TOM #10

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



One of the characters in the book: ‘The Other Marco’, is Abdul the old camel porter who has traveled with the first Polo expedition to the land of the Kublai Khan and who is again on the second trip to Cathay with the Polo brothers which includes the young Marco Polo.  Also on this second journey is another Marco, a boy who enlists as a camel porter and rides next to Abdul who guides him through the rigorousness of expedition life and teaches him about life’s complexity itself.

Tom [which is the acronym of The Other Marco] learns from the old Arab and sees him as a wise man.  The following is an extract from the book where Tom leaves the caravan to go off on his own mission and he is saying goodbye to Abdul: 

‘Abdul was the first person I saw as I approached the bottom end of the tent camp.  I hurried over to him.

“Hello Abdul,” I said, realizing as I said it, that I should be saying, goodbye.

Abdul looked at me and nodded slowly.  “I can see a great thing has happened in your life, Marco,” my wise old friend said quietly.  I did not have to tell Abdul I was leaving, he already knew, simply by looking at me.  “I have taught you all I know, Marco.  Remember it, but most importantly, live it.  May God go with you,” and with that, the old camelman turned away from me and walked off.  As I watched him disappear among the camelmen, I knew that this was his last lesson to me.  Farewells must not be drawn out or emotional, and must be concluded with a few, sincere words.’


          Tom calls his teacher, ‘my wise old friend’.


          Wisdom is a quality that is usually assigned to certain people only, mostly a thin, white bearded, dour old man with clear piercing eyes peering out from underneath bushy eyebrows and living in a tree in the forest.  The stereotype wise man is hardly ever a jovial, rotund gourmand living in decadent opulence and dispensing his wisdom frivolously over a cup of spilt red wine!

          Wise old women are not found nearly as much as their male counterparts, except in Greek mythology where Pythia, priestess to Apollo at Delphi became the oracle that provided wise council to those who consulted her.


          What exactly is wisdom then?  A simple definition could be: ‘Wisdom is applied Knowledge’, but that only addresses one ingredient in the wisdom cake.  Perhaps a dash of intelligence and a pinch or two of good judgement and understanding can be added.  Wisdom acquaints itself with optimism and positiveness rather than with stress or doomsday prophets.

          So what makes Abdul the old camel porter wise?   Perhaps it is his quiet nature and only speaking when being addressed directly, that gives him the nod.

There is a saying that goes something like this:  “I keep my mouth shut so people think I am wise, rather than opening it and dispelling the perception”.




            Abdul’s ‘world’ is confined to his thorough knowledge of the desert, the mountains and of camels. Although he has traveled right across Asia from the Mediterranean to Peking, he has no concept of the globe he lives on and the yet to be discovered continents lurking there. Even if he knew all that, it does not automatically qualify him as being wise.

            Wisdom must then go beyond the physical and must also embrace some form of spiritual inspiration by foretelling future events with more accuracy than the law of probability can compute.  This does not mean that ‘noble’ wisdom ought to be relegated into the realm of soothsayers and shamans. Thank goodness wisdom cannot be bought as a ready-made panacea for cognitively challenged minds.

            Worse still, researching this topic, I came across a group who says there is no such qualification as wisdom!  I may have thought that wisdom is simply common sense but for reading in a university study guide once, that there is no such thing as common sense!

            Perhaps I should accept Abdul the camel porter as a wise old man, like the other Marco did, and not query it.  Of course, all this questioning would never happen if Marco Polo’s detractors can prove that he never went to China in the first place!  They claim that he heard the stories from the Silk Road caravan merchants that passed through Constantinople. Did he fabricate everything he said then?

            Another quote from ‘The Other Marco’: “Things are not always what you think they are.”

          That leaves you and I, reader, to decide if we are real.  If we have no common sense and cannot aspire to wisdom, we might as well not exist.  Right?


TOM #10 is Monster time!


This weird creature must be the craziest creation so far.  The design brief called for a dog/worm/peacock combination with the K9 being a Bulldog.

Unhappily, I seem to have over-cooked the worm and as you can see it looks more like a roll of beef straight out the oven, than the hairy caterpillar it was supposed to resemble.  Perhaps the menu could read ‘Peacock Plumed Hotdog’. 


I am still hoping that someone else out there will create a Monster and send it to me.  I will happily publish it.  Here is the address:  


See you on TOM #11

TOM #9


In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition


In the early 13th century a Mongolian named Temujin became a powerful leader when he united the neighbouring Mongol tribes.  With this army he fell upon nations further away including China and eventually established a vast Empire stretching across Asia from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea.  When Temujin became Kahn [ruler] he adopted the name Genghis.




History portrays Genghis Kahn as a brutal emperor who slayed millions in his quest for power and domination.  Most statistics claim that 40 million Chinese, Asians and Eastern Europeans were massacred.  In many areas, entire civilian populations were eliminated.

The Persian Khwarezmid Empire was crushed by the Mongol army, wiping out 90% of the civilian population!

Let us look at the data available.

The problem with statistics, even those that are correct, one tends to glance through  them without question or closer scrutiny.   After consulting the fourth source of reference that concurred with the 40 million dead, I lost a few nights sleep trying to see these horror figures in perspective.

Let us firstly realize that we are talking about the Middle Ages where state of the art killing machines like planes, bombs, tanks, guided missiles, long range field guns, high powered rifles and deadly drones were unheard of.

During World War II, the 10 most heavily bombarded cities barely totaled half a million deaths!  Bear in mind that we are referring to the thousand bomber raids over Germany and Japan, plus the 2 Atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo that developed into firestorms where thousands were trapped and perished long after the bombers left.

