Q&A: Adventurers Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell of "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo"

staff | November 16, 2009

Many people have big dreams, but only a few bold adventurers live them. Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell took a wild idea — retrace Marco Polo’s entire 25,000-mile, land-and-sea route from Venice to China and back — and spent two years of their lives making their dream a reality. “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo” chronicles the journey of Denis — a wedding photographer — and Francis — an artist and former Marine — as they set out to follow Polo’s historic route. “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo” airs Thursday, November 19 at 8 p.m. but you can also watch it online now. Inside THIRTEEN spoke with Denis and Francis about their incredible journey.

Francis and Denis at the end of their journey, with the original copy of Marco Polo's journal
Q. So what made you and Denis decide to go on a 25,000-mile trip to retrace Marco Polo’s journey?

Francis: Well the main reason is that no one had ever retraced Marco Polo’s entire route, several Expeditions tried and failed for a lot of different reasons. Plus we love art, history, travel & adventure. What better way than to follow the path of the world’s greatest traveler? How often are you confronted with an opportunity like that?

Denis: Also there has always been controversy regarding Polo’s account. Even in his own lifetime he gained the nickname Il millione, which means the man of a million unbelievable stories! So we took his book and used it as our guide. What we would do is go to the city, place or town that Polo wrote about and try to find the things he mentioned seven hundred years ago, and see for ourselves whether his account rings true!

Q. You traveled in the same way Marco Polo traveled, only by land and sea — how long did the trip take? How did you not get sick of being with the same person for so long?

Francis: Yes, we did travel many of the same ways that the Polos did, but we also took jeeps, buses, trains, motorcycles, and even a giant containership! Our self-imposed prerequisite was “No Flying.” We felt anyone can fly into a place and gather information willy-nilly, but it’s another animal entirely to travel in chronological order – over land and sea. We flew to Venice and two years later we flew home from Venice.

Denis: I guess I’ll answer the other half of the question! Sure you get sick of each other. What we were doing just wasn’t natural! 24 -7, 365. We knew each other’s stories inside and out, so often we wouldn’t have to talk , ‘cause we could just about read eachother’s minds. There were times when we fought, literally fist fights, bloody noses and black-eyes — wow, I’m just thinking back those poor Turks or Mongols or Chinese who had to witness that! It’s just that we had a lot of pressure on us and no one else to take it out on! More than a few times we called it quits! But in the end the project was bigger than us. Plus we couldn’t let down all the people who believed in us!

Q. The two of you must have gotten into some sketchy situations while you were traveling — what was the scariest moment of the journey for you?

Francis: The scariest moment for me was when it became real! What I mean is — it’s great to have an idea and say ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that’ — but when other people start believing in you and giving you help of some kind or another, like sponsors, etc. … it’s like, ‘Wow! I really to put up or shut up!’ I remember waking up at 3am and going into our “War Room” and looking at the map we had plotted, with all of its geographic and geopolitical dangers , like mountains, deserts, jungles, Iran, Afghanistan … it was like ‘Oh my God !!!’

Soldiers in Afghanistan
Photo by Denis Belliveau
Denis: Yeah, we had a lot of very dangerous moments and close calls. We were in more than one jeep or truck that went off the road, flipped or almost went off a cliff. We were attacked by a mob in China … now that was scary! We were hit by a blinding sandstorm in the Taklamakan Desert in far western China , interrogated by the K.G.B. more then once, captured and held during a fire fight in Afghanistan … and that’s the short version! Before we left many people asked if I was afraid of this or that happening, and the fact is, anything can happen to you anywhere … I think 9/11 proved that to us all So just live your life in joy wherever it takes you!

Q. You’ve done something that most people only dream about — what advice would you give to someone who wants to take on a mission that seems impossible?

Francis: If I told you about all of the naysayers and haters who tried to knock us down & told us we couldn’t do it you would be amazed! We took all that negative energy and turned it around — I know it will sounds like a cliché, but don’t give up — if you want something bad enough, you can make it happen! And be prepared to do everything yourself – you will have to for your vision. Even after our successful expedition it still took us a long time to bring the book and film to fruition — so never give in!

Denis: That’s all true but you have to be prepared as well. Fran and I had traveled together for years in the “third world” – mostly on a shoestring budget, close to the ground, with the people. So we knew we could endure the many hardships along the way! Also we studied for over a year and a half everything we could get our hands on about Marco Polo and Asia.

A mosque in Iran.
Photo by Denis Belliveau
Q. So are you guys going to hit the road for another trip again?

Francis: Of course we are, but first we are honoring this achievement by visiting schools, museums, clubs, societies and sharing our experience “in the footsteps of Marco Polo” in a more intimate setting, giving presentations and interviews. So if anyone would like us to visit their organization, we’d love to. please contact us through our web site and click on ‘Contact’ at the top of the page.

Denis: Nothing as ambitious again, but yes , in fact it seems we have developed a bit of a brand. Where ever we go people say “Hey it’s In the Footsteps guys!” So we are developing a series of “In the Footsteps” where we bring history to life, following the life path of some great person – but it doesn’t have to be your typical explorer, it can be an artist or a scientist. And the question being asked is — “What is the innate nature within in us all to explore? What is it that’s taken us out of the caves and to the stars?”