It’s hard to envisage anyone undertaking an epic 24-year journey (much of it by foot) across two continents via seas, deserts, rivers and mountains – and counselling a man who ruled a fifth of the world. Yet famed Venetian explorer Marco Polo undertook such a journey during the latter part of the 13th century. In 1271, at the age of 17, the budding merchant set off from his native Venice with his father and uncle to explore Central Asia, China and Indonesia, encountering an array of cultures and riches. Even more fascinating was that Polo was said to have become a close confidant of the Mongolian leader Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan.
Marco Polo, Netflix’s £60 million, visually stunning drama (its most expensive to date), tells the story of Polo’s relationship with one of the era’s most powerful leaders. While Khan was entwined in a world of greed, betrayal and violence, Polo became a sort of therapist figure to him.
“Marco was super smart. He played a lot of chess and strategised,” explains Benedict Wong, the British actor who plays Kublai Khan. “Khan let Polo be his eyes and ears. He was the first one to build a bridge between East and West.”
Initially, when the traveller returned to Italy, he was ridiculed and it took a year for his experiences to be believed. “Then everybody wanted to head off to make their fortunes,” explains Wong. Writer John Fusco went more than the figurative extra mile before he began penning the drama. “Marco Polo felt like a kindred spirit,” says Fusco, who rode through central Mongolia on horseback along the Silk Road with his son. “We were tracing the Genghis Khan trail and living with nomads. I kept coming across tales of Marco Polo, who was such an integral part of that world, and the wheels started turning.” ￼
The only way to capture the essence of the Mongol empire, says Fusco, was to shoot on location in Central Asia. “Our location path for the series actually traced Polo’s travel itinerary.” The crew decamped to Venice to shoot the initial scenes, and then flew to Istanbul (then Constantinople), and on to Kazakhstan on the Silk Road. “We all got involved in Polo’s journey,” agrees Lorenzo Richelmy, the Italian actor who plays the explorer. Shu An Oon, who stars as Polo’s love interest, Jing Fei, was blown away by the scenery. “The Kazakhstan wild landscape is amazing.” Choreographed martial arts sequences and dramatic panoramas give the ten-part series a feature film feel. From Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest cultural city, the cast and crew travelled five hours into the desert, where Richelmy recalls a surreal scene.
“We were in the middle of a battle scene and had two or three kilometres of desert, hills and valley around us. Down the hill there was a Mongolian camp, behind it an army of actors and the huge walls of Xiangyang [built by the production team] with archers on top. I had to ride very fast through the battle on horseback. There were 300 people fighting, there was smoke everywhere and fire… it felt as though I was in a video game!”
THREE KEY LOCATIONS
The Canals of Venice
It’s possible to see the great traveller’s house in Venice, Marco Polo’s birthplace. Find it on Corte Prima del Milion, and look out for the small marble plaque on the wall. It’s also possible to see where Polo was buried, in the church of San Lorenzo, and take a ride down the canals that we see Lorenzo Richelmy navigate in the series.The epic landscapes and battle scenes, as seen in the series, were all filmed in the desertscapes of Kazakhstan. Sharyn Canyon, east of Almaty, is a dramatic spot filled with unusual rock formations in the Sharyn National Park. Kazakhstan’s varied landscape of mountains, lakes, desert and wild country doubles for Khan’s Mongolia and Chinese territories.
Watch Marco on Netflix here