Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Lesson 4: On the Road with Marco Polo: Crossing the Deserts of China


The Lesson


A map of Marco Polo's route to and from China.

A map of Marco Polo's route to and from China.

In the 13th century, a young Venetian named Marco Polo set out with his father and uncle on a great adventure. Following a series of trade routes, they traveled across the vast continent of Asia and became the first Europeans to visit the Chinese capital (modern Beijing). Marco so impressed the reigning emperor of China, Kublai Khan, that he was appointed to the imperial court. For the next 17 years, Marco was sent on missions to many parts of Kublai's sprawling empire. The Polos finally returned to Venice via the sea route. Marco later wrote a book about his experiences, which inspired new generations of explorers to travel to the exotic lands of the East.

Guiding Questions

  • What routes did Marco Polo follow to the deserts of China?
  • What sorts of natural environments did he travel through?
  • What are some of the major means of transporting goods through the Taklimakan and Gobi deserts?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Understand and describe the geography of China and the conditions for travel in ancient and medieval times.

Preparation Instructions

Read through the entire lesson plan and become familiar with the content and resources. Bookmark relevant websites for later reference.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Crossing the Deserts of China

After resting up and replenishing their supplies in the trading city of Kashgar, Marco Polo and his father and uncle continued eastward on their journey from Venice to China. They had some difficult times ahead.

  • Access Topography of Eastern Asia available through Asia Source. Have the students find Kashgar. Ask what lies between Kashgar and Beijing? (Two vast deserts—the Taklimakan and the Gobi—both bounded by mountain ranges.)
  • Go to Largest Deserts of the World available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Find the Gobi and Taklimakan (also written Takla Makan). Have the students locate these deserts (and perhaps some of the others listed) on the classroom map of the world.

The Taklimakan is Asia's driest desert, a vast expanse of pebbles and sifting sands nestled between two mountain ranges. The Polos chose a route that skirted the southern edge of the desert, trudging through the arid landscape from one oasis to the next. Each oasis was a welcome haven, offering fresh water, food supplies, and pack animals. Some of these stopping places were famous for fresh fruits, such as melons and grapes—a great treat for the weary travelers whose diets consisted mostly of hard bread, cheese, salted meat, and water. Today, a few of the ancient oases offer welcome relief to hot and thirsty tourists.

  • Access Taklimakan available through Internet Public Library. Think about the difficulties of crossing such a desert. No wonder merchants chose to skirt this vast wasteland, choosing between routes going to the north and to the south of it.
  • Now access Where the Gobi meets the Taklamakan available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Asia Source. A modern photograph shows that the Taklimakan is still a desolate place.
  • Go to Photographs of Silk Road Photo Gallery available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Asia Source. Click on the images of the terrain and inhabitants of the Taklimakan region to enlarge them.
Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • How would you describe the geography of the Taklimakan?
  • What was (and is) the best way to travel from one end of the desert to the other?
  • How do some of the local inhabitants make a living?

At the eastern edge of the Taklimakan lay the city of Dunhuang, long famous for its Buddhist temples, statues, and paintings.

Learn about the ancient city of Dunhuang by accessing the following links available through Asia Source.

  • Silk Road available through Asia Source. On the left margin scroll down to maps, then trade routes, then China 3. With a cursor, follow the route from Kashgar to Dunhuang. Find the major mountain ranges on this map (the Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan, Karakoram, and the Himalayas).
  • Dunhuang
  • Dunhuang (Note: This website takes a long time to download (the first time viewed) but is well worth the wait!)
Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • Where is Dunhuang?
  • What type of art and architecture can be seen there?
  • What factors led to Dunhuang becoming an important center of religious art?

Most people associate desert crossings with camels, and rightly so. The merchants who transported goods across the Taklimakan and the Gobi would have been in a bad way without their sturdy, resilient camels—the “ships of the desert.”

Access the following sites about camels and study the texts and images:

Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • What has long been the major means of transporting goods (and people) across the Taklimakan?
  • What physical characteristics enable the camel to withstand the harsh environment of the desert?
  • What is the purpose of the bells used by the camel drivers?
  • How would you describe the personality of a camel?

From Dunhuang, the Polos set out across the Gobi, Asia's largest desert. For over a month they trekked through this harsh wasteland. Marco described how travelers in the Gobi were often plagued by strange mirages (phantom figures of friends in the distance) or frightening sounds (weird murmuring or repetitive drumbeats). Such illusions were caused by the intensity of the sun, the lack of water, and the seemingly endless stretches of the "unfriendly" landscapes.

  • Access Gobi Desert available through Internet Public Library. Compare the geography of the Gobi to that of the Taklimakan.
  • View modern photographs of the Gobi by accessing China's Unknown Gobi available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Xpeditions.
  • Return to the map entitled China 3 by accessing Silk Road and scrolling down to maps, then trade routes, then China 3. Find the Gobi Desert. What modern country does most of this desert belong to? Find Beijing—the final destination of Marco Polo.
Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • How does the Gobi compare to the Taklimakan?
  • What were some of the psychological challenges posed to travelers by the natural environment of the Gobi?


Divide the class into groups of three. Have each group select a desert—the Taklimakan or the Gobi—and then make a poster, referring to the websites visited in this lesson. The posters can be illustrated by images downloaded, by images cut from magazines, or by original drawings.

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Medieval World (500 CE-1500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Journal writing
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Visual analysis
  • Suzanne Art (AL)