For 40 million people to die during the Genghis Kahn’s reign, they would have had to be killed one at a time using swords, spears, knives and clubs to dispatch them.  No efficient weapons of mass destruction here.


GK horseman

The Mongolian army was mostly mounted.  Their horses were small sturdy ponies with thick hairy manes and tails, as this picture shows.


At this point one needs accurate population statistics for the Mongols, the Chinese and the rest of Asia where the Genghis Kahn’s soldiers had swept through.  The best I could find [if anyone out there knows of a better source, please let me know] was this site.

 According to this reference the total Chinese population in 1200 was 32 million.  Since the Genghis Kahn only attacked the Xia and Jin dynasties in northern China, [Southern China was subdued two generations later by Kublai Kahn] we must assume that only 16 million Chinese faced the Genghis army.  This same reference source also tells us that the total population of the rest of Asia in 1200 was 14 million.  Included in this figure are the Mongolians themselves!  If we once again assume that they made up half this number, 7 million, then killing the other 7 million plus the 16 million in China itself, he would have wiped out every single person, leaving not one live human being in these two massive areas, making his slaughter total only 23 million!  But statistics tell us he massacred 40 million!

Something is obviously wrong somewhere.  The total population of all the combined countries in Asia must have been far greater than my reference estimates.  Or is the 40 million an ancient conspiracy theory, initiated by the defeated countries to give the Genghis Kahn a bad press?

Other references, without giving exact figures, indicate a massive drop in population between 1200 and 1300.  It is without doubt that the Genghis Kahn massacred millions but the mind boggles that it was carried out man to man, face to face.


GK general

A Mongolian General [drawn from an ancient picture]


Two generations later, Genghis Kahn’s grandson Kublai Kahn marched into southern China and carried on where his grandfather had left off.  Into this troubled history, stepped the Polo brothers with Niccolo’s son, Marco Polo and traded with the Mongols.  In my story, ‘the Other Marco’ also tells of his involvement with these fearsome warriors.


When reading an article about army ants that travel in massive columns across the land and devour everything in their way, including plants, insects and even animals, I was amused by the writer calling them ‘the Mongolians’ of the ant world!

What a reputation to have!


It is not Monster time, but 9 year old Aydan in Portland, Oregon, who has imagined the past Monsters that I drew, sent me this drawing of a fish he did.  It think it is a very good drawing/painting and that is why I am including it here.




 I suppose with those sharp teeth, this fish could be a Piranha!  Well Piranhas are not monsters so this is not a monster sneaking into an odd-numbered posting. 

Perhaps we should use these odd-numbered posts to invite all the youngsters out there to send in their drawings.  I will include them and you can see your work on this blog.  Send your drawing to my e-mail address:


Next post is even- numbered TOM #10 which means Monster time again.  See you there.





TOM #8

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



Kamikaze is a Japanese word that means ‘divine wind’.

 Kami is a spiritual deity, a ‘god’, and kaze means wind.  The word originated after two typhoons destroyed the invading Kublai Kahn’s Mongolian fleets in 1274 and 1281!  The ‘holy men’ of Japan were quick to point out that the country was saved by the intervention of a divine wind that blew away the attackers, twice in 7 years.

 Imagine an invading fleet of 1400 ships carrying some 63,000 troops landing on Kyushu island, Japan, and before full scale battles are fought, a mighty wind destroys most of the foreign boats!  Now imagine a bigger force of 140,000 men in 4400 ships on the doorstep 7 years later also being destroyed by a typhoon!  Small wonder it was not too difficult to entrench into the psyche and history of the Japanese people the idea of divine winds saving their country.


This conviction, of Japan being unassailable remained until the end of World War II.  When Japan realized that the American fleet around them could not be blown away by a third divine wind, they created a devastating force of suicide pilots to become the ‘kamikaze’ that would destroy the invading fleet.  In Japan the word ‘kamikaze’ became linked, but not officially, with the pilots that dive bombed the warships.  Tokubetsu Kōgekitai [Special attack unit] was the actual official title and abbreviated as Tokkō Tai or the action of attacking as Tokkō!  After the war the words Kamikaze pilot became the accepted title in both Japan and the west.

 Initially there were no planned suicide squadrons, but some pilots deliberately flew into ships when their planes were so severely crippled in action that getting back to base was impossible. They chose to inflict as much damage as they could with their death.  Deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture, perhaps more so in their military ethos, is the assumed disgrace of being defeated or captured.  These spontaneous suicides, especially when they were successful, eventually brought into existence an organized unit of pilots who were prepared to pay the ultimate price.

It is said that a Japanese Air Force Commander asked a group of 23 student pilots whom he had trained, if they would volunteer for these special missions.  All of them volunteered.   As the war progressed Japan lost their dominance of the sky since they could not build better planes fast enough.  Also, the number of replacement pilots in training could not keep up with the experienced pilots who were dying in combat

Diving Zero

It will never be known how many kamikaze pilots died or how many ships were sank or put out of action, since the sources differ so widely on which the statistics are based.  Estimates tell us 3850 pilots died in action.  Ship losses range from 34 to as high as 81 naval vessels sunk and over 360 damaged.  As many as 4900 sailors were killed on the ships and another 4800 wounded.

 The special attack units of suicide pilots symbolizing a man-made divine wind to blow away the invading fleet, did not stop Japan being invaded in 1946 as the original kamikaze winds had done in the 13th century.


In the book ‘The Other Marco’,  TOM is on a boat heading for Japan when the second typhoon strikes with dire consequences for the young Venetian.



