-i-Duniah,

the Roof of the World.

>> And so as it ascends,

it becomes increasingly hostile.

When we were

in this fortress of Ishkashim,

at the base, we were freezing,

sleeping on this dirt floor.

And he's, you know,

he's got this nice, warm blanket

or something around him.

And I'm, you know,

a little thinner,

so maybe it's affecting me more.

So I kind of, like, you know,

rolled over next to him.

Yeah, I'm, like, trying to get

some body heat.

He's like, "Get off."

"Are you kidding me? Are you" --

>> I was like, "All right.

Come here. Come here."

[ Laughs ]

>> Grinding through the Wakhan,

they frequently saw road

markers, just as Marco Polo

had described.

"The horns

of a tremendous beast,

a master of these mountains."

It's become known

as the Marco Polo Sheep.

>> Not only does he describe

these mountain sheep,

but he says that the locals

used the horns

to build cairns on the side

of the roads to point travelers

through the snow.

>> These signposts would

eventually show the way

out of the Wakhan

and toward another country mired

in civil war, until recently

a Soviet Republic -- Tajikistan.


The last thing

the border guards expected was

a pair of grizzled Americans.

>> And we came up, you know,

gingerly pulled out

our passports.

"Amerikanski, Amerikanski."

And the guy was like, "What?"

He came over to us,

and he was like,

"No foreigners have ever crossed

this border before.

Where are you guys coming from?

Who are you?"

You know,

"How did you get these visas?"

>> These visas weren't forged.

Denis and Francis were in.

[ Switch clicking ]

>> Almost as soon as they had

arrived in Tajikistan, the

travelers were ready to leave.

The question was, how?

>> ♪ Lately I've been running on

faith ♪

>> Hold on to my bag, will you?

>> ♪ All of our dreams will come

true ♪

♪ And our world will be right

♪ When love comes over

me and you ♪

>> A modern geopolitical map

will tell you that we crossed

the border into China,

but we didn't feel

we were in China.

We were still in Central Asia.

Our first stop was in Kashgar.


>> Kashgar is a Silk Road oasis

in Western China,

in a region Marco

Polo called "Uyghurstan,

land of the Uyghurs."

Today, the Uyghurs

are a Muslim minority

within China.

Some are seeking independence.

>> They're more closely related

to the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks

than they are the Chinese,

who control them, basically.

>> As Marco Polo described


"The inhabitants live by trade

and industry.

This is the starting point

from which many merchants

set out to market their wares

all over the world."

>> [ Shouting in foreign

language ]

>> And just as travelers

did in Polo's time,

Denis and Francis

would prepare in Kashgar

for the next leg

of their journey.

>> [ Speaks foreign language ]

>> Fran's new look included

the warmest coat he could find

because the travelers

were getting ready

to enter an enormous,

forbiddingly cold desert,

the Taklamakan.

>> It's actually,

next to the Sahara,

it's the second-largest

sand-shifting desert

on the planet.

>> The name Taklamakan basically

means you go in,

but you don't come out.

>> Not only did they need

to cross the Taklamakan.

They wanted to do at least part

of the journey

as Polo and company must have.

>> So we went for 3 weeks

trying to buy camels.

And there were

no camels at market.

>> There was a reason

there was no camels because

nobody was really using them

at that point to try

to really go into the desert

except for very few people.

>> And us.

>> They thought we were crazy.

It's like mad dogs and

Englishmen only go out in the

midday sun?

Well, it's like mad dogs

and Americans

only go into the Taklamakan

in the middle of winter.


>> We had ridden horses

through Afghanistan.

It was actually very nice

to be on the back of a camel

after being on those ponies

because the ponies were,

you know, it was this all day.

And the camels have a more...

They are funny creatures.

I mean, they regurgitate

their innards, and they stink.

And they just

do this weird thing.

They just go, "Blargh!"

And all of a sudden, like,

this big veiny red thing bubbles

out of their mouth.

And then they go, "Slurp!"

and they suck it back in.

But when you're riding

on the back of it,

like, you get this smell comes

right --

It hits you. You remember that?

Did yours do that?

Mine was doing it a lot.

>> I thought that was you.

>> When you're riding for hours

and hours,

and it's just this monotony,

and it's day in and day

out the same thing,

you go to sleep, you break camp,

and it's monochromatic sand,


not even birds flying around.

You can imagine yourself

almost losing it a little bit.

>> ♪ Oh, let the sun

beat down upon my face ♪

♪ And stars fill my dreams

♪ I'm a traveler

>> Marco Polo said

of the Taklamakan,

"When a man is riding by night

through this desert,

he hears spirits talking.

