In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

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In The Footsteps of Marco Polo
Directed by Denis Belliveau
Francis O’Donnell
Produced by Lisa Taylor
Tom Casciato
Josh Nathan
Stephen Segaller
Emir Lewis
Written by Denis Belliveau
Francis O’Donnell
Tom Casciato
Running time
90 minutes
Country United States
Language English

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo is a 2008 PBS documentary film detailing Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell's 1993 retracing of Marco Polo's journey from Venice to Anatolia, Persia, India and China.[1][2] The movie documents the first quest "to visit and document every region Marco Polo claimed to have traveled" using only land and sea methods of transportation.[3] Mike Hale of The New York Times writes that the documentary includes how Belliveau and O'Donnell "encountered Mongol horsemen and hostile Chinese security officers and survived a firefight between Afghan factions; in the spirit of Polo's journey -- and to prove a point regarding the authenticity of his account -- they disdained airplanes, traveling by foot, on horses and camels and by jeep, boat and train."[4] A text by the same name as the video, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, written by Belliveau and O'Donnell, and published by Rowman & Littlefield, serves as a companion to the documentary film.[5] In the Footsteps of Marco Polo has been used by Belliveau to create a unique interdisciplinary educational curriculum that he presents at schools and libraries across the United States and internationally.[6]


In The Footsteps of Marco Polo begins by discussing how in the 13th century A.D., a book was written "that would change the course of history"—the author was Marco Polo, who wrote about his travels in China, Persia, Tatarstan and India.[7] Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell, of Queens, New York,[8] sought to retrace the entire 25,000 mile route of Marco Polo, eschewing aircraft and "going only by land or sea", even making a pact to return either “dead or successful”.[9] Their main goal was to prove the validity of Marco Polo’s account by capturing images of what Polo described in his Book of the Marvels of the World, or also known as, The Travels of Marco Polo.

The pair started out in Venice, Italy and then sailed to Israel, where in Jerusalem they obtained holy oil from Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus' burial, during the Eastern Orthodox Christian celebration of Easter, as Marco Polo had. Belliveau and O'Donnell then sailed to Turkey, landing in Ayaş, a small fishing village, although in Polo’s time it was a large port, the duo made appearances in several local newspapers, which opened up doors with the local population.[10] Denis and Francis then tried to enter Iran but were prohibited from doing so by the Iranian government, as a result, they picked up the trail traveled by Marco Polo's father, Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo, to Bukhara, hoping to visit Iran on the way back. The Polo brothers had opened up the land route to China, known as the Silk Road years before Polo.

In Uzbekistan the two were required to have a visa for every city that they visited. Belliveau and O'Donnell, however, initially faced difficulty from the Federal Security Service (the successor of the Soviet KGB) in crossing the Friendship Bridge into Afghanistan, but were able to do so after waiting approximately three weeks, forging their visas and paying a $100 bribe.[11] The two noticed the stark difference between this former Republic of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan—the lack of roads, goods and electricity. To get across Afghanistan, Belliveau and O'Donnell were inspired by a plan implemented by Marco Polo: Kublai Khan had provided Polo and his companions with a golden tablet or paiza 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."[9] The American adventurers similarly received a letter from a comrade of an Afghan warlord that enabled them to obtain twenty-five heavily armed bodyguards.[12] While traveling to Balkh, the group was ambushed and held captive by ethnic Hazaras, the direct descendants of a tribe that attacked Polo’s caravan.[4] Denis and Francis then made their way to the Wakhan Corridor in far northeastern Afghanistan, the narrow corridor has been described by the two modern explorers as being the jewel in the crown of their achievement. The leader of the Wakhi people, a living remnant of the days of feudal lords, Shah Sayid Muhammad Ishmael, told the travelers that they were the first Westerners to traverse the legendary corridor in a generation. Belliveau and O'Donnell then crossed the Pamirs into Tajikistan on horseback, passing structures made of sheep horns (ovis poli), that guided the sojourners along the snowy trails just as described by Marco Polo and dictated by local custom.[9]

The first city that the duo encountered in China was Kashgar, where they resupplied their caravan for an arduous six week horse and camelback crossing of the Taklamakan Desert;[13] in 1994, when they finally arrived in Dunhuang, a city in the Gansu Province, Belliveau and O’Donnell treated themselves to their first shower and hotel room after months of arduous travel. Marco Polo had written about the Reclining Buddha in Zhangye, which the pair dutifully recorded. When traveling to Mongolia, they lived in “circular houses covered in felt” called gers, they ceremoniously drank fermented mares milk called airag and partook of other various milk products used in the diet of the nomadic people residing there.[14] The journeyers traveled throughout China visiting close to 200 places described by Polo, including Yunnan and Tibet. Finally, from Hong Kong in August 1994, they sailed on a container ship to Sumatra, where they lived with the Mentawai people and O'Donnell received a tribal tattoo, according to local tradition. They then sailed to Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon to Polo, and then at the beginning of November, they arrived in the Indian city of Madras, where they set off into the Indian subcontinent, documenting all Polo had correctly noted, including the ancient practice of astrology.

They then traveled from India to Iran, called Persia by Polo, despite the devastating refusal of entry into Iran at the start of their journey the two adventurers were finally granted a one-month visa for entry, and told they were the first Americans to receive this freedom of passage since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Belliveau and O'Donnell were thankful for the incredible hospitality of the people they met there.

