The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxvi.

How the Kaan’s Posts and Runners are Sped Through Many Lands and Provinces.

Now you must know that from this city of Cambaluc proceed many roads and highways leading to a variety of provinces, one to one province, another to another; and each road receives the name of the province to which it leads; and it is a very sensible plan.1 And the messengers of the Emperor in travelling from Cambaluc, be the road whichsoever they will, find at every twenty-five miles of the journey a station which they call Yamb,2 or, as we should say, the “Horse–Post-House.” And at each of those stations used by the messengers, there is a large and handsome building for them to put up at, in which they find all the rooms furnished with fine beds and all other necessary articles in rich silk, and where they are provided with everything they can want. If even a king were to arrive at one of these, he would find himself well lodged.

At some of these stations, moreover, there shall be posted some four hundred horses standing ready for the use of the messengers; at others there shall be two hundred, according to the requirements, and to what the Emperor has established in each case. At every twenty-five miles, as I said, or anyhow at every thirty miles, you find one of these stations, on all the principal highways leading to the different provincial governments; and the same is the case throughout all the chief provinces subject to the Great Kaan.3 Even when the messengers have to pass through a roadless tract where neither house nor hostel exists, still there the station-houses have been established just the same, excepting that the intervals are somewhat greater, and the day’s journey is fixed at thirty-five to forty-five miles, instead of twenty-five to thirty. But they are provided with horses and all the other necessaries just like those we have described, so that the Emperor’s messengers, come they from what region they may, find everything ready for them.

And in sooth this is a thing done on the greatest scale of magnificence that ever was seen. Never had emperor, king, or lord, such wealth as this manifests! For it is a fact that on all these posts taken together there are more than 300,000 horses kept up, specially for the use of the messengers. And the great buildings that I have mentioned are more than 10,000 in number, all richly furnished, as I told you. The thing is on a scale so wonderful and costly that it is hard to bring oneself to describe it.4

But now I will tell you another thing that I had forgotten, but which ought to be told whilst I am on this subject. You must know that by the Great Kaan’s orders there has been established between those post-houses, at every interval of three miles, a little fort with some forty houses round about it, in which dwell the people who act as the Emperor’s foot-runners. Every one of those runners wears a great wide belt, set all over with bells, so that as they run the three miles from post to post their bells are heard jingling a long way off. And thus on reaching the post the runner finds another man similarly equipt, and all ready to take his place, who instantly takes over whatsoever he has in charge, and with it receives a slip of paper from the clerk, who is always at hand for the purpose; and so the new man sets off and runs his three miles. At the next station he finds his relief ready in like manner; and so the post proceeds, with a change at every three miles. And in this way the Emperor, who has an immense number of these runners, receives despatches with news from places ten days’ journey off in one day and night; or, if need be, news from a hundred days off in ten days and nights; and that is no small matter! (In fact in the fruit season many a time fruit shall be gathered one morning in Cambaluc, and the evening of the next day it shall reach the Great Kaan at Chandu, a distance of ten days’ journey.5 The clerk at each of the posts notes the time of each courier’s arrival and departure; and there are often other officers whose business it is to make monthly visitations of all the posts, and to punish those runners who have been slack in their work.6) The Emperor exempts these men from all tribute, and pays them besides.

Moreover, there are also at those stations other men equipt similarly with girdles hung with bells, who are employed for expresses when there is a call for great haste in sending despatches to any governor of a province, or to give news when any Baron has revolted, or in other such emergencies; and these men travel a good two hundred or two hundred and fifty miles in the day, and as much in the night. I’ll tell you how it stands. They take a horse from those at the station which are standing ready saddled, all fresh and in wind, and mount and go at full speed, as hard as they can ride in fact. And when those at the next post hear the bells they get ready another horse and a man equipt in the same way, and he takes over the letter or whatever it be, and is off full-speed to the third station, where again a fresh horse is found all ready, and so the despatch speeds along from post to post, always at full gallop, with regular change of horses. And the speed at which they go is marvellous. (By night, however, they cannot go so fast as by day, because they have to be accompanied by footmen with torches, who could not keep up with them at full speed.)

Those men are highly prized; and they could never do it, did they not bind hard the stomach, chest and head with strong bands. And each of them carries with him a gerfalcon tablet, in sign that he is bound on an urgent express; so that if perchance his horse break down, or he meet with other mishap, whomsoever he may fall in with on the road, he is empowered to make him dismount and give up his horse. Nobody dares refuse in such a case; so that the courier hath always a good fresh nag to carry him.7

Now all these numbers of post-horses cost the Emperor nothing at all; and I will tell you the how and the why. Every city, or village, or hamlet, that stands near one of those post-stations, has a fixed demand made on it for as many horses as it can supply, and these it must furnish to the post. And in this way are provided all the posts of the cities, as well as the towns and villages round about them; only in uninhabited tracts the horses are furnished at the expense of the Emperor himself.

(Nor do the cities maintain the full number, say of 400 horses, always at their station, but month by month 200 shall be kept at the station, and the other 200 at grass, coming in their turn to relieve the first 200. And if there chance to be some river or lake to be passed by the runners and horse-posts, the neighbouring cities are bound to keep three or four boats in constant readiness for the purpose.)

