The intrepid travelers

Amal Chatterjee
15 min readDec 11, 2017

Synopsis : The intrepid travellers inspire us with their tales of travel to the unknown world and fascinate us with the description of people and the landscape of excotic lands.The blog looks at some of the most famous travellers, discoverers and explorers of their time who enriched our world with their knowledge.

When I was in Mali , West Africa , one day a Swiss gentleman came to my office in Sikasso because he had heard that we were very hospitable and welcomed visitors known or unknown to us to our home. He said that he pedaled his 18 speed bicycle from Dakar in Senegal to Bamako in Mali and now he was in Sikasso from where he planned to go to Niamey in Niger passing through the Upper Volta and reach Agadez . He said that he will cross the Sahara desert passing through Tamanrasset in Southern Algeria and push on to Algiers from where he will follow the coastal road to Morocco, cross the strait to Gibralter and cross into Spain. Eventually he will reach Switzerland this way.

I was very impressed as he told stories of his travel through many countries sitting in our veranda and found him a sterling person of great courage and stamina. He said that he often pedaled 100 kms in one day if the road was good and slept in a roadside village for safety. Malians are very hospitable people so they received him well in their villages because such courage and tenacity impresses everyone.

He had everything he needed that included spare tire, parts for his bicycle, tire repair kit, food, a small tent and medicines, water and numerous other useful items . We were literally in awe of this fellow who said that he had pedaled his bicycle all the way from Canada to South America and now he wanted to cross Sahara this way so it was quite amazing. He left us after a day or two of rest but sent us a card from Algiers saying that he had no trouble crossing Sahara during the night and took the asphalted road from Tamanrasset to Algiers and was well on his way back to Switzerland. We were sorry to see him go. We never heard from him again.

There was another gentleman this time in Haiti who was also pedaling his bicycle through the country and wanted to see all the Caribbean islands . He was from Germany and told me how the Haitians pelted him with stones in some parts and tried to rob him. Haiti was in a period of revolution so there were a lot of people into banditry and mischief there because the law and order had broken down. It was a dangerous country at that time to pedal bike in so we wished him well and cautioned him to take care of himself. It was sad to learn that such courageous and well-meaning people have to take such risks during their hard travel.

Believe me. Bicycle riding is not fun if you have to ride for hundreds of miles. You have to have extreme training to do so which takes a long time to develop such muscles and endurance that only a few people can dare . Once my brother invited me to a picnic some 30 kms away so I was given a new bicycle to cover the 60 km distance. I had no training to go such distance in a single day so my leg muscles became very sore and I could hardly walk for several days. I have never ridden a bike since then and do not want to but some people cross continents on a bike like the Swiss and the German fellow that is truly amazing.

In India sometime a group of cyclists travel the whole country from the North to South and East to West this way and take their sweet time to do so. There is safety in numbers so if one fellow has trouble with his bike or something else, they all stop and help. It is a wonderful way to see the country because it is a true adventure full of excitement as well as some risks but a group makes sense rather than going alone like that Swiss fellow.

When we were in Siem Reap in Cambodia, we ate at an Indian restaurant most of the time so we started chatting with the owner who was an Indian from North India. He told us that he came to Siem Reap on his bicycle from India crossing the hills of Myanmar, through Thailand and reaching Cambodia. I do not know if he came alone or with a group but he showed tremendous courage to do so and set himself up in Siem Reap where he earns a good living. He was also a very good cook.

I call them intrepid travelers because they have so much courage and tenacity.

If you study the history of the world , you will come to know many great travelers who spent a very long period of their life traveling and often risking their lives to do so. I will mention a few famous travelers and explorers. There was a time when people had to travel on foot or on a horse or camel and passing through unknown and often dangerous territories suffering immense discomfort, hunger and thirst and mortal dangers from bandits. They never knew when they will find shelter and food and where.

Yet they were so determined that they pushed on day after day, month after month and year after year to see, to discover and to write about their great travels.

  1. First on my list is Mohammad Ibn Battuta who was a Moroccan who traveled through the known Islamic world and many other parts of the world for thirty years. ( source : google photo)

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, was a Moroccan Muslim scholar and traveler. He is known for his traveling and going on excursions called the Rihla. His journeys lasted for a period of almost thirty years. This covered nearly the whole of the known Islamic world and beyond, extending from North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in the West, to the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China in the East, a distance readily surpassing that of his predecessors. After his travel he returned to Morocco and gave his account of the experience to Ibn Juzay.