It is an even numbered blog [#8] again, so it is Monster 4 Monster time.  Aydan in Portland, Oregon has used his imagination again to come up with this weirdo shark combination.  I am hoping that other youngsters out there will join in the creative fun and design a monster for me to draw OR draw it themselves and I will include it in the M4M corner for all to see!  Enjoy.



  See you again in TOM #9

TOM #7

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition


The Yellow River

The Yellow River features in my book:  ‘The Other Marco’,  so I thought I would share with you some of the research reading I have done about this interesting waterway in China.

At 5,464 km long, it is the second longest river in Asia.  Its drainage area is a massive 742,443 square kilometers, and was the region where the ancient Chinese civilization originated.  The river was revered for its abundance and feared for its unpredictability.  Rich farmlands, producing plentiful crops for years along the river banks would be swept away periodically by devastating floods.  The Yellow River is also known as China’s Sorrow.  1.6 billion tons of soil is lost annually through erosion and millions of people can die in a single flood disaster.  In 1332/3, barely 40 years after Marco Polo left China, 7 million people were drowned in a massive flood.

The name ‘Yellow River’ describes the ochre colored sediment called loess that the river picks up when flowing across the Loess Plateau.  This ‘mud’ is deposited along the river bed and builds up on the banks when the water slows down across the flood plain, effectively creating a silt trough in which the river is not only contained, but causing it to flow higher than the surrounding country side.  Breaching through this accumulation, sends the water flooding across the low lying land and can change the river’s course as it has done 26 times between 608 BCE and 1938 CE.  The Yellow River has flooded more than 1,500 times during this same period.


TOMyellow R

The Chinese people stand in awe of the Yellow River, and see it not only as a river, but also as the symbol of the Chinese spirit: able to carry burdens as the river must carry the yellow sediment, the ability to adapt as the river changes course when confronted by obstacles and the determination to persevere as the river continues to flow.

Unhappily the symbol of continual flow has been challenged.  Global warming, decreased rainfall in the catchment area, increased water demands from industry and farming has dried up the river for long periods since 1972. [226 days in 1997!]  Even when the river runs now, it is so polluted with sewage from the growing cities along its course that industry and agriculture cannot use it.  The Chinese spirit will have to find a less contaminated symbol to portray perseverance in the future.


One can only hope that this once magnificent river will not share the same fate as the Aral sea.  This vast lake [formally one of the four largest lakes on the world] has dried up almost totally since 1960 due to the rivers feeding into it being rerouted to irrigate huge tracts of desert for crop growing, noticeably cotton.  The disappearing of the Aral sea is known as ‘one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters’. [I would like to add ‘man made disasters’]  Type Aral Sea on Google Images and see the rusted hulks of ships lying around in the desert that once was the sea floor.  I wonder what symbol this portrays?


Ships of the desert lie in the shade of ships in the desert.


The following extract is from the book: ‘The Other Marco’.

TOM [the other Marco] is sent on an errant down the Yellow River on a barge, and experiences the following ultimate adventure when the boat crew senses that a flood is imminent and suggests that they pull up onto high ground and prepare for it:


We reached the island as the pilot had predicted by late afternoon.  The horses were unloaded to graze.  Most of the heavier trunks and boxes were also taken off the boat to make it lighter. Then, using all the available hands, we hauled the boat up the embankment, as high as we could. I judged that the back of the barge was about twice my height above the level of the water.  It did not look high enough to me, but the pilot and the helmsman seemed satisfied.  We were ready to wait.

As it got dark, I looked at the slow moving shallow water once more and lay down to sleep.  Sometime during the night, I awoke to the sound of voices up river.  I sat up, but it was too dark to see anything, so I listened for a while, till it was quiet, and then slept again.

In the morning, a grey mist hung over the river.  It was still flowing slowly along.  I glanced up river and saw a boat aground on the silt.  They had obviously become stuck in the night, which accounted for the voices.

Looking about, I noticed our Mongolian escort was on the highest part of the island, well above the water, rubbing their horses down. Some of the porters were carrying a bag of rice back to the barge to cook.  Our crew was gathered in a small group on the sand bank.  I looked down river where we still had to go, but it was shrouded in mist, so I turned back to see if we could help the stranded boat behind us.  Up river, in the distance, I became aware of a hazy brown disturbance across the water, from one bank, across to the other.  I recognized it at once.  A wall of yellow, boiling water was racing towards us! 

 Driven by fear, I instinctively wanted to scream, but in that instant, I forced myself to not sound scared, and in a controlled and commanding voice, shouted, “Here comes the flood! Get ready!”

The porters dropped the bag of rice and raced to the barge.  The boat crew quickly leapt on board as well.  The Mongolian horsemen settled on staying where they were.  They must have considered their position was high enough and safe.

The helmsman untied the long steering paddle, and both he and the pilot swung it into position.  Everyone else clung to some strong support on the boat and stared at the approaching water.  Yasu braced himself against the stout post onto which the bamboo tow rope was tied.

Tzun and I checked that the box of documents was securely wedged in the locker where it was kept for the trip.  Our other baggage was stacked above the boat on the embankment.  All we could hope for was that the water would not reach us, but pass lower than the back of our boat.

I stared with mounting anxiety at the seething mass of angry water rushing towards us.  A confusion of wreckage tumbled in its leading edge.  We watched in horror as it slammed into the stranded boat below us, shoving the back straight upwards and catapulting the vessel over the bow that had been driven into the yellow silt.  In a flash it was gone, and the surge leapt at us without faltering. 