These voices make him stray

from the path,

so he never finds it again."

Deep in the desert, entering

a small Uyghur village,

the travels recalled something

curious they had read

in Marco Polo's account.

"Each one has written

on his door his own name,

and that of his wife's,

and all the occupants

of the house.

If one of them dies,

he has the name struck out.

If one is born there,

his name is added to the list."

>> And we were incredulous.

Like, "Oh, my god!

This is still going on."

Back then, 700 years ago,

it was a way for the Khan

to know his domains,

who to collect taxes from,

how many people lived --

You know, a census.

In these regions,

there's a separatist movement.

The Uyghurs are chafing

under Chinese rule,

just like their neighbors

to the South, the Tibetans.

There's no love lost

between the Uyghurs

and the Chinese.

And for the Chinese

to control the Uyghurs,

they make them write this

on their doors.

>> Over 300 days,

over 4,000 miles,

now onward, through the desert,

by bus,

and an onboard encounter

with two Chinese

security officers.

>> All of a sudden they asked

for our passports,

and we said no.

And they were like,

"Get off the bus."

And we were like, "No."

And, you know, we knew

we were being shaken down.

They wanted money.

They were like,

"You have to pay.

You're foreigners.

You have to pay.

You have to pay.

You have to pay."

We didn't want to pay.

So we were like, "Meiyou,"

because it's one

of the first things

you learn in China, is the word

"meiyou" if you're a foreigner.

>> You know, technically meiyou

doesn't mean "no."

It means, "It's impossible,"

because the Chinese

are very ambivalent

in their language.

It's like, "Yao bu yao?"

"Do you want it,

you don't want it?"

"Hau bu hao?"

"Are you good, or you're not


So there's always an option.

And so our option was meiyou.

>> "Passports!" "Meiyou."

"Off the bus!" "Meiyou."

And that was, you know,

they couldn't believe that

somebody was standing up to them

because the Uyghurs

would never do it

because they would end up

in some Chinese prison

for the rest of their lives.

And they started -- You know,

one of them grabbed me.

So Fran got up, and

one of our sponsors,

the former president

of Sikorsky Aircraft,

had given us these letters

with proper

letterheads written in Chinese

to all the governors

of the provinces

we were going to.

>> Along with the letters

was a photo of their sponsor

with some Chinese officials,

unknown to Denis and Francis.

Fran showed it to the police

officers -- then, a daring


>> He pointed to our sponsor,

and he said, "This is my father.

This is Deng Xiaoping's son.

What's your name?"

And I took out a pen,

and I started writing

the Chinese guy's badge number.

They got off that bus so fast,

and the Uyghurs went crazy.

They were patting us

on the shoulders, and they were,

you know, all of a sudden,

like, melons were broken out.

You know, they were friendly

to us before that,

but now we were like --

>> We were superstars

for defying the Chinese, yeah.

>> They loved that.

>> If China's security bureau

harassed them on a bus ride,

what would it do if it

found them sneaking through

a restricted military area?

>> We're just about

to leave Muslim areas

and enter Middle China.

We're on a paved section

of the Southern Silk Road

skirting the Desert of Lop.

Not far from here

is where the Chinese

do their nuclear testing.

That road doesn't exist

on a Chinese map.

They don't want anybody

going there because that's where

they do their nuclear testing.

We needed to go

through that desert.

>> With the help of Uyghur

guides and a Jeep, Denis and

Francis went undercover.

>> If we would've gotten caught,

you know, with American

pressure, maybe we would've seen

the light of day after a couple


Hopefully they would've just

kicked us out of the country.

The Uyghurs that took us through

that place, who knows

what would've happened to them.

They drove us through at night,

lights turned off,

and we would drive for hours

and hours and hours.

And when the sun

started coming up,

we'd go hide into the desert

and hide behind a dune

because if the military came by

and saw us out there, it would

be the end of Marco Polo.

So we did that

for a couple days,

and we eventually got

to Dunhuang.

You know, we'd been in China

for hundreds

and hundreds of miles

and for months already,

but we didn't feel

like we were in China.

This was China.

>> China, the biggest Marco

milestone so far,

embodying the reason

for their journey,

for the risks they had taken,

surviving fierce cold

and fierce warriors,

defying authorities

at every turn.

In the city of Dunhuang

were luxuries fit

for the great Khan himself,

food that seemed exquisite

after weeks in the desert.

