Meet the people who defined travel.
They were not stopped by anything or anyone, not even the circumstances and conventions of their time could put an end to their dreams and passion – and they certainly were not afraid. This article is peppered with strong and fearless adventurers, who have changed the perception of travel and in many cases shaped the world we live.
But who are these fearless and adventurous people? What unites them?
Is it curiosity and a deep-seated yearning to learn about the world we live in? Or maybe it was the mere romantic notion of setting out to new shores, discovering the world for themselves and everyone else, and perchance, in that dalliance of absentmindedness, they incidentally wrote history.
At this juncture, your mind is working. You are possibly thinking of the famous travelers you know. However, if someone asks you about famous travelers throughout history, you will at first think it an easy question. You might also know about their life stories or discoveries, and you will most likely think of men such as Christopher Columbus, Magellan or even Neil Armstrong who flied to the moon, although the voyage was not of this earth.
Let us dive right in and look at the ten greatest travelers of all time and the fascinating story of each.
XUAN ZHANG – THE PASSIONATE PILGRIM (602 – 664)
The monk Xuan Zhang started his long journey in the years 629 to 645 AD. This voyage would make him the most famous of the traveling Chinese. He headed west, down the Silk Road, on horseback in search of the sources of Buddhism.
‘I would rather die on the way to the west than to live because I am staying in the east.’
This attitude was indeed necessary because he was stopped at border posts, almost buried in an avalanche and attacked several times. However, Xuan Zhang was rewarded handsomely when he reached famous places along the way as can be seen in his words about Samarkand on the Silk Road:
‘This is a rich place where the treasures of distant lands accumulate, where there are strong horses and talented artists, and the climate is extremely pleasant.’
After years of traveling across areas of today’s Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and crisscrossing India, he made contacts and gathered as much knowledge as possible.
Xuan Zang’s return to China was triumphant. He had accumulated hundreds of texts and relics on his journeys. The same Emperor, who had denied him permission to leave, received him at court and built a pagoda in his honor. In his last years, he devoted himself in translating Buddhist texts until his last days and death in AD 664.
MARCO POLO – IN SEARCH OF PROFIT (1254 – 1324)
Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant whose family was originally from Dalmatia. Today, he is famous for his trip to China and back.
In the year 1275, still 40 days out from the palace of Kublai Khan, envoys of the Mongol ruler met Marco Polo and his fellow travelers. They escorted them to the Shangdu Summer Residence, the City of 108 Temples to the north of present-day Beijing. There the Venetians knelt before the grandson of the great Genghis Khan.
‘A splendid structure of marble and stone,’ noted Marco Polo. ‘The halls and rooms are gilded. In the zoo there is another palace built entirely of bamboo, with gilded and lacquered pillars, each of which entwined with a dragon, its tail wrapped around the column and carrying the roof with outstretched paws – The Grand Khan had the palace designed so that he could be brought at any time to any place in his vast residence. More than 200 ropes of silk made this possible.’ There is nothing more to say really.
‘I have not even written down half of what I’ve seen.’ Those were the last words of one of history’s greatest travelers before his death.
ABU ABDALLAH MOHAMMED IBN BATTUTA – ALLAH’S TRAVELLER (1304 – 1377)
TANGER (Morocco), in 1325, a young man sets out on the first of many journeys that would take him to the most remote corners of the then-known world – including the areas of present-day China, India, Iran, Indonesia, Mali, Russia, Syria, Tanzania, Turkey, and all of the Arab countries. His name: Abu Abdallah Mohammed Ibn Battuta. He traveled more than 120,000 kilometers – further than any other man before the advent of the age of steam.
Often referred to as the ‘Traveler of Islam,’ Ibn Battuta is considered the most important traveler of the pre-modern era. His memories, recorded after almost 30 years of travel, take the reader deep into the colorful life and culture of the 14th century, transporting us to the Muslim world of the Middle Ages. He passed away in 1377, Marrakesh, Morocco.
VASCO DA GAMA – IN THE NAME OF PORTUGAL (1460 – 1524)
The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama is one of the most famous explorers in the world. On behalf of the Portuguese King Manuel I, he set off on a journey to find a sea route to India. He succeeded in the late 15th century.
Behind the idea of finding a sea route to India was not just the spirit of discovery: in fact, it was mainly about developing the so-called ‘spice route’ to facilitate the transport of very valuable spices directly from India to Europe.