  • In the year 1326, when Ibn Battuta was 21 years old, he undertook his first voyage and it was a long journey to the holy city of Mecca. It was a pilgrimage but during the stay in Mecca, he also travelled to nearby Damascus in order to learn from scholars and earn diplomas.
  • The journey to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina set him on his path of being the exemplary traveller that he turned out to be. At the end of his pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta was honoured with the title of ‘El-Hajji’.
  • At a time when mostly merchants travelled the world, Ibn Battuta was one who made a living out of travelling to different countries. He earned an income through handsome gifts from rulers as well as from his status as a man of letters. He travelled to Taizz in present day Yemen and Aden after staying in Mecca till 1330.
  • In the year 1331, Ibn Battuta travelled to Mogadishu in Somalia which was an extremely prosperous city at the time under Abu Bakr ibn Sayx ‘Umar and following that visit he went to Mombasa and Kilwa, which was being ruled by the ‘Kilwa Sultanate’ at the time. Battuta noted that the town planning in Kilwa was quite advanced.
  • Ibn Battuta wanted to be employed by the India’s Mohammad bin Tughlaq of the ‘Delhi Sultanate’ and in order to reach India he first went to Anatolia in 1332, which was then fragmented into pockets of smaller power centres in the years prior to the rise of the Ottoman Turks.
  • In 1334, he travelled to the iconic city of Constantinople and got an audience with the ruling king, Andronikos III Palaiologos, as a part of Sultan Oz Beg Khan’s entourage which was sent to the city in order to witness the birth of his grandson. The Sultan’s daughter was married to the Roman emperor.
  • Following his journey to Constantinople in 1334, Battuta started his long awaited journey to India and like so many travellers of the time he used the route via the ‘Hindu Kush Mountains’. In September of that year; Battuta finally reached Delhi and presented himself to the king of the Delhi Sultanate, Muhammad bin Tughlaq.
  • In India, Mohammad bin Tughlaq, a man of letters, appointed Battuta as a judge and expert on Islamic Law; however, Battuta was disillusioned with the situation in India since it was hard to impose the law in a country in which majority of the subjects were non-Muslims. He worked for six years in India.
  • During his stay in India. Battuta fell out of favour with Mohammad bin Tughlaq and it was only when he was appointed as the ambassador to the Sultanate in China was he able to get away from the emperor.
  • His last journeys were to Spain and Sudan, the two Islamic countries at the time that he had not visited. Battuta’s accounts of his time in Sudan, which he reached in 1352 remains one of the best sources of information on Africa from that time.
  • Battuta went back to his native Morocco in the year 1353 and took up employment as a judge. It is thought that he worked as a judge till his last day and also dictated his memoirs to a ghost writer.(source : Wikipedia)
  1. The second Person on my list is one of great travelers of ancient time who came to India from China crossing the Himalayas on foot and stayed at the famous university of Nalanda for some time and took detailed note of its location that was later discovered in his hand written notes in Beijing.

He is no other than Hiuen Tsang (also Xuanzang, Hsuan Tsang) who was the celebrated Chinese traveler who visited India in Ancient Times. He has been described therefore as the “Prince of Pilgrims.” ( source -Google phtto)

His visit to India was an important event of the reign of Harshavardhana. India is much indebted to this Chinese traveller for the valuable accounts he left behind with many. The biography of Hiuen Tsang, written by another Chinese, is also another valuable source for Indian history.

Hiuen Tsang was born in China in 602 A.D. He became a Buddhist monk at the age of twenty. He longed for knowing more and more of Buddhism to satisfy his spiritual hunger. But without a visit to India, he knew his desire for learning would remain unfulfilled. When he was about 30, he secretly left China for an adventurous journey towards India. He traveled through rough, rocky and rugged mountainous region to reach India.

During his stay in India, he visited various places of northern and southern India. In India, he wanted to visit all the sacred places connected with the life of Buddha, as well as to learn of Buddhism through study. During his travel he covered many more places and observed keenly the social, religious, political, cultural and economic conditions of the country.