>> So at Dunhuang is where we

had our first real Chinese meal,

no more sheep guts.

>> And even more exquisite?

A hotel room with

a proper shower.

>> We flipped a coin,

after weeks and weeks

without washing ourselves,

who was going

to get the shower first.

Fran won.

>> So after singing about 20

or 30 songs in the shower, Denis

finally convinced me to get out.

And, you know,

when he stepped in, he was like,

"Dude, what are you doing to me

over here?"

Right, because the water was,

like, all filled up.

When it finally drained,

there was a layer of sand,

just from my body,

that had to be, I don't know,

1/8-inch thick across

the whole bottom of the tub.

>> Marco Polo had changed

world history

with his account of a land

virtually unknown to Europeans,

helping to inaugurate

an unprecedented era

of interaction

between distant cultures.

Now Denis and Francis

would step up

their search for evidence

that his words were true.

Polo noted that among

the Chinese

are wise philosophers

and physicians with a great

knowledge of nature.

"Here, at every hour,

are crowds going to and fro,

that anyone seeing

such a multitude would believe

its stark impossibility

that food could be found to feed

so many mouths.

Men, as well as women, are

fair-skinned and good-looking.

Most of them wear silk

all of the time

since it is produced

in great abundance."

There were many pleasures

for the travelers in China, but

there were difficulties, too,

especially in the city known

as "Cambaluc" to Marco Polo.

Today it's called Beijing.

Here, Polo tells us

he made his home base

for 17 years

in the service of the Mongol

Emperor Kublai Khan.

But the modern travelers

in Polo's footsteps

didn't feel at home at all.

It was early 1994.

China was much less open

to the world at that time

than it is today,

with many fewer visitors

from the West.

>> It was a very difficult

part of the journey.

The problem for us

was we had been traveling

for a year already.

We were tired.

We were cold. We were homesick.

>> And used to being treated

exceptionally well.

>> And used to being

invited into people's homes,

called "brother."

You know, the hospitality

that we had received up

until that point was amazing.

So when we got to the heart

of China, Beijing,

we definitely felt a change.

I mean, if meiyou was

the first word

we learned in Chinese,

then "gweilo"

and "loawai" were the second

and third words we learned.

And "gweilo" is "foreign devil."

And "loawai" means "big-nose."

Whether they were afraid of us,

maybe our appearance,

we had let ourselves go,

being out in the wilderness,

and we had this fierce

look about us,

and we kept it going,

I don't know.

>> I mean, when I was there,

there was a lot of times

I wish I wasn't there.

I'm just exhausted.

I never thought

I'd feel this way,

but the endless movement

from one fleabag hotel

to the next,

sleeping with one eye open

and waiting for days for a seat

for a bus or a train,

the never-ending stares

and attention

of being a curiosity,

it's really getting to me.


It's a wonderful place to be.

I [bleep] hate it here.

I hate Marco Polo.

I hate Venice.

Watch out what you wish for.

You might get it.

I mean, we had a tough time,

but China isn't an easy place.

I think that's what makes it

that much more beautiful

and that much more endearing,

that much more rich

because sometimes, you know,

if something's easy,

you take it for granted.

If something's difficult,

that's what made the experience

that much sweeter and richer.

>> A visit to Gansu Province

provided perhaps the sweetest,

richest Marco Polo moment

in China

and a crucial piece of evidence

that the Venetian had been

where he said he'd been.

>> Marco Polo talks about this

reclining Buddha in Zhangye,

and it's one of the few pieces

of artwork

that he describes in his book

that still exists today.

When he stood there,

it was already 300

or 400 years old.

>> We spent so many hours

in front of it that it became,

like, a meditation

on not the past,

but the present.

And that's, I mean, of course --

>> Living in the moment.

>> What Buddha said, you know,

it's right here, right now, this


You know, don't worry

about yesterday.

It's gone.

Don't worry about tomorrow.

It hasn't come yet.

Life is right here.


>> [ Singing in foreign

language ]

>> The Mongols were

in China when he was there.

In fact, he writes more

about Mongol life

than he does the Chinese.

We felt it was necessary

that we hit the steppes

and go off to Mongolia.

We were, boom, right back

into the 13th century again.

>> Polo said of the Mongols,

"They have circular houses

covered with felt,

which they carry about with them

on wagons wherever they go."

>> We walk up to the tent

and just ingratiate ourselves

to the people.

Just walk up, out of nowhere,

and say, "Hold the dog."

It's kind of like, "Hello.

We're here."

>> The Mongol families here

invited the travelers

into their daily way of life.

