Marco Polo's costly journey

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The Independent Online
British Airways' most dramatic new price of pounds 309 for the 5,000- mile trip to Peking, taking under 10 hours, is in stark contrast to the cost and hardhip facing earlier travellers. In 1271, for instance, it took Marco Polo two years to trek across Eastern Europe and Asia, accompanied by his father and uncle. The trip would have cost him many thousands of pounds at today's prices.

They started their journey from Venice in regal luxury, in a fast galley provided by the Christian king of Armenia. Pampered by the royal servants on board, no doubt BA's stewards would find it difficult to match the same level of service.

But after the extravagance of the first leg of the journey, life became a tougher. There were none of the benefits of business class for the merchants, for whom this was a working journey. In the absence of in-flight catering, they had to trade goods for basic essentials like food and camels.

And if this was not enough, they had to overcome a number of physical obstacles: in their path were the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan and the Gobi Desert. They spent 30 days crossing the trackless wastes of the Gobi where, Polo writes, he only just managed to resist the fatal lure of the sirens.

The latest Hollywood blockbuster is the main entertainment available at 30,000 feet. However Polo's trip was filled with a vast array of bizarre encounters which he recorded in his Description of the World. While crossing the Gobi, he wrote that they encountered a group of women who had no hair except on the top of their heads.

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