This short extract from my book: ‘The Other Marco’ describes how I imagined what a real Yellow River flood would have been like.  Needless to say, in all adventure story writing, the situation becomes worse as a second, higher wave catches up to the first one.  Scary!

I am still not sure if the book should be illustrated when it is published.  That decision will no doubt be made with the publisher’s help later.  However, this blog can have pictures, so this is how I see the extract above as a drawing.  Enjoy.




See you in TOM #8 soon.  Monsters 4 Monsters will sport a weird Shark like creature!

TOM #6

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the  Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition. 



Who can remember Silkworms?



As junior school kids, our year was demarcated by non-curriculum playground activities that included ‘spinning top’ season, marble season, yo-yo season and silkworm season.  Tops, marbles and yo-yos could be played anytime of the year but silkworms arrived at a fixed time in spring [September in the Southern Hemisphere] when the mulberries trees could provide them with new leaves to eat.

Someone would arrive at school with a shoebox full of tiny black silkworms that had hatched from the eggs laid a year before.  [It appears that a year interval for eggs to hatch is a South African phenomenon.  I see that hatching in other places can be as quick as 2 weeks to 6 months]  Anyone who could find a suitable receptacle would transfer a dozen or two little worms onto a bed of mulberry leaves and head home with his or her own silk production unit!  At first new leaves were placed daily over the feeding worms, as it was very difficult to separate the little worms from the previous layer of shredded leaves and clean the box.  When the worms fattened up, they could be handled and moved onto fresh leaves in a second feeding box, making it easier to clean box no.1!

Watching a worm eating was a fascinating pastime.  It would start on the edge of a leaf and nibble downwards, scooping out a neat curve.  Then it would repeat the action from the top of the curve and chomp off another sliver to enlarge the scoop shape.  I often wished that I could magnify that sound to hear the munching and crunching of a silkworm decimating a mulberry leaf.  I am sure it would sound like a bulldozer ploughing through a forest. 



Keeping the feeding box clean was important as one had to watch to see when a worm was ready to spin.  If left alone, the worm would move into a corner and fix anchoring points around itself with a series of silk threads that it draws from it’s mouth onto the box sides.  Once it has totally wrapped itself up inside a silk cocoon, the miracle of metamorphosis takes place and the worm changes into a pupa, and eventually into a moth.



Of course, we did not leave the worm to enclose itself in its silken hideaway, but put it to work to  spin flat silk shapes for us.  We cut out hearts, diamonds, triangles, circles or squares from thin stiff cardboard and glued these onto the top of a bottle.  The spinning worm was placed onto this platform and it set about trying to escape over the edge and when that was not possible, it released its silk in straight lines from edge to edge of the shape.




As the worm used up its silk supply, it began to shrink in length and turn brown.  It was changing into a pupa and needed to be protected as it did not have a cocoon surrounding it.  We normally ‘buried’ this strange little blob in a layer of cake flour where it continued to change into a furry white moth.  The moths were then put into a clean shoebox where they mated and the females laid tiny sticky yellow eggs.  Having done this, their cycle of life was completed and they all died leaving behind hundreds of eggs stuck all over the sides of the box, ready to hatch in a year’s time for the next ‘silkworm season’.



 This is a silk disc spun on a circular cardboard cutout.  It is being held in front of mulberry leaves.


The silk industry started in China and as its products became known for their value and marketability in the west, a trade route developed.


Silk Road

The Silk Road was the name given by 19th century scholars to the network of trade routes that stretched from Europe, across the Asian continent to China.

Trading along these routes go back to the 2nd century BCE.  Although Chinese silk was undoubtedly the primary item traded, it was not the only goods being transported.  Besides tangible commodities like spices, precious stones and metals moving along the routes, technology, religion and diseases also formed part of the traffic.  It has been suggested that the Black Plague arrived in Europe from China in the 14th century, having travelled along this route.

Traders utilizing the Silk Road included the Chinese, Romans, Arabs, Greeks, Indians, Turks and Persians to name a few.

Primitive tribal societies living along the Silk Road were attracted by the wealth and abundance passing their front doors.  Small wonder that many of them resorted to becoming bandits and robbers, relieving the caravans of their merchandise.  The Mongolians and the Romans deployed mounted soldiers along the route to protect their commercial interests.

A maritime Silk Route opened up between Roman controlled Egyptian ports on the Red Sea, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka to Vietnam and eventually China itself by the 1st century.  Pirates constantly targeted the 120 ships setting sail every year from these Roman Egyptian ports to India.

After the fall of the Mongolian Empire, the great political powers along the Silk Route became economically and culturally separated.  The Roman Empire, and its demand for Asian products, crumbled in the West around the 5th century.  It is interesting to note that by this time, two monks by the orders of Emperor Justinian, had travelled to China and stolen silkworm eggs.  They set up a silk production in the Mediterranean, but never achieved the quality of Chinese silk.

The Silk Road stopped serving as a route for silk in about 1453 as the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople embargoed all trade with the west, effectively slamming shut the door through which the last of the silk products trickled.

It is no accident that 35 years later the ocean route from Europe to the East was discovered by the expeditions of Bartholomew Dias [1488] and Vasco da Gama [1497 – 1499], around Africa, via the Atlantic and Indian oceans, effectively eliminating the need for an overland silk trade route.

VascoDaGamaShip A Portuguese Caravel sailing around Africa, heading for India may have looked like this.



And now Monsters 4 Monsters #3!

This is a combination Tyrannosaurus Rex and a smelly skunk with a very venomous viper for a tail. 




