Mongol Group B5

Did Marco Polo visit Tibet and was his descirption of Tibet accurate

Marco Polo’s description of Tibet was a large province that consisted eight kingdoms back to the 13th century. However, there was not much information from the Description of the World, and mostly, the descriptions by Marco Polo are all about telling and describing from a god-like perspective that no interaction between Tibetan and Marco Polo conducted, nor did he describe the invasion of Mongol army to Tibet. Moreover, most of the descriptions have shown to be inaccurate and exaggerated. Doubtful descriptions include his route to Tibet, his description of the plants which conflict with scientific sources, and the way he tells the story. To answer the question whether Marco Polo went to Tibet, I will explore the description of Tibet that Marco Polo states, the description of the plants, natural resources, the religion, and the tradition of ancient Tibet written by other scholars. It is now agreed by several scholars that Marco Polo did not visit Tibet, in this web page, I prove that only a small partial description of Tibet is accurate. Most descriptions are either exaggerated or only mentioned by Marco Polo. It is possible that Marco Polo knew and heard from someone who was familiar with Tibet, but I’d conclude that he never visited Tibet.


The route Marco Polo took

Marco Polo describes that he took five days to walk from Chengdufu to the border of Tibet[1]. Indeed, back to the Yuan dynasty’s map, Tibet had a larger territory than today’ and on eastern Tibet, it took about 500 kilometers from Chengdufu to reach the closest border of Tibet, which is possible. Marco Polo mentioned after taking 5 days from Chengdufu to reach Tibet, it took him another 20 days in passing Tibet, the devastated region, indicating that he spent almost a month in Tibet in the devastated region and several days in inhabited areas. However, after his journey to Tibet he started to enter Gaindu which is today’s Xichang that lies in Sichuan province, proving Marco Polo entered Tibet by walking westward from Chengdufu and then took a detour, and returned the same way he came (to Tibet). However, to take a detour that does not pass through Gaindu requires more days and longer route. 5 days for 500 kilometers is possible by walking directly from Chengdufu to Tibet, which technically would definitely pass Gaindu. While Gaindu is described after Tibet, the route that Marco Polo took is unreliable.


The Large Canes

Then we examine the validity of Marco Polo’s detailed description on objective plants in Tibet region (nowadays part of Sichuan Province). According to Marco Polo, “There are thick and marvelously large canes; they measure three palms around and are a good 15 paces long” [2]. Marco Polo is referring to Bamboo that indeed widely exists in and around Tibet. However, it is extremely rare or even impossible to see a bamboo that has three palms in girth (28 to 30 inches). The largest Bamboo in other sources was discovered about 10 inches in girth[3].


The Marriage of women

The practice of women who slept with the greatest number of men were the most popular in marriage was also discovered in other regions, tribes in Yunnan, Sifan near the southern elbow of the Kin-sha Kiang [4]. Even of the Mongols themselves and kindred races, and it is also recorded in the source written by Chinese Scholars. According to Marco, “It is true that no man would marry a virgin for anything in the world; they say she is worth nothing if she is not used by and accustomed to many men.” [5] In fact, such tradition is mentioned by the French explorer Francis Garnier in his travel in Yunnan. He states that “such loose practices are still ascribed to many tribes in Yunnan[6]. And in the book of The Travels of Marco Polo, it states that women in Western Asia afford a perfect parallel, “whose women wear on their legs anklets of leather. Each lover that a woman has gives her one; and she who can show most is the best esteemed, as she appears to have been loved by the greatest number of men.” [7] Moreover, the credibility is added in book Human Marriage by Westermarck that “Among some uncivilized peoples, women having many gallants are esteemed better than virgins, and are more anxiously desired in marriage”. [8]

However, as during the Yuan dynasty that Yun-nan province was near to Tibet and they share similar customs, it is possible that Marco Polo could have indeed visited Yun-nan, or, with high possibility that he only heard or read the tradition of women in Tibet as it was commonly spread information. Besides, as Marco Polo said that people in Tibet were all idolators[9], meaning Buddhism followers, we cannot find any description of tradition from Buddhism sources. Therefore, I would still conclude that the description of Women marriage as an evidence that Marco did not visit Tibet.



