Fancy going around the world in 80 days? Or what about a trip down the Silk Route? Retracing famous journeys is an idea that is gripping many travellers
Praveen Jadhav, an advertising professional, took a train journey last year. But it wasn't just any other train that he hopped on to. Jadhav boarded the Venice-Simplon Orient Express that recreates the iconic Paris-Istanbul journey of the original Orient Express once every year. He says the trip — traversing through France, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey — was just as exotic as he had imagined and worth every penny of the steep price. “In my childhood, I had devoured Agatha Christie’s novels, and “Murder on the Orient Express” was one of my favourites. The charm of travelling in the original carriages from the 1920s and '30s made me imagine that I was a character in a mystery pot-boiler and part of the days when the iconic train used to be a symbol of intrigue and romance,” he says.
Jadhav is not alone. Retracing the paths of famous explorers — and travelling on legendary routes — is a high that a few are determined to experience, whatever that takes. Former army Major HPS Ahluwalia climbed Everest as part of the first Indian expedition to the mountain in 1965. He saw central Asia from the summit of the world’s highest peak and instantly fell in love with it. “I vowed that one day I will explore this region,” he says. However, Ahluwalia was able to make the journey on the Silk Route only 30 years later. By that time he was on a wheelchair as a result of a bullet injury sustained during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. There were a lot of other bottlenecks as well, like organizing funds for the expedition and getting clearances. “It took me seven years just to get the required permissions from the Chinese government,” he recalls.
Purist travellers —who wish to retrace a famous journey almost exactly as it might have happened — often face several hurdles. Nicholas Coleridge, who decided to follow the ‘Around-the-world’ trail of Phileas Fogg, found while contemplating the journey in 1984 that the political map of the world had changed drastically. “Fogg was able to make two-thirds of his journey on British territory. On the other hand, I would pass through 19 countries of which only one, Hong Kong, still has a British governor-general,” he wrote in his book “Around the world in 78 days”. To imitate the journey in a way it resembled the original as closely as possible, Coleridge shunned aeroplanes and proceeded only by rail, steamer, rickshaw, taxi, dhow, elephant and camel. But unlike Fogg, who travelled with his faithful servant Passpertout, Coleridge chose to go solo, saying it would save time and he would hire his “Passpertouts at every port.”
Another solo traveler, Antonio Martinelli, a Paris-based photographer, was so taken up by the drawings of Indian landscapes and monuments done by Englishmen duo of Thomas and William Daniells in the late 18th century that he retraced their steps in modern day India, reproducing through his photographs the same views that had so enchanted the Daniells — and from the same angles. “It was like planning a voyage through space and time,” he says. The Daniells travelled through India for nine years and produced a series of remarkable drawings of landscapes and monuments with the help of an artistic device known as the ‘camera obscura.’
Martinelli took almost two years to find the correct sites and precise locations of each of the Daniells’ views. The trip was an eye-opener, says the photographer. “During my journey, I often thought of how courageous the two artists were to visit and record sites that even today are almost unknown within India, overlooked in most tourist guide books. The contemporary reality, I discovered, was not always that easy.”
Many ardent travellers, however, feel that modern-day conveniences have taken the charm out of retracing epic journeys. “I do not think that the journeys of famous explorers of the past can be truthfully recreated,” says author and explorer Akhil Bakshi. “When Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook, Robert Peary or Roald Amundsen set out on their adventures, they were venturing literally into the unknown. Nowadays, we are armed with detailed maps, guide books, GPS, satphones, weather forecasts, laptops —not to mention the cartons of mineral water.”
That may be true — but it's hardly a deterrent for the die-hard travel buff. “Even though the world may have been pretty much discovered, it’s always a pleasure to have one’s own experiences on famous routes. In fact, each time it can create a sense of awe and be a different experience,” says Mandip Singh Soin of Ibex Expeditions that has organized trips following the footsteps of mountaineer-explorers like Edmund Hillary, Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton as well as the ever-popular Marco Polo.
What finally counts for those who make such journeys are a life-time of cherished memories, sometimes lending themselves to evocative books. Ahluwalia, who recently released his book on his Silk Route expedition, recalls how “each day of the two-month long voyage revealed a new aspect of life. I found out why the Silk Route is called the lifeline of the Orient.”
For Martinelli, retracing the path of the two Daniells was a “process of jubilation and euphoria every time I found the exact point at which the Daniells stopped to locate their perspectives.” In fact, he says, a trifle dramatically, “Sometimes I imagined the two artists standing beside me and watching me doing strange things with a curious little box.”
That’s a tantalizing thought — who knows which other explorers of the past are watching over as modern-day travellers take to the routes made famous by them.
King of explorers
Venetian merchant traveller Marco Polo is believed to have embarked on his journey across Asia in 1271, when he was 17. He was accompanied by his father Niccolo and uncle Matteo. The trio travelled continuously for 24 years. When they returned, Venice was at war with Genoa. Marco Polo was captured by the Genoese and put in prison. He spent his confinement dictating the accounts of his travels and adventures to a cell-mate. The acount, known as “Il Milione” or “The Travels of Marco Polo”, gave Europeans their first insights into the Far East, and established Marco Polo as one of history’s gretest explorer.
Thanks to Times of India