Hiuen Tsang visited Kashmir and the Punjab. He proceeded to Kapilavastu, Bodh-Gaya, Sarnath, and Kusinagara. He also travelled through the Deccan, Orissa and Bengal. He went almost to every part of India.

He spent around five years in the University of Nalanda and studied there. He was impressed by the passion of the Indian people for learning.

According to Hiuen Tsang, at the time of his visit, Pataliputra had lost its former glory. Kanauj and Prayag ( now Allahabad ) became important cities.

Harsha came to admire him for his deep devotion to Buddha and his profound knowledge of Buddhism. He honored him in his Kanauj religious Assembly, and also invited him to attend the Prayag Assembly. After attending those two magnificent functions, Hiuen Tsang prepared to leave for China after having spent long fourteen years of his life on the soil of India.

King Harsha was sorry to part with the pilgrim. But he made elaborate arrangements for his safe return under a strong military escort to the frontiers of India. Beyond the frontiers, the pilgrim was accompanied by Harsha’s official guides who carried the letters of authority from emperor to produce them in other countries. Thus, Hiuen Tsang finally reached back home.

Hiuen Tsang took with him from India 150 pieces of the bodily relics of Buddha, a large number of Buddha images in gold, silver and sandalwood and above all, 657 volumes of valuable manuscripts, carried by twenty horses of his escort party.

Back in his home in China, he set himself to translate some of those manuscripts into the Chinese language, assisted by several scholars. About 74 Buddhist works were translated during his life time which proved of immense value to the people of China. Hiuen Tsang died in 664 A.D.

Importance of Hiuen Tsang Visit to India

Hiuen Tsang was indeed an ancient ambassador of peace between China and India. Harsha too was a man of international vision like Samrat Ashoka.

Regarding Hiuen Tsang’s praise of Harshavardhana and of the Indian people in his Travel Accounts, it may be said that the Chinese pilgrim was writing the memoirs of his Indian days in far-away China, without any compulsion or pressure from anybody to give a favorable account of the rulers and peoples of another country. He was writing what he saw, and what he honestly felt, as well as of what he had heard. As a true Buddhist, and a pious pilgrim to a holy land, he could not have been dishonest or untruth­ful in his writings. He had no reason to flatter anybody when far out of sight. He had also no reason to seek anybody’s favour for his Travel Accounts. He was, in fact, describing the condition of Buddhism in India as he saw. That was the subject of his prime concern. Other episodes came in as side descriptions.

On the whole, Hiuen Tsang’s accounts have been accepted as truthful and trust-worthy. His writings have thrown immense light on an important era of the ancient Indian history( source wikipedia )

  1. The third person who made such an impact with his travel stories in the ancient world during the period of Kublai Khan is Marco Polo . Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan .

A Venetian merchant and adventurer Marco Polo traveled from Europe to Asia from 1271 to 1295. He wrote ‘Il Milione,’ known in English as ‘The Travels of Marco Polo.’ ( source -google photo )

Who Was Marco Polo?

Marco Polo (1254 to January 8, 1324) was a Venetian explorer known for the book The Travels of Marco Polo, which describes his voyage to and experiences in Asia. Polo traveled extensively with his family, journeying from Europe to Asia from 1271 to 1295 and remaining in China for 17 of those years. Around 1292, he left China, acting as consort along the way to a Mongol princess who was being sent to Persia.

‘The Travels of Marco Polo :

Marco Polo’s stories about his travels in Asia were published as a book called The Description of the World, later known as The Travels of Marco Polo. Just a few years after returning to Venice from China, Marco commanded a ship in a war against the rival city of Genoa. He was eventually captured and sentenced to a Genoese prison, where he met a fellow prisoner and writer named Rustichello. As the two men became friends, Marco told Rustichello about his time in Asia, what he’d seen, where he’d traveled and what he’d accomplished.

The book made Marco a celebrity. It was printed in French, Italian and Latin, becoming the most popular read in Europe. But few readers allowed themselves to believe Marco’s tale. They took it to be fiction, the construct of a man with a wild imagination. The work eventually earned another title: Il Milione (“The Million Lies”). Marco, however, stood behind his book, and it influenced later adventurers and merchants.

