Marco Polo was stunned by the magnificence of the khan’s royal court. The king entertained 40,000 guests at banquets that served dozens of courses of meat and fish.
The khan grew fond of the intelligent young Italian, and he ordered Polo to various parts of his empire as his agent. Marco saw the wonders of the eastern world, gorgeous palaces, exquisite silks, porcelain vases, and paper money, which was unheard of in Europe, and hunted game in a vast park with cheetahs and falcons.
The khan ruled his 34 provinces by sending messages through an elaborate network. About every 25 miles, couriers and fast horses awaited the khan’s messages. When one arrived, they carried it quickly to the next post, ensuring that the ruler’s orders arrived quickly and safely. Marco also observed the lifestyle of the Tartars, nomadic horsemen who lived on the vast, flat Asian steppes.
They carried tents that collapsed easily for transportation and were covered in felt waterproofed with animal fat. They also dehydrated milk into powder. On a long journey, the Tartars mixed the powder with water in a pouch. After a day of travel, the mixture had become a thin gruel that they ate for dinner.
Kublai Khan valued Marco so greatly that at first he refused to allow the Polos to return to Europe. In 1292, however, the khan reluctantly gave them permission to leave. This time, the Polos returned mostly by sea, sailing around the coast of India.