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  » Silk Road

Silk Road

Great Explorers of Asia

Marco Polo

Marco Polo PhotographThe ancient mysteries of the depths of Asia have inspired explorers for thousands of years. In the 7th century a famous Chinese scholar called Hsuan Tang travelled extensively around the Chinese empire. Alexander the Great penetrated deep into Asia, but it was Marco Polo who was the first westerner to first popularize ‘exploration’ of the region. Yet it still wasn’t until the late 19th Century that exploration really gained pace, especially with the ‘forbidden reputation’ of Lhasa. From 1865 the area was secretly surveyed by Indian surveyors disguised as Tibetan pilgrims in British pay. They carried secret notes and maps inside spinning prayer wheels and counted every 100 paces by the beads on their Tibetan rosaries as part of the ‘Great game.’

Marco Polo – explored the greatest Land empire the world had ever seen, the Mongol Empire. He is possibly the most famous explorer in the world and undoubtedly one of my heroes.

He was born in Venice in 1254 only 50 yrs after the fourth crusade. Venice was a rich city at this time and eager to explore the untold riches of Central Asia now under the control of Kubilai Khan, Great Khan of the Mongol hordes. Kubilai was Genghis Khan’s grandson and now presided over the Chinese region, offering stability and opportunities for trade.

Niccolo and Maffeo Polo were Marco’s father and Uncle. In 1260 both had set out with Christian missionaries to meet the Great Khan at his capital in Cambaluc (Beijing). The Khan had even showed a slight interest in Christianity and supplied a golden tablet instructing all to grant safe return passage through his realms. After traveling for a further three years, the Polos arrived home in 1269. Marco’s mother had died in their absence, so the brothers decided to return to Kubilai’s court with young 17 year old Marco.

The Polos crossed the Khanate of the Persian Mongols, the Pamir mountains before arriving at Kashgar on the borders of the Takla Makan desert. They pushed along the Eastern Silk Road, stopping at Silk Road oasis’ en-route such as Khotan (Hotan) and finally reaching Kanchau. The whole journey took 3.5 years to finally track down the Great Khan at his summer capital at Xanadu. Marco remained in the Khan’s service for 17 years before finally returning to Venice. He travelled extensively reporting on everything in his journal. Reportedly, Marco was intelligent, spoke 4 languages and was extremely adept. He catalogued everything for the Great Khan including unusual customs or phenomena in Kubilai’s domain.

Much is unsure about Marco’s descriptions. He often embellishes and some of his accounts don’t match Chinese or local records. In the end though, he was the first person to travel across Asia and surely inspired thousands to follow in this footsteps. Naturally, when Columbus sailed for America in 1492, he took a copy of Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ with him!

Ibn Battuta (1325-1354)

Ibn Battuta Photograph One of the greatest Muslim travelers of all time was a Moroccan man called Ibn Battuta. Over 30 years he covered 75,000 miles throughout the whole known Muslim world. His logic was that in any “land within the region of Islam he could be expected to be recognized and honoured as a calculated man. Accommodation would be easy to find, as he would earn his status as a learned pilgrim.”

After his first pilgrimage to Mecca, Ibn Battuta continued traveling after consulting a Sufi mystic. He combed N. Africa and reached as far as Taiwan, Sri Lanka and the Indus Valley. He recorded everything and provided an extremely detailed account of life in the 14th Century in his book 'Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1345.'

Map showing Ibn Battuta's 33 year journey

Ibn Battuta travelled 75,000 miles over the course of 33 years. Outside of the Muslim world his journeys are still little known

Sven Hedin (1865-1952)

Sven Hedin PhotographSven Hedin was perhaps the last great explorer of the forbidden lands of Central Asia. He invaded many unknown lands over the course of 4 expeditions through the course of his life. In 1893-7 Sven launched his first big expedition. After an initial reconnaissance, he left Sweden to Tashkent by a team of horses. To the sounds of “not possible, you will die in the attempt,” he crossed the Altai Mountains to reach Kashgar. He couldn’t resist an attempt at climbing Mustagh-Ata (‘Father of the Ice Mountains), at 7546m in 1894 before pushing to explore the hidden oases in the middle of the Taklamakan desert. He mapped and discovered several ancient towns buried by the sand but almost died in the attempt. He also visited Kuradong (the black hill) another buried town where Buddhist teaching once prevailed, avoided Tangut robbers and eventually reached Peking.

On his second expedition in 1899-1902, Sven headed into the forbidden interior of Tibet’s (which at the time was one of the most unknown regions on earth). He is credited with covering much of Tibet’s interior for the first time, and made several attempts to reach Lhasa. However, he was intercepted by Tibetan troops and forced to divert west to India. Earlier in his mission, Sven charted the shifting Lop Nor lakes (as mentioned in Marco Polos time), where he discovered the old Chinese outpost Lou-Lan.

Sven Hedin made two more expeditions before he died. He originally proposed the idea of the trans-Himalayas and was employed by the Chinese to explore the prospect of a highway along the ancient Silk Road to help integrate a fragmented country. This was everntually completed but long after he’d died. He wrote many books of which his most famous is undoubtedly ' A journey through Asia' (1898).

Major Clarence Dalrymple Bruce (1862 - 1934)

Major Clarence Dalrymple Bruce led an unremarkable career until the Summer of 1898 when everything suddenly changed. After a posting to China, he helped form the first regiment of Chinese infantry which he commanded from 1902-7. In 1905, Major Bruce found himself on "the wrong side of the Himalaya" in Srinagar, India. So, saddling up with a motley crew of "wild looking ruffians and 28 rugged ponies,"he set off on the return journey to Beijing.

A ragtag bunch of men and animals thus battled against all the odds to reach the Chinese capital. Over eight months, their caravan wound over the frozen heights of Tibet and the lonley wastes of the Chinese deserts. They narrowly avoided capture by Xenophobic Tibetens and suffered heavy losses through the Gobi deserts. Still, their faithful steeds bore them on and Major Bruce went on to see later service in the famous Chinese Boxer rebellion and the First World War.

The Long Riders Guild deserves huge credit for discovering Major Bruce's historic journey and for bringing it to my attention. They have also published one of his books entitled, "In the footsteps of Marco Polo."