In the devastated Tibet, only several natural plants bamboo and Cinnamon are described by Marco Polo. “Cinnamon grows there in great abundance.” and “Many kinds of things they grow there were never seen in our country.” [10]

However, the cinnamon that grows in Tibet today is the Cinnamomum, a branch from Cinnamon. Marco says that cinnamon is produced both in Tibet and in Gaindu (the Xichang area). True cinnamon is Cinnamomum zeylanicum Blume, which certainly does not grow in these regions. Cinnamon is the inner bark of the tree, usually taken from young branches. There are trees of the genus Cinnamomum that grow in western Sichuan. The most likely one for production of a kind of cinnamon would be C. wilsonii Gamble. Strictly, this and related trees produce cassia-bark, called Guipi in Chinese, but this is very similar to cinnamon. Cinnamomum wilsonii grows at altitudes up to 2,400 metres (8,000 feet). A closely related species, with which it has sometimes been confused, is Cinnamomum contractum. This grows in south-east Tibet at up to 2,800 metres (9,250 feet) above sea level [11]. Marco also says that in Gaindu there are ‘spices that never come to our country’, which greatly reduce the credibility of his word. It is impossible for him to speak the name of the plant that he never saw before and name it in his own language, not tibetan, about these spices because they are unknown in Europe and have no names in European languages. It is these two contradicting statements in the text decrease the credibility of Marco Polo.


The use of salt as money

As we read through Marco Polo’s description in Cathay, we can see that he made many statements about the currency in Cathay and in different cities. Marco is the only person who says that the currency in Tibet is salt. “They have neither coins nor notes from the Great Khan but use salt as money.” [12] Hans Vogel in Marco Polo Was in China detailly explains “salt was in especially high demand in Tibet, where the lumps served as currency and were exchanged for goods of high value, such as gold and musk.” [13] Thomas Pennant writes in The View of Hindoostan that Tibetan traders exchange salt with wools for grain within neighbor countries. [14]

Indeed there were salt barter activities in the Song dynasty. “salt currency was the product of particular regional demand and supply conditions and of specific ethnic circumstances. It was not a creation of governmental actors” [15]. Therefore, the description of currency in Tibet by Marco Polo is correct: Tibet used salt for trade.


The tone of story telling

In his travel to Tibet, Marco polo is describing the objects, the tradition, the custom of Tibet, which all objectively exist in Tibet. There’s no interaction between Marco Polo and local Tibetans. And the descriptions are mostly either exaggerated or inaccurate. Unlike his descriptions in other cities in the book, where he would discuss the war between Yuan or Song, or Mongols and the local cities detailly, he did not mention much about Mongke’s invasion, or Khubilai’s several times of invasions throughout the 13th century. Therefore, I would remain doubtful towards the reliability of Marco Polo in Tibet.



It is true that Marco Polo’s descriptions of the objects or traditions were, indeed, occurred in ancient Tibet. However, the accuracy diminished the credibility of his visit to Tibet. Marco Polo messed up the description of plants and exaggerated the description of natural resources and his route to Tibet. Yet, Marco Polo does have detailed and accurate descriptions upon women’s marriage tradition and the currency in Tibet. We can see that the accurate aspects he made are about customs and currency which would be commonly known in Mongol Empire. The reason for the lack of important information related to the war needs to be verified. Thus, I conclude that Marco did not visit Tibet, but he heard the descriptions of Tibet from other people.



1. See Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 102). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition

2. See Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 102). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition

3. See “Bamboo”

4. Martini Garnier, I. 520

5. Pall. Samml. II. 235

6. Ael. Var. Hist. III. 1

7. Rawl. Herod. Bk. IV. ch. clxxvi.

8. See Westermarck, Edward. The History of Human Marriage (p. 81)

9. See Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 102). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition

10. See Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 102). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition

11. See Stephen G. Haw. Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan (p. 138)

12. See Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 102). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition

13. See Vogel, Hans. Marco Polo Was in China

14. See Pennant, Thomas. The View of Hindoostan

15. See Vogel, Hans. Marco Polo Was in China


Work cited

Haw, Stephen G. Marco Polo’s China: a Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. Routledge, 2009.

Pennant, Thomas. The View of Hindoostan. Printed by Henry Hughs, 1798.

Pelliot, Paul, 1878-1945. Notes On Marco Polo: Ouvrage Posthume. Paris: Impr. nationale, 19591973.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Polo, Marco, et al. The Travels of Marco Polo. the Complete Yule-Cordier Edition: Including the Unabridged Third Edition (1903) of Henry Yule’s Annotated Translation, as Revised by Henri Cordier, Together with Cordier’s Later Volume of Notes and Addenda (1920). Dover Publications, 1993.

Polo, Marco, 1254-1323?, Amy Frances Yule, Henri Cordier, and Henry Yule. The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms And Marvels of the East.

Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo Was in China : New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues, BRILL, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.

Westermarck, Edward Alexander. The History of Human Marriage. Chadwyck-Healey Ltd., 1991.