Any young men [or young ladies] out there with vivid monstrous imaginations are invited to create a monster by describing it in a mail to me and I will make a picture of it for this Monsters 4 Monsters corner.

Remember:  Monsters 4 Monsters appear in every even numbered post.

This is TOM #6 so the next one will be found in TOM #8.  It will be numbered M4M #4.

That’s it till next time.  Leave a comment if you feel like it – I’d love to hear what you think!







TOM #5

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition


trump cloud

Donald Trump is not the first man in history to build a strategic wall right across his country.


The best example of such a mammoth task is of course the Great Wall of China.  In the book: ‘The Other Marco’, TOM visits a section of the wall near the Yellow River.  He is naturally over awed by its size and being told that the wall stretches right across the country.

 Building the Great Wall of China

          Shih-haung-ti, the first Emperor of China started the great wall in 221BCE to stop the invading Turco-Mongolian hordes that inhabited the north-western steppes.  Containing these mounted warriors that had united under the Hsiung-nu or Hun tribesmen was extremely difficult, as they had no permanent cities or towns that could be counter-attacked. They moved from place to place where they found water and grass and could swiftly retreat over the wide Mongolian plain after each successful raid.  At best the Wall helped to kept the Huns out, but when the Ch’in dynasty collapsed in 206BCE they once more raided down to the Yellow River plains and established the Hun dynasty of Emperor Wu-ti.


The utility of the Great Wall as a means of defense has often been seriously questioned.  In spite of its shortcomings, one has to marvel at the logistics in creating and managing this staggering project.

          Emperor Shih-haung-ti sent General Meng-T’ien with an army of 300,000 laborers, plus many more convicts and political prisoners to rebuild and strengthen earlier fortifications.  The Wall reportedly had 25,000 watchtowers within signaling distance of one another, each capable of accommodating 100 men.  The Wall filled the gaps between these watchtowers.

 It is said that the only man-made object that can be seen on earth from the moon is the Great Wall of China.  During the Ming Dynasty [approx. 16th century] the wall was 5500 miles long [8852 kms]


 The only other cross country barricade I was aware of was Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, built by the Romans in the year 122 CE.  Researching these projects I was amazed to find  two more ‘walls’ mentioned in this category that I had never heard of.

Barely 160kms further north from Hadrian’s wall, another fortified barrier was constructed by the Romans 20 years later and became known as the Antonine Wall.  It stretched from Edinburgh [Firth of Forth] to Glasgow [Firth of Clyde].  Live and learn!

  Then the biggest surprise was the revelation of a Benin Wall that claims to have been 4 times longer than the Chinese Great Wall!  Benin is in Nigeria and this earthen wall totaled an incredible 16,000kms long!


It is not a single barrier stretching that distance across the landscape, but a walled maze of interlocking squares and rectangles over a 6500sqkm area!  I checked my reference to see if the Great Wall of China was indeed a quarter of 16000 i.e. 4000kms long.  Confirming that the existing Chinese GW at 8852kms was shorter [but not 4 times] than the Benin wall, I was in for another surprise.  The 8852km is the total defensive length not the actual wall length.  One has to subtract 2232kms where natural obstructions like rivers and mountains exist and a further 360kms of trenches.  We are now moving toward the 4:1 ratio, but not quite.  The actual standing wall is therefore 6260kms long making it 2.5:1.

 I concede that the supporters of the Benin wall must make attention grabbing claims, but asserting that it was 4 times longer than its Chinese counter-part, smacks of deception!

One can take this ‘mine is longer than yours’ claim further by comparing apples with apples.    The Benin wall was destroyed by the British and very little of it exists any longer.  Archaeological surveys in China have uncovered ancient Great Wall foundations where the wall no longer exist either, and have come up with a total distance of 21,197kms!  Let’s deduct the mountains, rivers and trenches from this figure and we arrive at the sum of the existing walls + foundations of walls no longer standing, to give us 18,606kms.  The Great Wall is therefore 2606kms longer than the Benin wall.

If anyone would like you check my figures, I would appreciate it, as I was not the brightest button in the Arithmetic class.

While we are talking about walls, let’s have a quick peek at walled cities.

The concept of building a surrounding defensive wall to protect a city or town from potential aggressors is not new.  Walled cities and fortresses, some dating back as far back as 3500 BCE and before that, are dotted all over the world.  The ancient cities of Uruk in Mesopotamia, Jericho and Babylon existed behind massive walls. So did Mundigak [2500 BCE] in Afghanistan.

Take a look on Google Images at:  The Walls of the Ark of Bukara.

                                                 The Derawar fort in Bahawlpur, Pakistan.

                                                 The walled city of Avila, Spain.

 I have chosen these three cities at random, but there are many more examples of defensive walls around the world.   One cannot help being impressed by the engineering skills and sheer effort that was expended in creating these monuments to man’s ingenuity.  Of course, the primary reason behind building walls was not only to show off man’s inventiveness, but fear!  The bigger the threat, the bigger the fear and hence, the bigger the wall.

It is interesting to note that Venice, where ‘The Other Marco story’ starts, could not build defensive walls on the soft marshes.  They depended on their water barrier to protect them, but did build-up an effective fleet of warships as a mobile defensive wall, and to look after their commercial interests on the surrounding Adriatic and Mediterranean seas.


My apology

Sorry about this posting being 4 weeks overdue.  I could give you a string of excuses to justify my tardiness, but I won’t!  Suffice it to say that I dropped one of the balls I was juggling, and had to  ask young Jason to pick it up and get me started all over again.  Thanks Jason.

Would also like to thank Trevor for sorting out the ‘comments section’ so that the text no longer sits on top of each other.

