Francis O’Donnell

Posted on 24 April 2009

The adventurer, who retraced the expedition of Marco Polo, on trudging through shifting sands, fighting with the Russian mob and why people are basically good


First question, Why?

We realized no one had successfully retraced the route from Venice and back. Others had tried and failed for one reason or another and we felt it was a great, great challenge.

We had met on an archeological dig in France, and then gave ourselves a self-imposed prerequisite: no flying. We traveled by container ship, dugout canoe, jeep, camel. Anybody can fly into a place gather and gather information and put it together.


What experiences do you think you and Marco Polo himself shared?

There were large stretches where we had to travel exactly the way he had. In sand shifting deserts. Or in the mountains of Afghanistan. It made us feel we were stepping back into the thirteenth century. A sleeping Bhudda we found in China, for example, is one of the few things he explicitly mentioned in his work that still exists. Even though we were retracing his journey, we were standing in the same spot Marco Polo once stood. We could feel his presence, almost like he was standing there with us.


What challenges did you need to overcome?

There were certain obstacles we knew about from previous unsuccessful expeditions. When we could jump them, I’d ask “Why me? Why, when others who failed, were we able to do it?”

We went through the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, about 150 miles, which separates Afghanistan from Tazikstan. Starts at 10,000 feet, and rises to “The Roof Of the World.” This is an area where no westerner had been in a generation. We know that previous expeditions had missed it. It is one of the most remote places on earth, but one that was explicitly written about by Marco Polo.

Our biggest barrier was Iran. Iran is like the keystone; we couldn’t have retraced the journey and not included Iran. We were among the first Americans who had been allowed through. It took a lot of negotiations; a lot of diplomacy.


What was the reaction of the people you met to your adventure?

For most people it was too much to grasp. A lot of people didn’t know who Marco Polo was. Many asked “What about your family? Your wife and kids?” It was a little too free wheeling for people to understand. Those that did understand, seemed impressed, I guess, and were helpful. There are more good people than bad. Travel is the enemy of bigotry, I think Twain said. You also reap what you sow. When we came in with open hearts, and our eyes open with wanderlust, it’s what we got back.


Do anything illegal?

Forged visas. We were on a mission and there were things we had to do. We looked at the map before we left, and aside from geo-political problems, there were plenty of things that made us think we weren’t coming back.


What did you learn from the expedition?

Besides the fact people are basically good, I learned more about myself. I could do anything I set my mind to. Looking back it’s almost like a movie in my head.

I had some travel under my belt as a kid. My father took us around to see a lot of historical sites. No better way to lean than travel. I’ve always loved Mesoamerican art, but until I stood in front of a statue or monument it didn’t compute.

After I got out of college with a degree in art, I was just parroting what that was. So I guess I was on a search.


What did you see that was similar to the time Marco Polo traveled?

The landscape has changed, there are a lot more big cities now. He used to count time in a day’s journey. There were large stretches that were exactly like it was when he traveled it. We were lost in the 13th century. Most of the people I met were existing the way they were when Marco Polo was there. Just existing.


What would it have been like for Marco Polo?

When he left he was 17 years old. In most cases, kids in high school today know more about the world than Marco Polo did. He was traveling in a world that many people disagreed even existed. It was supposedly full of monsters. When he met Kubla Khan, he was so impressed with Marco Polo he took him into his court and sent him out as an emissary.

It must have been a great adventure, just like it was for us. He was known as a story teller. When his book finally came out he was greeted with a great deal of skepticism.

He was a very controversial person.


Was you expedition greater or less daring than Marco Polo’s?

I’ll have to say less. No one can usurp him. He’s my hero. When you read his account, he’s very absent from it. He tells about the things he learned. Not about himself. He sailed from south China to Iran with a huge entourage, encountered shipwrecks, scurvy. We got caught in sandstorms, our jeep almost went off a cliff. We were captured in Afghanistan, interrogated by the KGB. Got in a barroom brawl with Russian organized criminals. Got really sick a few times. But were lucky to never get really hurt.


What was your greatest surprise?

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the Russians were supposed to be our enemies. But they’re the salt of the earth, they’re good people. I’d say the same about the Iranians. But the problem is the governments, and big corporations and religions; whatever it is that keeps people apart. The preconceived notions about people … that totally evaporated.


Francis O’Donnell will be joined with his co-explorer, Denis Belliveau on Thursday, April 30, at the Children’s Museum of eth East End, courtesy of eth Hampton Library. The program on their adventure starts at 5 p.m. The documentary on their trip will be broadcast on PBS channels 13 and 21 in May.



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