The sights and sounds

would've been familiar

to Marco Polo.

>> [ Speaking foreign

language ]

>> They slaughtered

their sheep exactly

like Marco said they would.

They would grab a sheep,

turn it over on its back,

make an incision in the chest.

The sheep would, you know,

jerk around for a little bit,

and then it would die,

but the blood would pool

into the chest cavity.

Then they would open it up,

take out the organs and stuff,

and collect all that blood

and make blood sausage

out of the intestines.

Every single edible piece

of the animal wasn't wasted,

and Marco noticed this, too.

It was endless.

I mean, we kept seeing quote

after quote

coming to life out of his book.


>> Polo said of Mongol warriors,

"They rely mainly on their bows,

for they are excellent archers."

And, of course, he spoke of

the Mongols' famed way

with horses.

"They spend the winter

in the steppes

and warmer regions,

where there is good grazing

and pasturage for their beasts.

You should know

that they drink mare's milk."

>> They drink every kind

of milk product

that you can imagine.

I think they have, like,

22 different milk products

with cheeses or yogurts.

They are the milk-eating people.

>> [ Speaks foreign language ]

>> [ Speaks foreign language ]

>> [ Chuckles ]

>> [ Speaks foreign language ]

>> As a photographer, too,

just the light in Mongolia

is spectacular.


It was definitely one

of the highlights of the journey

and one of the places --

You know, people often ask me,

you know, "Of all the countries

you went to, what are the ones

that you want to go back to?"

Mongolia is very high up

on the list.


>> Part of Polo's charge

from Kublai Khan was to travel

the width and breadth of the

great Mongol Empire,

visiting not just great cities

and forbidding deserts

but also what,

for the travelers,

was another Marco milestone --

mountainous, glorious Tibet.

>> Yeah, you're

in the desert for months.

So you got beige and beige,

and maybe a little bit of beige.

Then, all of a sudden,

you're in this town where

they're, like, in Technicolor.

They're wearing reds

and yellow-yellows

and coral necklaces

and amber decorations

and silver and leopard pelts.

And they're warm,

and they're ingratiating.

And, you know,

it's kind of like being

in the "Wizard of Oz,"

where Dorothy, you know,

she goes to Oz.

And it goes from black and white

to color.

It's just like that.

[ Horn blares ]

>> Marco Polo recounted,

"They speak a language

of their own

and call themselves Tibet.

Coral fetches a high price,

for it is hung around the necks

of women and idols

with great joy.

They make the most magnificent

feasts for their idols,

with the most magnificent hymns

and illuminations

that were ever seen.

They have huge monasteries

and abbeys inhabited

by 2,000 monks

who are better dressed

than other men.

They wear their heads

and chins clean-shaven."

[ Car horns honking ]

>> When we finally reached

Hong Kong, it was just a culture


I mean, initially, I hated it

because I was so used

to being out in remote places

with the local peoples

and kind of roughing it.

After a couple days,

it felt good.

We actually, you know,

went to places

that we try to avoid here,

like Pizza Hut and McDonald's

and stuff like that.

>> August 1994, in Hong Kong,

the travelers

couldn't begin to imagine

they were in the 13th century.

Their next destination --

the island of Sumatra.

Polo and company

were given royal passage

by Kublai Khan in the largest

and most seaworthy cargo

ships of their day.

According to Polo, they set sail

"fitted out with a fleet

of 14 ships,

each of which had four masts,

and as many as 12 sails."

>> So we figured, let's get on

a big container ship and sail

like he did on a merchant ship.

And they said, "No.

You guys are crazy.

The days of sailing

around the world

on a steamer ship are long gone.

With insurance liabilities and

unions, we don't just let

anybody get on these ships."

We didn't accept that.

We were going to get on a ship

come hell or high water.

>> It was neither hell

nor high water,

but a little local publicity

that did the trick.

>> Who's paying for this?

>> Well, we got sponsorship

from different companies

before we left,

but, at this point,

we're running out.

So anybody in Hong Kong

who's interested

in a historical project

can get in touch with us.

And after our radio interview,

we went to see the last big

shipping company, P&O.

And we went in,

and we pitched them,

and, fortunately,

the person we were pitching

heard our radio interview.

And he was like,

"We're going to ship you guys

all the way to India."

We had to sign

on as crew members,

but we were on a cargo ship.

We were sailing

for free from China,

so we were pretty high

at that point.

>> Perhaps they deserved

a little good luck.

They figured they had

made their own luck.