  As this is TOM #5, the monsters will be back in #6.  [Remember, even numbered postings for dragons!]  The title of the #6 dragon is: The Rex T Skunk with the serpentile tail.  In less than two weeks – promise!



All good things come to an end, including the Great wall of China – into the ocean!

TOM #4

  In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the  Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



Sailing off into the sunset on a yacht is undeniably a romantic notion until one experiences it.  Squinting into the blinding reflection of the setting sun on the sea or straight at the dazzling ball of fire on a cloudless afternoon is decidedly uncomfortable.  Sunglasses help, sort of, but your burning nose and chapped lips need more than Sun block SPF50 to neutralise the glare off the water.  A cloth covering your face is a hot solution and like sunglasses helps, sort of.  Now add a lumpy sea and a cold wind and all romance is tossed into the briny ocean around you.  Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it!


                This is me struggling with the elements, while shipmate Peter looks on sympathetically 

Ah, but then we are not talking about a sailing yacht when the word romantic creeps into the conversation, are we?  Luxurious cruise liners have hi-jacked that word long ago. 

Over the New Year, Allison and I spent a total of ten days on our friends Pat and Barbara’s yacht sailing the 800 nautical miles down the South African east coast from Durban to Cape Town and I experienced the sun dropping into the ocean ahead of me as I did my stint at the wheel.  Never once did I wish that I was on a cruise liner, but spent many hours thinking of the mariners of old that plied these waters without sunglasses and sun tan lotion and realised how extremely well equipped we were on Pat’s boat.  The ability to ‘see’ the ships around us and know their names, size, weight, cargo, direction and speed with our onboard chart plotter, plus the capability of down-loading a long range wind and weather forecast on a laptop was mind blowing.  My estimation of the old salts that sailed the seven seas for hundreds of years with only their experience and a large serving of good luck, was hoisted quite a few pegs after our trip.

The other Marco [TOM] travels long journeys by sea and experiences many eventful situations. 

Let us now look at some interesting water craft that sail on rivers and canals.

‘The Other Marco’ story starts in Venice around 1270, but I have not mentioned gondolas as readers will think of today’s graceful, dare I say, banana shaped Venetian tourist boat we know so well which were definitely not around then.

          Years after visiting Venice and seeing these exotic craft, I saw a photo of one in a travel brochure, taken directly from the front and I wondered how the camera could have twisted the hull so completely out of shape. I was somewhat upset that a glossy advertisement could get it totally wrong, only to be upset again when I found out I was wrong, not to have been observant enough to notice that the gondolas I had seen were not symmetrical at all.  Gondolas are warped, the centre line being slewed to the right and for a very good reason.

          The gondolier stands at the back on the left hand side and paddles with a single oar on the right.  Perhaps I should say he rests the remo [oar] on the forcola [an extremely convoluted and complex piece of wood jutting out from the right side of the gondola] and sculls [rowing by weaving the paddle in small sweeping movements].  To compensate for the gondolier’s off centred weight, the hull is more rounded and longer on the left side by 24cm [10 inches].  Gondolas before the 19th century did not enjoy this asymmetrical [twisted] innovation.


The word gondola was known in the 11th century, but whatever it was referring to, it definitely was not even remotely similar to the gondolas tied up at St Marks square today.  In the 13th century, gondolas were propelled by 12 rowers and later elaborate cabins appeared decorated with ostentatious ornamental scrolls and designs.  Currently, gondolas have been simplified to include a few velvet cushions and the hulls are painted in the Henry Ford maxim; ‘You can have any colour as long as it is black!’  Black gondolas were of course around long before Mr Ford, which leaves us to assume that using pitch to waterproof the hulls over hundreds of years, established a tradition that is entrenched today in spite of modern sealing paints that come in a rainbow of colours.  I would be horrified if Venice suddenly sprouted an armada of pink and purple polka dotted, stars and striped, gold and silver, red, green, yellow and blue graffiti covered gondolas!  Of course, there are some kinky boot beasts out there that would love it!


Having looked at the skewed shape of the gondola, it is interesting to note that in China [where the Polo expedition ended] other skewed water craft existed.

Unlike the gondola where the entire hull is curved to one side, these strange river boats had either the flat square stern skewed or the bow was twisted so that the one side was a meter [3 foot] higher than the other.  I found this intriguing information in a book I have, entitled:  ‘Setting Sails – A tribute to the Chinese Junk’ by Derek Maitland and Nik Wheeler.

I do not entirely understand the reason for this misshapen boat but it apparently performs better over rough rapids.  Not sure why.  If anyone can shed a bit of light on this crooked innovation, share it with me and with whoever else would like to join in. 


In the book: The Other Marco, TOM sees teams of horses pulling the huge junks upstream on the Yellow River, but often teams of men [and I am sure women also] were used for this arduous task.  Two smaller craft were always in attendance, one to ferry the trackers [the word used for the human pullers] back and forth from bank to bank as needed, and past joining rivers or impassable obstacles, and the other which hung further back down-stream, as a lifeboat in case of mishaps.  Whenever I read how harsh life was back then, I keep thinking they were tougher than we are today!  Anyone disagree?


Monsters 4 Monsters Corner.

As #4 is an even numbered page of ‘The Other Marco’ blog, it is Monster time again.

Aydan, my grandson, requested a honey badger with a mechanical skeleton mounted by a boney scull.  For this monster’s title, I decided to spoonerize the words Honey Badger which should have sounded like Bunny Hadger, except that Boney is not expressed as Bunny.  Some words cannot be spoonerized, so this Monster is a Boney Hadger.M4M03rough

Also decided to show the frame work sketch of the Boney Hadger.



