About their adventure they realised a website "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo ".
With the new Netflix series Marco Polo still running, it's a good moment and look back with me to a journey, not so long ago:
After seeing this article Francis O' Donnell wrote me the following additional information which puts one and another in the right perspective:
The dream was to be the first expedition in history to retrace the entire route of Marco Polo, and by some miracle we did so. We came to find however there are many gray areas, places lost forever in the annals of time. So when Smithsonian , who vetted our journey thoroughly stated that “ They are almost certainly the first to approximate Polo's steps through Eurasia entirely by land and sea, without resorting to helicopters or airplanes”, that was confirmation and validation enough for use ! We had informed them of our intentions before leaving , and stayed in contact with them through our liaisons back home during our travels. When they heard we had successfully completed the Afghan leg of our journey , they asked us to write an article for their magazine. What an honor, we felt , one of the most prestigious and highly regarded magazines on art , history and culture , in the world, to be in it's pages would certainly help us in the furtherance of our effort. We were in financial trouble at that point and our success was anything but guaranteed. Reaching Beijing in late February 1994 ,it was cold and gray , so we hunkered down in the Chinese capital for two weeks. We locked ourselves away in our room and wrote , we did little sight seeing or the work we needed to in our pursuit of looking for and documenting what we could of Marco's account , we seldom went out. We believed we had submitted a strong piece , crossed our fingers and continued on. Several weeks later we got the word they had rejected our article , saying “ There was to much action in it and it read like something from soldier of fortune “. This was a blow in several ways , there would be no money for the article , rejection is never a good feeling, but in the past we had always been able to use the negativity of others , to harden , motivate and inspire ourselves “ We will show them “ was how we handled nay sayers. I can't tell you how many people , scholars and other so called “experts “ who told us it can't be done , and if it can, it isn't going to be by you two ! This time was different , it took the wind out of my partners sails , as he felt somehow perhaps his photo's were not up to par, and played a part in their decision. I assured him that was “ Nonsense “ and that he was an excellent photographer. I continued saying “ We had nothing to worry about , that we needed to stay focused on the mission, that was what counted ! “ First things first, let us put the horse before the cart as it were. In truth I told him, we had yet to accomplish anything extraordinary , and when we got home, having been successful, things would be different. The truth was we had , we had done something extraordinary , we had been the first westerners in a generation to enter and cross the Wakhan corridor. A place we knew before we left home would be the crowning jewel of our expedition and it was . In the town of Ishkashim which is split and divided by a branch of the Oxus river , I stood looking out at the mighty spires guarding the entrance. The Hindu Kush to the south and the Pamirs , the Roof of the world to the north. Marked on our map, which we first plotted at home , it was one of the obstacles, if crossed would separate us from all the failed attempts before us . There I contemplated , asking the universe why , why is it me ? Why am I being so blessed , knowing that soon I would traverse that mythic corridor . The Wakhan, a lost and all but forgotten secret passage into the back door of China. The other obstacles were getting into Iran , our biggest challenge as Americans and traversing the entire southern route along the Silk Road which at that time was mostly closed and off limits to foreigners and there were others in fact we had just barely survived, one the Afghan civil war. The reason for our Smithsonian disappointment.
The soviet Army left Afghanistan in 1989 , via the “Friendship bridge “ Uzbekistan. In 1993 after weeks of interrogation and consternation the newly FSB , former KGB, finally relented and let us cross into war torn Afghanistan. This too was no small feet , as Americans, our country helped the Mujahedin insurgents defeat the soviet forces . I am sure they would have rather bit off their tongue then see us cross . We were the first westerners to do so , aside from United Nations and other NGO types. What ensued was indeed something out of soldier of fortune as we were captured in a fire fight , ironically by the descendants of the very same tribe of people, Polo described as almost capturing him but killing and enslaving many of his companions . We came under the protection of an Afghan warlord and crossed the bulk of the country with our own heavily armed contingent of bodyguards. 1993/4 was part of an era called the “ Warlord period “. In many ways it was more dangerous than the Soviet and Taliban periods and subsequent American intervention ! There was a total power vacuum and all out anarchy among the different Afghan Mujaheddin factions that were vying for power. A paradise , or hell on earth , these are the two visions we had of Afghanistan. In the Wakhan area people only knew Marco Polo by the sheep that has been given his name as he was the first to describe to western science the “ Ovis Poli “. Everywhere else we encountered fierce, strong , proud and handsome people, friendly and giving . People who on the whole ached for peace and an end to war . The peace that we wholeheartedly prayed for in the Smithsonian article and one that the country is so deserving of and is still sadly illusive. Tragically the misery continues, with no end in sight. God help Afghanistan. Upon returning home the response we got from all the major media players was “ Isn't that nice , well congratulations but we are so sorry, Americas aren't interested in this part of the world … now if you had something on national parks ? “ America in it's never ending self involvement was to busy making money during the dot com bubble to worry about the mess left behind in Afghanistan or the formation of Al - Qaeda and the blow back that was impending. It was like throwing pearls before swine . It wasn't until 911 that people woke up to the world . That morning , before the second plane hit the towers Denis called me and said “ The key to the whole thing is Pakistan” . An insight and a word, I didn't hear come out of any TV pundits mouth for over a week ! After the initial shock wore off , I picked up the phone and called the Smithsonian. I had kept my foot in the door , staying in touch with the editor in chief , sending him Christmas cards and e- mailing him now and then on a variety of subjects over the years. The outcome was the article “ Marco Polo's guide to Afghanistan “ of which I am proud but doesn't come close to doing our story justice. Even this follow up is extremely compressed.
I will leave it as Marco did more than 700 years ago … “ I haven't told you half of what I have seen “ !
Written By Francis O'Donnell