Monday, April 04, 2005

The possibility of India

I've just come to the end of a book that has had a powerful influence on my will to travel. I've long had the idea of travelling for an extensive period when I eventually leave Japan (could be a way off in the future, mind you), but apart from China as a first port of call I haven't been able to settle on anything else for certain. The book that I've been reading is Marco Polo's Travels, originally written toward the end of the thirteenth century by an Italian guy called Rustichello of Pisa. Rustichello was a romance novelist who Polo met in jail. They wrote it together since they both had quite a bit of time on their hands.

Anyway, that's not really important. What is relevant to this post is the way Polo describes the places he visited. I've been stuck, over the last few weeks, with this image of Indians as folk who never wear anything but a loin cloth around their privates and who have houses infested with tarantulas and who won't go on a journey if they hear someone sneeze just once, but will readily leave home if they hear that person sneeze twice.

Marco describes a lot of really wierd stuff and he makes the countries he visited sound incredibly exotic. The funny thing about his descriptions is that he usually starts off by saying "These people are idolaters (buddhists), they are subject to the Great Khan, they use paper money and they burn their dead." I think it's really funny.

So now I have India on my mind as somewhere I'd like to spend a bit of time, both because it's vast and interesting and also because it's cheap for travellers. Getting there overland is going to be the most difficult thing for me because I am determined not to spend money on air travel. Another thing is that if I go through India I would have to sacrifice the journey I had planned on the Siberian Railway. Or would I?

Marco Polo

Another point of interest in The Travels is Polo's description of Japan. He didn't actually visit Japan, but he'd heard a lot about the place since he was in Manxi around the time when Kublai Khan sent his troops over to conquer it. If you ever wondered where the word 'kamikaze' comes from, Polo could give you some clues. He writes that the Khan's men, on route to Kyushuu for a blood fest, were defeated by a freak typhoon which blew up from the south, saving the Japanese from a right royal thrashing. The Japanese were in no way ready to take on the might of the Mongolian empire, and were over the moon when they saw that the Khan's huge fleet had been trashed in the storm. Thus was born the term 'kamikaze' (神風, or, wind of God); a wind that had been sent from god in order to protect the Japanese from certain ruin.

Marco Polo also tells you that in order to get to Japan from China it takes a full six months by boat. That's because you can only sail there in winter (on the back of the all-too-familiar East Asian winter monsoon that blows cold air and snow South East from Siberia to Japan), and back again on the southerly wind that blows up from the Pacific in summer. I've often wonderd how people in Japan used to cope in these harsh conditions way back then.

So, although it's a long way off still, and although I'm going to look for another job when I finish at this school, I have the hassle of working out how I can fit Siberia, Mongolia, China and India all into one five month stint, all overland. I'm working on it.