There you have it again, Monsters and all – ENJOY!


Please feel free to comment.        Post #5 is on the way.

TOM #3

  In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the  Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



        In the book, ‘The Other Marco’, Tom arrives at the port city of Acre on the boat from Venice carrying the Polo expedition.  His only knowledge of the place is that Christian Crusaders ruled the port but the surrounding area, all the way to Jerusalem and beyond was Saracen [Muslim] territory.  Saracen was the term used for Muslim warriors by Europeans on the voyage.  TOM is mostly fearful of these soldiers even without knowing the turbulent history of the Crusader wars that had for hundreds of years been waged in this region.

           A very quick look at the story of the Crusades might be appropriate at this point.


A Crusader Knight, his armour covered in a white shroud facing a Saracen Warrior


          As the Roman Empire began to crumble in the west, Constantine I moved his capitol to the ruined city of Byzantium in the east and established his New Rome.  The city was renamed Constantinople and his empire, Byzantine.  His realm included the Christian Holy lands around Jerusalem.

          300 years later the Arabs defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Yarmuk, and Jerusalem was captured.  They ruled for 100 years and where then overthrown by Abbasid Caliphate who established an Islamic Empire for 350 years.

          During these 450 years the Catholic Church had grown and replaced the Roman Empire to become a powerful ruling force in Rome and Europe.  Pope Urban II urged Christian leaders in the west to join a crusade to evict the Muslims [Islamic Empire] from Jerusalem.  The 1st Crusade was successful when Godfrey of Bouillion recaptured Jerusalem and assumed the title: ‘Defender of the Holy Sepulchre’.

           100 years later Sultan Saladin defeated the Christians at the Battle of Hattin and occupied Jerusalem.  Richard the Lionheart called for a truce with Saladin who allowed Christians pilgrims safe passage to and from their Holy City.

          The fortunes of Jerusalem swayed backwards and forwards for over 150 years between Christian and Muslim occupation.  Battles determined some of the outcomes, negotiation decided others.  At least two of the Crusader leaders died before reaching their objectives.  In all 8 Crusades were mounted with mixed success.

          TOM arrives in Acre in 1271 when it is still in Christian hands, but 20 years later the Crusades eventually peters out with the fall of Acre in 1291, and it remains a Muslim port till the end of World War II.

An interesting bit of purported history at the time of the Polo expeditions is that the Kublai Khan asked the Polo brothers to return to Cathay with one hundred Catholic Priests and a jar of holy oil from the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  They managed to secure the oil but only two Priests started the journey to Cathay, turning back in fear of the war in Armenia on the way.  It is said that the Mongolian leader wanted the priests to convert his followers to Christianity.  They missed the opportunity and just over 50 years later the Mongolians converted to Islam in 1323 with the Treaty of Aleppo.

The mind boggles when one tries to imagine a Catholic presence in most of Asia as there is in South America today for example.


The Polo expedition turned south to avoid the hostilities in Armenia and after making a huge detour to Hormuz on what is known as the Gulf of Oman today, they retraced their steps and crossed over the western end of the Himalaya range called the Pamirs.  This was one of the accepted silk road trade routes, but the merchants preferred the northern route through Bukhara and Samarkand as it was obviously warmer.

In ‘The Other Marco’ story, Tom struggles with the cold mountain air and deep snow as he leads his horse through the wet mist.  Adding to this discomfort he has a frightening experience.  The short paragraph below is taken from the book.

‘I was tired, and my eyes burned, trying to see through the white glare around me.  Suddenly the mist swirled and there, right in front of me, barring my way, stood a huge hairy animal with massive curved horns.  Before I could cry out the mist closed in around me and the vision was gone.’


Imagine being confronted by this creature in the swirling mist!

During the research of the Pamir area for the book, I came across some pictures of the Himalayan Ibex and was astounded by the size of its curved horns.  Perhaps for the very reason that I imagined how terrifying it would be to meet such an apparition in the mist, I allowed Tom to do just that – meet the ‘monster’.  I would like to add a comment here before you think of me as a sadistic tormenter of a young, travel wary boy; I feel every emotion personally as I write.  I would not be able to describe the sensation if I did not experience it myself.  Writing is a wonderful yo-yo of passionate emotions and I even have to wipe away a tear from time to time.  I call it: ‘Living the words!’

Another sketch or two of these magnificent creatures will not be out of place here.  Enjoy.















Thanks for staying with me to the end of this posting.


TOM #4 will be available in a fortnight. #4 being an even number means that the Monsters 4 Monsters corner will be back with a scary picture.




TOM #2


  In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the  Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition


Hi there.  Welcome to ‘The Other Marco’ Blog.                           #2

Thank you to all the ‘Blog Oglers’ that responded to the first TOM #1 posting.  Suddenly my Facebook family has doubled in size and seems to be growing!  Just what I wanted.

It has taken me 6 months to get this Blog going in spite of ‘How to set up a Blog’ in 20 minutes as the Blogging for Idiots/Dummies and every other well meaning expert on the net would like one to believe.  I eventually began to develop a complex as I realized that I had obviously not yet reached the lofty heights of an Idiot yet.  The only thing that kept me going was noticing how many of the computer boffs I asked for advice could not setup and publish a blog in 20 minutes either.  Beware of ‘feel good claims’ by Idiots/Dummies books or at best multiply your ‘Eureka moment’ by a factor of 100 to stay sane!