And now I will tell you of the great bounty exercised by the Emperor towards his people twice a year.

NOTE 1. — The G. Text has “et ce est mout sçue chouse”; Pauthier’s Text, “mais il est moult celé” The latter seems absurd. I have no doubt that sçue is correct, and is an Italianism, saputo having sometimes the sense of prudent or judicious. Thus P. della Valle (II. 26), speaking of Shah Abbas: “Ma noti V.S. i tiri di questo re, saputo insieme e bizzarro,” “acute with all his eccentricity.”

NOTE 2. — Both Neumann and Pauthier seek Chinese etymologies of this Mongol word, which the Tartars carried with them all over Asia. It survives in Persian and Turki in the senses both of a post-house and a post-horse, and in Russia, in the former sense, is a relic of the Mongol dominion. The ambassadors of Shah Rukh, on arriving at Sukchu, were lodged in the Yám-Khána, or post-house, by the city gate; and they found ninety-nine such Yams between Sukchu and Khanbaligh, at each of which they were supplied with provisions, servants, beds, night-clothes, etc. Odoric likewise speaks of the hostelries called Yam, and Rubruquis applies the same term to quarters in the imperial camp, which were assigned for the lodgment of ambassadors. (Cathay, ccii. 137; Rubr. 310.)

[Mr. Rockhill (Rubruck, 101, note) says that these post-stations were established by Okkodai in 1234 throughout the Mongol empire. (D’Ohsson, ii. 63.) Dr. G. Schlegel (T’oung Pao, II. 1891, 265, note) observes that iam is not, as Pauthier supposed, a contraction of yi-mà, horse post-house (yi-mà means post-horse, and Pauthier makes a mistake), but represents the Chinese character [Chinese], pronounced at present chán, which means in fact a road station, a post. In Annamite, this character [Chinese] is pronounced tram, and it means, according to Bonet’s Dict. Annamite–Français: “Relais de poste, station de repos.” (See Bretschneider, Med. Res. I. p. 187 note.)— H. C.]

NOTE 3. — Martini and Magaillans, in the 17th century, give nearly the same account of the government hostelries.

NOTE 4. — Here Ramusio has this digression: “Should any one find it difficult to understand how there should be such a population as all this implies, and how they can subsist, the answer is that all the Idolaters, and Saracens as well, take six, eight, or ten wives apiece when they can afford it, and beget an infinity of children. In fact, you shall find many men who have each more than thirty sons who form an armed retinue to their father, and this through the fact of his having so many wives. With us, on the other hand, a man hath but one wife; and if she be barren, still he must abide by her for life, and have no progeny; thus we have not such a population as they have.

“And as regards food, they have abundance; for they generally consume rice, panic, and millet (especially the Tartars, Cathayans, and people of Manzi); and these three crops in those countries render an hundred-fold. Those nations use no bread, but only boil those kinds of grain with milk or meat for their victual. Their wheat, indeed, does not render so much, but this they use only to make vermicelli, and pastes of that description. No spot of arable land is left untilled; and their cattle are infinitely prolific, so that when they take the field every man is followed by six, eight, or more horses for his own use. Thus you may clearly perceive how the population of those parts is so great, and how they have such an abundance of food.”

NOTE 5. — The Burmese kings used to have the odoriferous Durian transmitted by horse-posts from Tenasserim to Ava. But the most notable example of the rapid transmission of such dainties, and the nearest approach I know of to their despatch by telegraph, was that practised for the benefit of the Fatimite Khalif Aziz (latter part of 10th century), who had a great desire for a dish of cherries of Balbek. The Wazir Yakub ben-Kilis caused six hundred pigeons to be despatched from Balbek to Cairo, each of which carried attached to either leg a small silk bag containing a cherry! (Quat. Makrizi, IV. 118.)

NOTE 6. —“Note is taken at every post,” says Amyot, in speaking of the Chinese practice of last century, “of the time of the courier’s arrival, in order that it may be known at what point delays have occurred.” (Mém. VIII. 185.)

NOTE 7. — The post-system is described almost exactly as in the text by Friar Odoric and the Archbishop of Soltania, in the generation after Polo, and very much in the same way by Magaillans in the 17th century. Posts had existed in China from an old date. They are spoken of by Mas’udi and the Relations of the 9th century. They were also employed under the ancient Persian kings; and they were in use in India, at least in the generation after Polo. The Mongols, too, carried the institution wherever they went.

Polo describes the couriers as changed at short intervals, but more usually in Asiatic posts the same man rides an enormous distance. The express courier in Tibet, as described by “the Pandit,” rides from Gartokh to Lhasa, a distance of 800 miles, travelling day and night. The courier’s coat is sealed upon him, so that he dares not take off his clothes till the seal is officially broken on his arrival at the terminus. These messengers had faces cracked, eyes bloodshot and sunken, and bodies raw with vermin. (J. R. G. S. XXXVIII. p. 149.) The modern Turkish post from Constantinople to Baghdad, a distance of 1100 miles, is done in twenty days by four Tartars riding night and day. The changes are at Sivas, Diarbekir, and Mosul. M. Tchihatcheff calculates that the night riding accomplishes only one quarter of the whole. (Asie Mineure, 2’de Ptie. 632–635.)— See I. p. 352, paï tze.

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