Interview: Marco Polo Reloaded – An Epic Journey With Lonely Planet Travel Writer Bradley Mayhew
It was quite a lot of research to find the right person for our documentary series Marco Polo Reloaded. Along Mekong Productions didn’t want to work with a protagonist who came across as a kind of “actor” or “presenter”. The films in the footsteps of Marco Polo, who left Venice in 1271, needed an “authentic traveller”, who is used to looking after himself in remote areas and experienced enough not to confuse the project with the bare adventure of a “docu-soap jungle camp”. For a long time we looked for someone who was willing to meet people and to share their stories, combined with a profound background knowledge about the countries along the Silk Road. On the other hand we searched for a person who is able to work under pressure, to smile even without breakfast, a really likeable guy who could keep the viewers’ interest alive for four hours of travel stories.
Finally we found Bradley Mayhew, who had never been in front of a film camera before and who didn’t even like having his photo taken. Our first meeting was in Venice – we started chatting straight away, explained the project, walked together along the narrow streets of Marco Polo’s hometown and did some preliminary test-shootings. At the end of the first day, we knew: Bradley was the right person to retrace the Silk Road on the tracks of its well-known traveller Marco Polo.
Bradley Mayhew currently lives in Montana, USA, but he is British, born in Sevenoaks, Kent, and shares his compatriot’s fine sense of black humour. And he has all the qualities to perform in a documentary film, not embarrassing our camera man Alok Upadhyay when he is asks for a second take. Bradley is addicted to travel and has a profound knowledge of the region. After his degree in Oriental Studies and Chinese language in 1995 he kickstarted his career writing guidebooks. He has since written over 25 guides for Lonely Planet or Odyssey Guides about Central Asia, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, China and Yellowstone National Park. He has lectured on Central Asia to the Royal Geographical Society. Bradley feels quite at home in cramped buses and Kyrgyz yurts, and claims that the second longest relationship in his life has been with his down sleeping bag. In the films Bradley wanders oriental cities and travels across inhospitable mountain ranges and forbidding deserts. Many parts of the Marco Polo route he had already travelled through for his guidebook work, but the Marco Polo voyage was really the trip of a lifetime for him.
Bradley, having spent many, many months with a film crew in eight different countries in the footsteps of the travel pioneer Marco Polo, what is your conclusion?
It has certainly been amazing to follow in Marco’s footsteps. I’ve come away with a real admiration for the man. It was a long, hard trip for us, especially travelling through Iran and Afghanistan, but that’s still nothing compared to Marco’s voyage, which after all lasted for 27 years! As for Marco’s book, there are certainly some passages about places he didn’t visit and some bits he or his ghost writer Rustichello just plainly made up, perhaps to make his tales more accessible. But in essence so much of the book rings true, in such fascinating detail, that I don’t doubt that he made the trip to China. For me it has been an epic journey, all the way across the breadth of Asia, though the most fascinating and welcoming countries on earth. It’s definitely one of the world’s ultimate overland trips and I’d totally recommend it, though perhaps most people will find it easier in chunks rather than one long continuous voyage!
Bradley, what “makes you going”, what is your “personal trigger” to leave your remote workspace in Yellowstone Country, Montana? Is it curiosity? Is it a longing to escape the modern western world?
For me it’s really a curiosity in the world around me. I’ve always been more interested in far-off distant events than what’s happening around the corner. Once you’ve started, travelling can be a very addictive thing. Sometimes it’s the intoxicating intensity of sights, sounds and tastes of a new culture that provides the daily drive for new experiences. For some it’s the meeting of new people, both locals with different views on life and also like-minded fellow travelers who share your passions or interests. At other times travel is just a superb escape, a worryless break from the pressures of bills, work and routine.
Now that travel has become my job rather than my escape, I like to have a reason for travel, a theme perhaps or a goal: to learn more about Islam, to scope out a new trekking route or visit a country about which not much is known. I’ve always thought that the difference between travel and tourism is the element of active exploration rather than passive viewing, of seeing the country at eye-level and close-up rather than above or from a distance. I’ll always take the discomfort of a local bus over the ease of an air-conditioned tourist bus.
Marco Polo’s report of his journey “the Wonders of the World” was one of the first travel books and became very popular. This book and the name “Marco Polo” facinated generations of readers until today. Many are affected by a kind of Marco Polo fever, what is the reason for this?
I think it’s partly because Central Asia and the Silk Road is such a fascinating and exotic destination. It’s also because Marco was such a great teller of tall tales – of monsters and miracles, incredible riches and mind-bogglingly sophisticated empires. He brought news of an astonishing and culturally advanced outside world when almost nothing was known about the east. I think Marco Polo has also become a symbol of exotic travel in general. Anyone who’s ever dreamed of travelling by camel caravan or haggling in a Samarkand bazaar has wondered what it must have been like to travel across Asia in medieval times. Today his book is a fascinating record of a world that no longer exists.
All along the route we found remnants of Marco Polos descriptions. Was it difficult to find his route? And what is the difference if you compare the experiences of the medieval traveller Marco Polo with your experiences, putting a spotlight on today’s reality ?
Following Marco Polo requires playing detective every now and then, in an attempt to match up medieval descriptions with the modern names and geography on the ground. Part of the problem is that names and locations have changed over the years. Some mountain passes have fallen into disuse and some borders have been sealed with barbed wire but in other cases modern six-lane highways still follow the ancient trade routes. The thing to understand about Marco’s book is that it’s not actually a description of his route, it’s a ‘Description of the World’, some of which he visited and some of which he simply heard about around a campfire or a bowl of tea. Luckily generations of geographers and historians have pondered Polo’s route in minute detail. My ‘bible’ on this trip was the green-backed 1876 edition featuring text heavily annotated by English historian Henry Yule. After all these years, it’s still the definitive guide to the route.
Travelling the route today is a lot easier than in Marco’s day but, like Marco, we still had to tailor the trip to the opening dates of mountain passes and when the desert roads were cooler for travel, and we still had to rush through certain areas wracked by war and instability. We pondered about travelling through Iraq but in the end that proved too risky even for us. One advantage Marco had over us was his visa; he just needed a single Mongol tablet, we needed a dozen different visas, permits and permissions to complete the entire trip.
The travel for the documentary-series leaded you through eight countries from Venice to Beijing. If ever possible, would you be keen to follow Marco Polos way back home along the sea route?
I’d love to retrace Marco’s trip home, if only because no-one seems to pay it much attention, perhaps because it’s mostly a voyage by sea instead of overland. If Marco’s voyage to China follows the Silk Roads then his trip back follows the Spice Routes. Exploring that side of Marco’s legacy definitely appeals, especially as it would be a very different type of journey.
Marco Polo Reloaded is a four-part documentary travelogue along the length of the Silk Road; a fascinating journey in the footsteps of the great voyager Marco Polo. Each app contains a 52 minutes long episode of the documentary film ‘Marco Polo Reloaded’, along with short clips and many impressive photos and travel quotations. Please find all Marco Polo Reloaded app links in the following:
Marco Polo Reloaded – PREVIEW
Part 1: Marco Polo Reloaded – From Venice to Eastern Turkey
Part 2: Marco Polo Reloaded – Through Iran
Part 3: Marco Polo Reloaded – From Afghanistan to China
Part 4: Marco Polo Reloaded – Through China