Having a young grandson living thousands of miles away on the far side of the USA, I have established a personal link with him by drawing the monsters he describes in detail and mailing the results to him.  Other youngsters of the same age that I know have been added to this monster mailing list which I name Monsters 4 Monsters.   Then I realized that these boys will in a few years [if not already] become the readers of ‘The Other Marco’.  Why not give them a monster-a-month wrapped in this blog so that their interest in the book may be awakened?  At the bottom of this posting #2 [and in the following even numbered entries] I will include a Monsters 4 Monsters section with the latest creations from our collective fantasmagorical imaginations.  Of course, if there are any young ladies [girls] out there that think of themselves as little monsters, write to me with your ideas of what a real monster should look like [not your little brother], and I may even draw it for you!

Now let me introduce you to, one of the people mentioned in the book.

Here we have Giovanni Solari, TOM’s father.  [TOM is the acronym for ‘The Other Marco’ as explained in #1]


Quote from the book: The Other Marco

‘My father was a very important man.  Senor Giovanni Solari was the chief baggage carrier for the Polo brothers, Niccolo and Maffeo, who had travelled all the way to Cathay and back.  My father had travelled with them and carried the golden tablets of authority, which had been given to them by the Great Kublai Khan, Lord of the Mongols.’

Giovanni Solari is of course fictional and so is the drawing a figment of my imagination, whereas Niccolo [Marco Polo’s father] and Maffeo were the real merchants of Venice who met the Kublai Khan.


Here is a drawing I illustrated long before I wrote ‘The Other Marco’.  As an artist I admire the work of many other artists and cartoonists.  Aubrey Beardsley is one whose art I stand in awe of, and tried with this work to capture the style and elegance of this brilliant artist.  Discovering this picture among my art files the other day, I thought it could pass as a very flamboyant Merchant of Venice.

The best known Merchant of Venice in English literature is of course the play written by William Shakespeare.  In the play, Antonio is the merchant who is very wealthy, but his money is tied up in shipping.  When his friend Bassanio asks for a loan, the merchant is unable to help, so he in turn borrows from Shylock, the money lender who stipulates that if the loan cannot be repaid, the Merchant of Venice must give him a pound of his flesh!  Ouch!  Needless to say, the loan cannot be repaid, and sets the scene for the intrigue that follows. 

Looking at the drawing above, one wonders if this rather rotund merchant could part with a pound of flesh without too much damage?  This is obviously where the expression; ‘demanding a pound of flesh’ comes from?

I would however not portray either of the Polo brothers like this though.  They would have to be more robust, tough looking, travel worn individuals who had not spent their lives in the opulence of the Venetian palaces and merchant’s guildhalls, as this flashy trader.


scanimage16Here is a rough sketch of what I imagine the Polo brothers might have looked like.

And now, the Monsters 4 Monsters corner.



I suppose this monster could be called:  The Callous Car Crunching Creature from Calamity Crossroads.

There you have it.  Please comment on how to draw more readers and I’ll draw to entertain them.

See you on ‘The Other Marco’ Blog #3.


TOM #1

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition


Ciao, mi chiamo Marco.*

marc1*Hello, my name is Marco.

Welcome to ‘The Other Marco’ Blog.  Posting #1


The story of the other Marco, written as a novel will be introduced to you through this blog before the book is published.

Having two characters called Marco in the story, I will, in this Blog call ‘The Other Marco’ by the acronym TOM.  It simplifies what could become confusing.  Marco therefore refers to the real Marco Polo, the well known 13th century adventurer and traveler, and TOM is ‘The Other Marco’, the fictional hero of this book who travels with the Polo expedition to Cathay as a camel porter.

Writing this book was the easy part, so I am told.  Having to promote the book is considered to be much more difficult.  Well I am not so sure about it being more difficult, but what I am finding is that it is just as enjoyable and informative as writing the story in the first place.

A wonderful bonus about dredging through reams of reference material to authenticate facts and give the story a ring of ‘truth’, is that it always begs more questions that need answers.  Take for instance TOM’s experience of learning to ride a camel.  Suddenly one is confronted by what a camel’s saddle looks like and how entirely different to a horse’s saddle it must be.  Of course one could simply say that TOM hopped onto his camel and jolted off into the desert sunset, but that is not good enough.  Not for me, that is.  The question I asked was, what keeps a camel’s saddle balancing on its hump and what makes it comfortable enough to support the rider for days on end?

To answer this, and other questions like it, I will support the text with simple pen sketches.

 Looking at a simple modern camel saddle, it is noticeable how the frame design is formed around the hump.

In the following sketch, it appears that frame B may be kinder across the camel’s back, but then again, frame A sits higher and will have less contact area to chafe the beast.


This basic frame is naturally made more comfortable for the camelman by covering it with carpets, bed rolls and sheep/goat skins.

 I then came across a delightful photo of the most basic camel saddle imaginable, made up of sticks lashed together and looking like a bird’s crude nest.  This is obviously what saddle frames looked like for thousands of years in the deserts.  I simply had to illustrate its construction sequence with the following comic strip.


This is what I have in mind to promote my book, ‘The Other Marco’.  Examining topics that are not directly addressed in the manuscript, but would be nice to know anyway, and increasing our general knowledge as a bonus.  All additional information will be illustrated in the posts that will appear twice a month initially and more frequently when interest dictates it.

 The story itself is an educational adventure.  The journey is a wealth of interesting historical and geographical enlightenment.

Follow the other Marco’s second journey, this time to the publisher’s desk.  You will be entertained and educated all the way.

Thanks for persevering through to the end of this post and feel free to comment!

 Ciao, Lawrence.

See you on ‘The Other Marco’ Posting #2.