Either way, they were on a ship

sailing south to Sumatra,

just as Marco Polo had.

>> Marco tells us that he's

stranded there for 5 months

because the monsoon

winds have changed

and he can't continue west.

He goes on to describe

the people there

as savages, cannibals.

There's even

a famous illumination

that's in one of his

original books where --

It's kind of funny

because in the Middle Ages,

they made all these

Asiatic people

look like Europeans.

So there's these guys

with white beards and,

you know, European clothes on,

and they're, like, eating arms

and legs.

>> Cannibalism is long gone

from Sumatra,

but Denis and Francis

did detect traces

of the 13th century

on the Indonesian Island

of Siberut,

where they would soon encounter

another Marco milestone.

>> [ Speaking foreign

language ]

>> I mean, it was like,

you know,

"The Lost World," you know?


[ Conversing in foreign

language ]

>> Polo told in detail

of the local people's skill

in the art of the tattoo.

"Male and female

have their flesh covered

all over with pictures

made with needles in such a way

that they are indelible.

They make these on their faces,

necks, bellies, hands, legs.

The more elaborate

anyone is decorated,

the greater and handsomer

he is considered."

>> When he asked them

why do they do that,

they said that's because

without their tattoos,

they would feel naked.

So this is

kind of like their clothing.

You know, we had been there

for several weeks and I had been

trying to coax them

into giving me a tattoo.

And they kept, like,

yessing me to death,

and I didn't think

I was going to actually get one.

>> [ Speaking foreign language ]

>> I'm watching the guy

giving him the tattoo,

and I'm sitting there,

and I'm going, "Man, he's going

to get hepatitis or something.

He's going down

with this thing,"

because they basically took

some sort of black soot ash

from the fire,

charcoal or something,

and he mixed that with water,

and he might have --

>> Oil.

>> ...put some sort of oil from

a plant, and, you know,

turned it into an ink.

And he had this --

>> Stingray spine.

>> Yeah, it was some

sort of natural needle that

he had on the end of a stick,

and he would dip

the needle in the ink.

And then he had another stick

that he would whack.

The needle was kind of

cantilevered on the stick,

and he was whack, whack, whack,


>> And I'm --

>> Actually wiping the blood

with this dirty rag,

and I'm going -- I'm looking at


I'm like, "What are you doing,


This is going to be bad."

>> [ Speaks foreign language ]

>> After I got it, I was like,

"Oh, my god.

What did I do to myself?"

You know, "I look terrible."

I thought that -- But this is

actually my favorite one

because, you know --

>> It's real.

>> It's because it's real.

It's the real McCoy.

You know what I mean?


>> Soon would come a modern

milestone for the travelers,

a matter of geography

and the compass needle.

Heading west, towards home

at last, was bittersweet,

a reminder that the road

did not go on forever.

Not only that,

they couldn't forget

that their road ran

through Persia, Iran,

where soon enough Denis

and Francis would determine

if their trip was to end

in success or failure.

>> For a year and a half,

we traveled with the Sword

of Damocles

hanging over our heads,

never knowing

whether all the effort

and time and energy

and hopes and dreams

that we put into the project

was going to be just for naught,

or whether we were

going to be able to, you know,

maybe somehow

pull this thing off.

And it all kind of hinged

on whether we'd be able

to get visas for Iran.

>> But before Iran lay India,

and as they sailed

toward the Port of Madras,

they stopped worrying

about access to Marco's Persia

and started worrying

about how they were going

to get off the ship.

>> "October 20th,

India's visible in the distance.

We've dropped anchor out here

as the captain says it will be 3

or 4 days until we get a berth

in the Port of Madras."

>> "October 22nd,

we've been hanging with the crew

and drinking cheap brandy,

fishing for squid off the stern.

The sea is awash with these

globs of mushroom-like

jellyfish, hundreds, thousands

of them."

>> "October 25th, we will be

anchored at least another 3


The last two have been consumed

by sleep and reading.

I've finished my book

and have now read every magazine

onboard the ship, and now even

considering the Bible."

>> "October 30th,

I can't believe

we're still on this vessel.

Apparently, they've never had

foreign nationals

disembarking as passengers

off of a cargo ship before."

>> "October 31st,

what a bureaucratic nightmare

this has turned out to be.

They're now grilling us

over our itinerary

and want to know exactly

what kind of film we're making.

What difference does it make?

We have valid visas.

Just let us off the boat."

"November 1st, finally,

they've allowed us to sign off

as crewmen on the condition

we leave the country

in 72 hours.

