To travel to China in the late 1200s was an adventure in and of itself. Marco Polo, his uncle, and his father followed what is now called the Silk Road, journeying from Venice, an important European trade center in that period, to Constantinople by boat. Constantinople, in what is now Turkey, was then the capital of the Byzantine Empire and itself an important juncture point connecting Europe and Asia. From there, the group traveled across the Middle East, central Asia, including the Gobi desert, and up into northern China. Marco Polo was seventeen when he embarked on the venture and twenty-one one when he arrived at the Mongol court.
The Polos were a wealthy merchant family. Marco's uncle and father had been to China before and went again at the request of the new pope, Gregory X, bringing gifts from him to Kublai Khan. However, as the Polos were traders, they made the long journey primarily for mercantile reasons.
The Polos were not the first Europeans to travel to China in the middle ages but were distinguished from other merchants in that the young Marco, intelligent and fluent in languages, caught Kublai Khan's eye, worked for his royal court for many years, and was sent as an emissary to countries such as Burma and India, as well as traveling extensively throughout China. Of course, Marco Polo also stands out as well for writing his book, the first detailed account of China and southeast Asia to appear in Europe.