Kublai Kaan’s Pony Express

[T]he great Kaan had his Pony Ex- press 500 years earlier. Thus Marco wrote in Book ii, Chapter xxvi (Vol. i, pp. 433-437) how from the royal city of Cambalue (Pekin or Peiping) the Kaan had paved highways running to the various provinces. At every 25 miles on these royal roads was a Yamb, a “Horse-Post-House” or station, for the care and forwarding of travelers, but especially to expedite the movements of the emperor ‘s messengers. Marco states that there were in the empire more than 10,000 stations and that more than 300,000 horses were kept for the use of these messengers.

To save horse-flesh, foot-runners were generally used. As in India in the recent past if not in the very present, each man was equipped with a belt set with bells to give notice of his coming. Between these post-houses, smaller stations were built every three miles and the runner carried the despatches only that distance and turned them over to the next man. However, in case the despatches called for greater haste and speed, then horses were used. The riders were equipped with bells, as were the foot-runners, and the chronicler thus writes of them (p. 436):

They take a horse from those at the station which are standing ready saddled, all fresh and in wind, and mount and go at full speed, as hard as they can ride in fact. And when those at the next post hear the bells they get ready another horse and a man equipt in the same way, and he takes over the letter or whatever it be, and is off full-speed to the third station, where again a fresh horse is found all ready, and so the despatch speeds along from post to post, always at full gallop, with regular change of horses. And the speed at which they go is marvellous.

Marco’s specific statements as to the speed of these couriers are exaggerated and contradictory. In this chapter he says that the runner will carry despatches from places 10 days off in a day and night and from 100 days distant in 10 days and nights. The horse-men on the other hand will do 200 or 250 miles in a day and as much in a night. Yet he notes that at night they have to go slower because they are accompanied by footmen with torches, and the rider must accommodate his speed to that of the runner. Then Marco adds a detail about the dress of the riders, which I think (but am not sure about) was also true of our Pony Riders. Here are his own words: “Those men [riders] are highly prized; and they could never do it, did they not bind hard the stomach, chest and head with strong bands.” Had they not done so they would have literally been shaken to pieces. As an indication of how accurate Marco generally was in his observations, in speaking of the paved roads of Manzi as recorded by Ramusio, he meets a query in the reader’s mind in the following statement (Book ii, Chapter lxxvii-Vol. ii, p. 189): “But as the Great Kaan’s couriers could not gallop their horses over the pavement, the side of the road is left unpaved for their con- venience.” This, furthermore, is just what is found in the clay “shoulders” alongside our concrete roads in the United States to-day, and these soft shoulders are to-day utilized by horse- men in just the same way in order to save the horses’ feet.