It can, therefore, be said that his voyage of discovery was a fluke based on the prospect of profit. He died on December 24, 1524 in Kochi, India
JAMES COOK – FOR KING AND COUNTRY (1728 – 1779)
The Pacific island world, now Oceania, was as little known to the Europeans as the American continent before the 16th century. The complete discovery and exploration of this part of the Earth, in contrast to the development of the New World, took more than three hundred years.
It began in the 16th century and was completed at the beginning of the 19th century. A significant part of this discovery is thanks to the Brit JAMES COOK.
He explored vast parts of Oceania in search of the fabled southern continent, discovered many new islands and island groups in the Pacific, and thereby expanded the Europeans’ idea about this part of the world. He was also the first to advance far beyond the Arctic Circle and almost reached the mainland of the Antarctic. With his travels, he was finally able to refute the existence of an unknown southern continent, the Terra Australis Incognita.
In addition, his effective measures against scurvy were tantamount to the future of seafaring. He passed away in Hawaii on February 14, 1779.
JEANNE BARÉ – THE ROVING BOTANIST (1740 – 1807)
If you try to find this person in the history books then you will undoubtedly not be successful. And if Jeanne were a Jean instead, her life would have been so much easier.
She was born in 1740, and little is known about her life until, almost thirty years later, she boarded a French naval ship to sail around the world and get to know all the plants on the planet. At that time, however, women were not allowed aboard ships. So she had to dress up and pretend she was a man and this for over seven years! Fortunately, her effort was rewarded. On her travels, she was able to document more than 70 plants that were unknown until that moment. Jeanne died on August 5, 1807 in Saint-Aulaye, France.
CHARLES DARWIN – THE FATHER OF EVOLUTION (1809 – 1882)
He was a British naturalist and considered one of the most important natural scientists because of his essential contributions to the theory of evolution.
The end of 1831 and after almost five years of traveling on board HMS Beagle, which led the young Darwin around the world to places such as Australia and South America to name but a few formed the basis for his later work.
Darwin’s travelogue published in 1839 made him world-famous. With his theory on the origin of the coral reefs and other geological writings, he gained recognition in scientific circles as a geologist. His studies on barnacles (Cirripedia) in the mid-1850s gave him the reputation as a distinguished zoologist and taxonomist.
Darwin was diagnosed with heart disease in early 1882 and died on April 19, 1882 in Down House.
GERTRUDE BELL – AN IRON LADY BEFORE HER TIME (1868-1926)
Gertrude Bell blasted all social frameworks from an early age, as the first woman to graduate in history from the elite University of Oxford. In a time when most women still lived in the shadow of their husbands and were not allowed to vote, this female Briton went straight to Persia after university to travel alone across the Arabian desert where she lived among the local tribes.
In more than 1,000 letters she sent home, she described how Persia and the Orient had enchanted her. During the First World War, she worked as a spy in Cairo and then as a diplomat to support the formation of a united Iraq under the leadership of King Faisal. When this so-called ‘Queen of Iraq’ died on July 12, 1926 in Iraq, crowds gathered in Baghdad to celebrate her and her life’s work.
OSA JOHNSON – SHE MARRIED ADVENTURE (1894 – 1953)
Even today it might seem crazy to take a small plane and travel to Africa and film indigenous tribes and wild animals. Now imagine doing that in 1917.
Together with her husband, this North American researcher traversed the entire African continent in search of the most incredible places. Johnson’s documentary and feature films still inspire to this day. Well, they should because she almost gave her life for them.
But even when cannibals nearly had her for dinner or a rampaging rhino attacked her did not stop her from discovering the world. Her books are still a must-read for all travelers, and her documentary films are interesting contemporary snapshots of a different era.
MICHAEL PALIN – THE FUNNIEST NOMAD AROUND (1943-PRESENT)
‘Once the travel bug bites, there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected for the rest of my life.’
From the moment the travel bug bit Michael Palin, the English comedian and founding member of Monty Python, after decades on screen and stage, started his trip as a humorous globetrotting documentarian.
He raced around the world in 80 days in imitation of Jules Verne’s traveling hero Phileas Fogg. His adventures took him from the North Pole to the South; circumnavigating 70,000 kilometers around the Pacific Ocean; trekking the Himalaya and Sahara; and trailing Ernest Hemingway from the U.S. to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.
His TV series and articles are so popular that he leaves tourist attractions in his wake. There is even a word for it: ‘Palin effect.’
There is inspiration for you. It’s never too late to get your suitcase or a rucksack and follow in the footsteps of these famous men and women. Maybe you might just change the world or inspire millions as they did.