That gives us a 3-day head start

to get lost

in the sub-continent.

They'll have to catch us."

India is alive.

You know, they have

1,000-year-old temples,

and people are still praying in


It's not like, you know, you go

to Egypt, and you see

this ancient culture,

but it doesn't exist anymore.

You know, you're looking

at these ruins.

You go to India,

and you're looking at ruins,

and the people

are still praying in them.

So, it's like, "Whoa!"


>> And everywhere were echoes

of Polo's distant words.

He said, "The local people

could trust no sailor,

for they say that a man

who goes to sea

must be a man in despair."

He described the Brahmins

who "are known by an emblem

which they wear,

for they carry a cord of cotton

on their shoulder,

and fastened across the chest."

>> We've come across more

Marco Polo descriptions faster

here in India than any other


>> Polo told as well

of India's gods.

"They have idols with the heads

of four faces,

and some with three heads,

one in the right place,

and one on either shoulder.

Some have four hands, some 10,

and some 1,000."

And he described the habits

of the people he encountered.

"As soon as a child is born,

the father and mother

have a record made in writing

of his nativity.

This they do because they guide

all their actions by the Counsel

of Astrologers and Diviners,

who are skilled in enchantment

and magic and geomancy."

Denis Belliveau had

a diviner read his fortune.

>> He read mine and said

I will die

when I'm 75 years old.

My wife will be a strong person

and very supportive of me.

She will make me a better man.

We'll have two kids

who will grow up strong

and well-educated.

Sounds good.

Can't wait to meet them.

[ Chatter ]

>> But rather than the future,

it was the present that

caught up with Francis O'Donnell

in India.

>> "November 30th,

I just called home

for the first time in months.

My poor mother,

she had to tell me

that my father is dead.

I can't believe it.

I'm full of remorse and guilt

for not being there to comfort

my mom and sisters."


My father used to pack up

the whole family and stick us

in a station wagon and travel up

and down the Eastern Seaboard

to, like, the Revolutionary

and Colonial

fortresses and stuff.

We want to Fort William Henry

and Ticonderoga, and, you know,

Williamsburg and Valley Forge.

And I believe my dad

was a frustrated historian,

and he kind of put

that love of history

into my soul.

I'm just kind of guilty about

having not been there

to be able to comfort

my mother and sisters.

So, you know, Denny said to me,

"What do we do?

What do you want to do?"

I mean, he kind of thought that

maybe I'd want to go home,

but what I did was rededicate

the whole journey to his memory

because he had taught me

to really love history.

And if it hadn't been for him

in a lot of respects,

I probably would've never been

on this path.

So, I swore that we would get

into Iran, no matter what, just

so this, you know,

wouldn't all be in vain.

"December 19th,

all I want for Christmas

are two visas to Iran.

Like déjà vu, we've been stuck

for weeks

as the Iranians mess with us."

>> If we didn't get into Iran,

why are we busting ourselves?

You know, why are we going

through all this?

Let's just go on the beach

and go, like, hang out,

and, like, catch a tan,

and, you know, meet girls.

>> That would've

been devastating.

Everything would've been

no joy in any of it.


>> We've remained faithful

to our dream, and day in and day

out have done our jobs believing

it wouldn't,

couldn't be in vain,

that if we put ourselves,

literally, on the right path,

doors that seemed

closed would magically open.

But, you know, sometimes

you just have to kick them down.

We've come up

with a dangerous plan.

We'll give them one more week

for our visas,

then we'll cut

through Afghanistan again,

use our contacts there

to sneak into Iran,

and then into the hands

of the Kurdish Underground.

We'll let them smuggle us

across the mountains

and back into Turkey.

It's utter insanity,

so I'm trying

not to think of the consequences

if we get caught.

>> But before trying to sneak

into Iran,

the American travelers decided

to make one last-ditch effort.

They would divert

from Polo's route to Pakistan,

where they made a desperate plea

to the Iranian ambassador.

>> Every single day

for the next 2 weeks,

we'd go to the Iranian embassy.

And the guy working

behind the desk

was, like, laughing at us.

He was like, "There's no way.

There's no way

you're going to get a visa.

It's just impossible."

And then,

one morning the phone rang.

[ Telephone rings ]

>> Hello?

>> And he said,

"Get to the embassy now.

Your visa is going to be

waiting for you."


>> Hey, we're in Iran.


>> They told us

when we got our visas,

"You're basically

the first Americans

allowed in here since 1979.

And we're not giving you a 3-day

tourist transit visa.