When the duo arrived back in Venice in March 1995 they were sailed down the grand canal in a royal regatta of gondolas, landing them in St Mark's Square, where the church bells of St Mark's Basilica rang in honor of their return. At a celebratory banquet, the Venetian mayor presented them with the keys to the city and the next morning personally walked them into the Biblioteca Nazionale to view Marco Polo's last will and testament, which they had been denied access to before they left on their epic journey.[9]


  • Denis Belliveau[15]
  • Francis O’Donnell[15]



  1. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (14 November 2008). "A Bold Journey, Based on a Brash Idea". The New York Times. It's not quite clear why Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell have taken more than a decade to turn the coolest vacation idea ever into a film, but the passage of time only adds to the allure of "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo," the tale being broadcast on Sunday on WLIW. 
  2. ^ Rose, Michael Alec. "Following the leader". BookPage. In Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell's new travelogue/photographic essay, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, we are given stunning proof of Marco Polo's essential veracity, for the geographic realities and ethnographic facts overwhelm any doubt. 
  3. ^ "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo". In Focus. 14 (11): 6. November 2008. Equal parts travelogue, adventure story, history trek and buddy movie, the program chronicles the highs and lows of their quest to be the first to visit and document every region Marco Polo claimed to have traveled using only the same transportation available to their hero. 
  4. ^ a b Hale, Mike (16 November 2008). "This Week Ahead". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 January 2015. The two retraced Polo's winding route from Venice across the Silk Road to China and back via the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean; they encountered Mongol horsemen and hostile Chinese security officers and survived a firefight between Afghan factions. 
  5. ^ Man, John (10 December 2014). "Five Reasons Why Marco Polo Remains Fascinating". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 4 January 2015. Adventure, accuracy, personality, significance: these are the prime qualities of Marco’s story, which is why he deserves his fame, why I wrote about him, why Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell trailed him (“In the Footsteps of Marco Polo,” Rowman and Littlefield) and why Netflix backed John Fusco’s 10-part drama that airs Dec. 12. 
  6. ^ Young, Christal (15 September 2014). "A history classroom in the real world". Fox News. Archived from the original on 5 February 2015. Retrieved 4 January 2015. They survived a deadly firefight in Afghanistan, crossed the desert in a camel caravan, and mingled with native Mongolians and tattooed tribes in India. Part travelogue, part history trek, the trip inspired the book and movie "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo." The 90-minute PBS documentary was nominated for an Emmy and has been used as the basis for a unique curriculum. Since the film's first airing, Belliveau has been invited into hundreds of schools across the country to share his adventures first hand, he now presents a mix of assemblies, classroom visits and explorer in residence programs built around his extraordinary two-year adventure. 
  7. ^ Belliveau, Denis; O'Donnell, Francis (2008). In the Footsteps of Marco Polo. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. i. ISBN 9780742556836. At the end of the Thirteenth Century a book was written that would change the course of history. In its prologue, the author claimed to be the world's most-traveled man, igniting a controversy that lasted for over seven hundred years. Emperors and Kings, Dukes and marquises, Counts, knights and townsfolk, and all people who wish to learn of the various races of men and of all the diversities of the various regions of the world, take this book and cause it to be read to you. ...For ye shall find therein all the great wonders and curiosities of Greater Armenia and Persia, and of the land of the Tartars and of India, and many other they were described by Messer Marco Polo, a wise and noble citizen of Venice, who has seen them with his own eyes. 
  8. ^ Shattuck, Kathryn (16 November 2008). "What's On Today". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 January 2015. Two regular guys from Queens -- Denis Belliveau, a wedding photographer, and Francis O'Donnell, an artist and former marine -- set out to retrace the entirety of Marco Polo's 25,000-mile trek from Venice to China and back. 
  9. ^ a b c d In The Footsteps of Marco Polo. WLIW. November 2008. Retrieved 5 January 2015. 
  10. ^ Merkezi, Haber (1995). "Marko Polo'nun izinde" (in Turkish). Hürdoğan Gazetesi. 
  11. ^ "Q&A: Adventurers Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell of "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo"". Thirteen. 16 November 2009. Retrieved 5 January 2015. We were attacked by a mob in China … now that was scary! We were hit by a blinding sandstorm in the Taklamakan Desert in far western China , interrogated by the K.G.B. more than once, captured and held during a fire fight in Afghanistan … and that’s the short version! 
  12. ^ Francis O'Donnell, Denis Belliveau (January 2002). "Marco Polo's Guide to Afghanistan". Smithsonian. Retrieved 5 January 2015. Seven centuries ago, the vast empire of Kublai Khan spread across Eurasia. Polo traveled through it largely unscathed by carrying paiza, inscribed golden tablets, describing him as a guest of the emperor. Our latter-day explorers traveled with letters placing them under the protection of commanders of some of the factions that now make up the Northern Alliance. 
  13. ^ Kilgannon, Corey (19 January 2009). "Touring the World in Marco Polo's Steps". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 January 2015. To negotiate the Wakhan Corridor in Eastern Afghanistan, the men bought sure-footed horses and pack mules for $600 and traveled 500 miles on hilly terrain, then resold the animals. They hitched a ride with a camel caravan along the edge of the Taklaman Desert. 
  14. ^ Mancini, Vince (31 May 2012). "Frotcast 102: Modern Day Marco Polo Denis Belliveau". Filmdrunk. Retrieved 5 January 2015. Denis discusses how the time in Mongolia was like stepping back in Marco Polo’s time, which was a highlight since the whole trip was trying to recreate that journey. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo - About the Film". WLIW21. 3 December 2008. Retrieved 5 January 2015. 

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