Although he was born to a wealthy Venetian merchant family, much of Marco Polo’s childhood was spent parentless, and he was raised by an extended family. Polo’s mother died when he was young, and his father and uncle, successful jewel merchants Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, were in Asia for much of Polo’s youth.

Niccolo and Maffeo’s journeys brought them into present-day China, where they joined a diplomatic mission to the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader whose grandfather, Genghis Khan, had conquered Northeast Asia. In 1269, the two men returned to Venice and immediately started making plans for their return to Khan’s court. During their stay with the leader, Khan had expressed his interest in Christianity and asked the Polo brothers to visit again with 100 priests and a collection of holy water.

Khan’s Empire, the largest the world had ever seen, was largely a mystery to those living within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. A sophisticated culture outside the reaches of the Vatican seemed unfathomable, and yet that’s exactly what the Polo brothers described to confounded Venetians when they arrived home.

Marco Polo’s Voyage to China

In 1271, Marco Polo set out with his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, for Asia, where they would remain until 1295. Unable to recruit the 100 priests that Kublai Khan had requested, they left with only two, who, after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home. The Polos’ journey took place on land, and they were forced to cut through challenging and sometimes harsh territory. But through it all, Marco reveled in the adventure. His later memory for the places and cultures he witnessed was remarkable and exceptionally accurate.

As they made their way through the Middle East, Marco absorbed its sights and smells. His account of the Orient, especially, provided the western world with its first clear picture of the East’s geography and ethnic customs. Hardships, of course, came his way. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco was forced to retreat to the mountains in order to recoup from an illness he’d contracted. Crossing the Gobi desert, meanwhile, proved long and, at times, arduous. “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end,” Marco later wrote. “And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.”

Finally, after four years of travel, the Polos reached China and Kublai Khan, who was staying at his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder that dazzled young Marco.( Source : Wikipedia )

4 : The last in this short list is Dr.David Livingstone

Explorations of Africa

In the official role of a “medical missionary,” he set forth to Africa, arriving in Cape Town, South Africa in March of 1841. A few years later, he married Mary Moffat; the couple would have several children. ( source : goole photo )

Livingstone eventually made his way north and set out to trek across the Kalahari Desert. In 1849, he came upon Lake Ngami and, in 1851, the Zambezi River. Over the years, Livingstone continued his explorations, reaching the western coastal region of Luanda in 1853. In 1855, he came across another famous body of water, the Zambezi falls, called by native populations “Smoke That Thunders” and which Livingstone dubbed Victoria Falls, after Queen Victoria.

By 1856, Livingstone had gone across the continent from west to east, arriving at the coastal region of Quelimane in what is present-day Mozambique.

Celebrated in Europe

Upon his return to England, Livingstone received accolades and, in 1857, published Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. The following year, Livingstone was appointed by British authorities to lead an expedition that would navigate the Zambezi. The expedition did not fare well, with squabbling among the crew and the original boat having to be abandoned. Other bodies of water were discovered, though Livingstone’s wife, Mary, would perish from fever upon returning to Africa in 1862.

Livingstone returned to England again in 1864, speaking out against slavery, and the following year, published Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries. In this book, Livingstone also wrote about his use of quinine as a malarial remedy and theorized about the connection between malaria and mosquitoes.

Livingstone undertook another expedition to Africa, landing at Zanzibar in early 1866 and going on to find more bodies of water, with the hope of locating the source of the Nile River. He eventually ended up in the village of Nyangwe, where he witnessed a devastating massacre where Arabic slave traders killed hundreds of people.

With the explorer thought to be lost, a transatlantic venture was developed by the London Daily Telegraph and New York Herald, and journalist Henry Stanley was sent to Africa to find Livingstone. Stanley located the physician in Ujiji in late 1871, and upon seeing him, uttered the now-well-known words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Livingstone chose to stay, and he and Stanley parted ways in 1872. Livingstone died from dysentery and malaria on May 1, 1873, at the age of 60, in Chief Chitambo’s Village, near Lake Bangweulu, North Rhodesia (now Zambia). His body was eventually transported to and buried at Westminster Abbey.( source : Wikipedia)

Africans wrapped his body in a sealed skin bag and carried him on their shoulders and walked hundreds of kilometers through wild and savage territories to reach the coast from where the body was shipped to England.

I hope you will enjoy reading this blog about some of the most intrepid travelers in history.

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