We're giving you a full month

to do what you need to do."

>> Seven centuries earlier,

Marco Polo knew Iran as

"a very large country

with eight kingdoms."

He described

a wondrous technology.

"The climate is so hot

that houses

are fitted with ventilators

to catch the wind.

The ventilators

are set to face the quarter

from which the wind blows

and let it blow into the house."

Polo also told

of a murderous medieval sect.

>> [ Coughs ]

This is the Valley of the

Assassins in Northern Iran.

And Marco Polo writes about

this old man in the mountain,

this myth about this sect.

The word "assassin"

basically comes from this sect.

They were the Hashshashins,

or Hashashins,

which means "hash eaters."

Young men were brought

to this place,

and they got high on hashish.

They were given

hashish and opium.

They would go

and they would kill whoever that

their lord told them to kill.

>> Polo said that the old man

would tell his assassins

that "he was minded

to dispatch them to paradise.

They were to kill such

and such a man.

If they died on their mission,

they would go there

all the sooner."

>> Who would ever think

that a group of terrorists

would actually originate here

in Persia?

>> I didn't say that.

Yeah, that's basically

what they were.

They were medieval terrorists.


>> Well, I think

from our perspectives

as having been in the Marines

and just gotten out right

before the Irani Revolution

and the takeover of the American

embassy, they were kind of,

like, a demon to me.

Iran was, like, you know,

kind of an evil place

in my subconscious,

in the back of my mind.

>> Part of the deal was

that we would have to have a car

and driver meet us at the border

and stay with us the whole time.

We were, like we always do,

engaging people, talking to

people in the streets,

and our handler was like,

"You must never talk to people."

>> "Don't tell them you're


>> "They will kill you!"

>> "February 11th,

today is the anniversary

of the Islamic Revolution

that brought down the Shah,

installed Khomeini as leader,

and stormed

the American embassy."

When we woke up that morning,

we heard people

marching past our hotel

on their way to the square.

>> Denis and I, we

tried to approach the crowd.

We had our camera bag with us.

>> Every cell in our bodies

was telling us

to go the opposite direction,

but we just went with it.

We knew we had to go

into that square.

As we wandered into a square

with thousands of people

chanting, "Death to America,"

burning the flag

and an effigy of the president,

we were definitely noticed.

Some people asked where we were

from and looked bewildered

when we told them.

>> Denis was talking to a guy,

and he was saying to him,

"We're from the most famous


country in the world."

And he was like, "Australia?"

"No, it's big and rich

and powerful."

And he's like, "England?"

He's like,

"We're the most famous country,

the most famous English-speaking

country in the world."

"Uh, English-speaking country in

the world."

He's like, "New Zealand?"

>> "Canada?"

>> "Canada?" Yeah.

There's no way they believed it.

Americans can't come

to this country.

>> But what really got

our attention today

was seeing the indoctrination

of children by the regime,

young minds

being schooled in hatred.

[ Children chanting ]

But, in truth,

I never felt personally menaced.

Once we got away from the main

square with its TV cameras

and ranting crowds,

it seemed that most people were

just happy

to have the day off from work.

In fact, the Iranian people

are amongst the nicest

and most hospitable

we have ever come across.

>> As much as the Turks

were hospitable, the Iranians

were that much more.

>> It was early 1995.

They had been traveling

for nearly 2 years,

and leaving Iran,

Denis and Francis knew

finally that they had done it.

Against all odds, they had been

where the Venetian had been,

seen what he had seen.

Not only had they followed

their hearts,

they had met their goal,

walking in the footsteps

of Marco Polo.


>> So when we crossed from Iran

into Turkey,

it was almost too official.

People lined up on a road,

and we're, like, shaking hands

with every single one of them,

with Mount Ararat in the


>> Not only did they roll out

the red carpet for us,

but it was kind of like

a magic carpet

because they kind of took us

by the hand,

led us across the country,

and shipped us to Venice.

>> Yeah.

>> Which was nice because

for the first time in 2 years,

we really didn't have to think.

We were just, like, stars,

and they put us up in a nice

hotel, and we got to eat good

food and sleep in a nice bed.

>> And they put us on a ship,

and we sailed into Venice.

So Denis and I kind of stood

on the bow of the ship

as Venice floated by,

and we kind of had

this little moment of,

you know, unspoken,

you know, realization between us

that this was it, you know?

>> Yeah.

>> And it was kind of melancholy

because, you know,

while you're out there

and you're yearning for home,

and maybe you're saying,

"I wish I wasn't here."

It is freezing.

