The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter liii.

Of the Great Descent that Leads Towards the Kingdom of Mien.

After leaving the Province of which I have been speaking you come to a great Descent. In fact you ride for two days and a half continually down hill. On all this descent there is nothing worthy of mention except only that there is a large place there where occasionally a great market is held; for all the people of the country round come thither on fixed days, three times a week, and hold a market there. They exchange gold for silver; for they have gold in abundance; and they give one weight of fine gold for five weights of fine silver; so this induces merchants to come from various quarters bringing silver which they exchange for gold with these people; and in this way the merchants make great gain. As regards those people of the country who dispose of gold so cheaply, you must understand that nobody is acquainted with their places of abode, for they dwell in inaccessible positions, in sites so wild and strong that no one can get at them to meddle with them. Nor will they allow anybody to accompany them so as to gain a knowledge of their abodes.1

After you have ridden those two days and a half down hill, you find yourself in a province towards the south which is pretty near to India, and this province is called AMIEN. You travel therein for fifteen days through a very unfrequented country, and through great woods abounding in elephants and unicorns and numbers of other wild beasts. There are no dwellings and no people, so we need say no more of this wild country, for in sooth there is nothing to tell. But I have a story to relate which you shall now hear2.

NOTE 1. — In all the Shan towns visited by Major Sladen on this frontier he found markets held every fifth day. This custom, he says, is borrowed from China, and is general throughout Western Yun-nan. There seem to be traces of this five-day week over Indo–China, and it is found in Java; as it is in Mexico. The Kakhyens attend in great crowds. They do not now bring gold for sale to Momein, though it is found to some extent in their hills, more especially in the direction of Mogaung, whence it is exported towards Assam.

Major Sladen saw a small quantity of nuggets in the possession of a Kakhyen who had brought them from a hill two days north of Bhamó. (MS. Notes by Major Sladen.)

NOTE 2. — I confess that the indications in this and the beginning of the following chapter are, to me, full of difficulty. According to the general style of Polo’s itinerary, the 2–1/2 days should be reckoned from Yung-ch’ang; the distance therefore to the capital city of Mien would be 17–1/2 days. The real capital of Mien or Burma at this time was, however, Pagán, in lat. 21° 13’, and that city could hardly have been reached by a land traveller in any such time. We shall see that something may be said in behalf of the supposition that the point reached was Tagaung or Old Pagán, on the upper Irawadi, in lat. 23° 28’; and there was perhaps some confusion in the traveller’s mind between this and the great city. The descent might then be from Yung-ch’ang to the valley of the Shwéli, and that valley then followed to the Irawadi. Taking as a scale Polo’s 5 marches from Tali to Yung-ch’ang, I find we should by this route make just about 17 marches from Yung-ch’ang to Tagaung. We have no detailed knowledge of the route, but there is a road that way, and by no other does the plain country approach so near to Yung-ch’ang. (See Anderson’s Report on Expedition to Western Yunnan, p. 160.)

Dr. Anderson’s remarks on the present question do not in my opinion remove the difficulties. He supposes the long descent to be the descent into the plains of the Irawadi near Bhamo; and from that point the land journey to Great Pagán could, he conceives, “easily be accomplished in 15 days.” I greatly doubt the latter assumption. By the scale I have just referred to it would take at least 20 days. And to calculate the 2–1/2 days with which the journey commences from an indefinite point seems scarcely admissible. Polo is giving us a continuous itinerary; it would be ruptured if he left an indefinite distance between his last station and his “long descent.” And if the same principle were applied to the 5 days between Carajan (or Tali) and Vochan (Yung-ch’ang), the result would be nonsense.

Illustration: Temple of Gaudapalén (in the city of Mien), erected circa A.D. 1160.

[Mien-tien, to which is devoted ch. vii. of the Chinese work Sze-i-kwan-k’ao, appears to have included much more than Burma proper. (See the passage supra, pp. 70–71, quoted by Devéria from the Yuen-shi lei pien regarding Kien-tou and Kin–Chi.)— H.C.]

The hypothesis that I have suggested would suit better with the traveller’s representation of the country traversed as wild and uninhabited. In a journey to Great Pagán the most populous and fertile part of Burma would be passed through.

[Baber writes (p. 180): “The generally received theory that ‘the great descent which leads towards the Kingdom of Mien,’ on which ‘you ride for two days and a half continually downhill,’ was the route from Yung-ch’ang to T’eng-Yueh, must be at once abandoned. Marco was, no doubt, speaking from hearsay, or rather, from a recollection of hearsay, as it does not appear that he possessed any notes; but there is good reason for supposing that he had personally visited Yung-ch’ang. Weary of the interminable mountain-paths, and encumbered with much baggage — for a magnate of Marco’s court influence could never, in the East, have travelled without a considerable state — impeded, in addition, by a certain quantity of merchandise, for he was ‘discreet and prudent in every way,’ he would have listened longingly to the report of an easy ride of two and a half days downhill, and would never have forgotten it. That such a route exists I am well satisfied. Where is it? The stream which drains the Yung-ch’ang plain communicates with the Salwen by a river called the ‘Nan-tien,’ not to be confounded with the ‘Nan-ting,’ about 45 miles south of that city, a fair journey of two and a half days. Knowing, as we now do, that it must descend some 3500 feet in that distance, does it not seem reasonable to suppose that the valley of this rivulet is the route alluded to? The great battle on the Yung-ch’ang plain, moreover, was fought only a few years before Marco’s visit, and seeing that the king and his host of elephants in all probability entered the valley from the south, travellers to Burma would naturally have quitted it by the same route.

“But again, our mediaeval Herodotus reports that ‘the country is wild and hard of access, full of great woods and mountains which ’tis impossible to pass, the air is so impure and unwholesome; and any foreigners attempting it would die for certain.’

“This is exactly and literally the description given us of the district in which we crossed the Salwen.

“To insist on the theory of the descent by this route is to make the traveller ride downhill, ‘over mountains it is impossible to pass.’

“The fifteen days’ subsequent journey described by Marco need not present much difficulty. The distance from the junction of the Nan-tien with the Salwen to the capital of Burma (Pagán) would be something over 300 miles; fifteen days seems a fair estimate for the distance, seeing that a great part of the journey would doubtless be by boat.”

Regarding this last paragraph, Captain Gill says (II. 345): “An objection may be raised that no such route as this is known to exist; but it must be remembered that the Burmese capital changes its position every now and then, and it is obvious that the trade routes would be directed to the capital, and would change with it. Altogether, with the knowledge at present available, this certainly seems the most satisfactory interpretation of the old traveller’s story.”— H.C.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59