Niccolò and Matteo Polo, father and uncle respectively of Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324), conducted trade between Constantinople and Súdak, in Crimea. Around 1260 they traveled up the Don and Volga rivers as far as Bolgara, a flourishing commercial city in the Tartar-Mongol realm of the Golden Horde. From Bolgara they descended the Volga to the Caspian Sea and reached Bukhārā, where in 1264 they joined an embassy on its way to meet the Great Khan, crossing through Central Asia, the Pamir range, the Gobi Desert, and Karakorum. Turning south-east, they entered Cathay (northern China) and circa 1265 reached Khān Bālīq, the “city of the Khans”.
The city known today as Beijing was then about to become the capital of an immense empire dominated by the Great Khan Kublai (1215-1294), nephew of Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and founder of the Mongol-Chinese Yuan Dynasty. Mongol religious practices were syncretistic. Although he had converted to Buddhism, Kublai asked the Polo brothers to serve as his ambassadors to the Pope to establish the first contacts with the Christian world. After returning to Venice in 1269, Niccolò and Matteo set out once again for the court of Kublai in 1271, bringing along the young Marco.