Right now it's not so bad,

but last night was brutal.

I [bleep] hate it here.

>> I have a splitting headache.

>> Somebody send him

his sunglasses and some aspirin.

You never -- We were almost like

you never thought this point

was ever going to come,

and now here it is, and you want

to do anything you can to, like,

turn around and go back

and not have to go home.

I wanted to go back out there

because I didn't think I was

going to be able to kind of go

back to the "real world."

[ Laughter ]

It's me, Marco Polo,

returned home.

We had an amazing reception.

They gave us a Royal Regatta

of gondolas down the

Grand Canal, took us right to

St. Mark's Square,

and the Bells of St. Mark's

itself were rung in our honor as

we disembarked into the square.

>> Tourists are taking

our pictures.

They don't know who we are.

They were like, you know, all of

a sudden all these tourists,

and we've got, like, a group

around us.

>> Our families are surrounding


>> Yeah, well, my mom nearly

knocked me over and, like, clung

onto me for the next few hours,

and it was great.

It was great. It was wonderful,

but sad that it was ending,

didn't want it to end.

Wish there was a couple

more countries to pursue.

We had collected all that


During Marco Polo's trip,

during his journey,

he talks about things

that he collected.

>> And brought back.

>> Sago seeds from the sago

palm in Sumatra.

He talks about flyswatters

made from yak tails.

And we collected

the same things.

>> Paper money, as well.

>> Yeah, paper money.

All the things that he says

that he brought back,

we tried to bring back today,

and we presented these

to the mayor of Venice.

And I had my Afghan hat on,

and the mayor was like,

"I would like to have your hat."

And I was like, "No, meiyou."

So that night there was

a gala reception for us

with the mayor and tourism

and our parents and family.

And the mayor got up

and made a speech.

And, you know, he was like,

"What could we do for you,

two Americans who have invested

so much in our history?"

And we just said,

"We only have one request.

We want to see

Marco Polo's will."



>> Today, Francis O'Donnell

is an artist living in Queens.

Like Denis Belliveau,

he's convinced that Marco Polo

saw all he claimed

to see of the world.

His own work reflects

all he has seen of it.

>> Jake, give me a big slide!

Go ahead!

>> As for Denis,

that Indian diviner

turned out to be right.

Today, he has a wife

and two children

who he lives with in Queens.

He continues his work

as a photographer.

>> I would say that most of

the world

is full of good people.

There's a lot more good people

on the planet than bad.


>> It's easy

to hate someone you never met.

Travel is the enemy of bigotry.


>> Get out there.

Meet them.

They're good.

Don't believe the hype.

Don't believe

the state department.

Don't believe the media.

>> The future may never come.

So it's just right here and now

and just to enjoy the moment.

That's the most precious lesson

that I've learned, I think.

There's a few objects

that have special meaning

that I just had

to have and had to bring home.

I brought back my saddle

from Xinjiang Province

when Denis and I rode 400 miles

from Kashgar to Hotan.

And it's a beautiful art object.

It's not very practical

as a saddle,

but I don't really think

about the hardship

that was endured on it.

I think about the majesty

of our journey.

I really don't need pictures

or artwork

to remember these things

because it's locked in my heart,

but I do like to surround myself

with beautiful things.

But I'll still sell them

to travel.

[ Chuckles ]

>> ♪ I hear a wind

♪ Whistling air

♪ Whispering

in my ear ♪


>> ♪ Boy Mercury shooting

through every degree ♪

♪ Oh, girl dancing down

those dirty and dusty trails ♪

♪ Take it hip to hip

♪ Rocket through the

wilderness ♪

♪ Around the world

♪ The trip begins with a kiss

♪ Roam if you want to

♪ Roam around the world

♪ Roam if you want to

♪ Without wings,

without wheels ♪

♪ Roam if you want to

♪ Roam around the world

♪ Roam if you want to

♪ Without anything but the love

we feel ♪

>> We're going to have

to come up with something else.

What are we going to do next?

>> Well, we been thinking

about a lot of things.

We have a lot of plans on the


>> What about getting elephants

and retracing the route

of Hannibal across the Alps?

>> That would be great.

I just don't know if

I can handle the cold anymore,

you know?

>> Funding for "In the Footsteps

of Marco Polo" was provided by

The Starr Foundation...

and by the Center

for Cultural Interchange,

dedicated to cultural


environmental consciousness,

and world peace

through student exchange.

The companion book is available

for $29.95

plus shipping and handling.

To order, call 1-800-847-7793,

or visit


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