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On the road to Kabul and other treks

Why travel?

Why travel? A good question as traveling is hard work. Bruce Chatwin published a book with short stories from various extreme places in the world with the meaningful title: "What am I doing here". The title suggests that traveling is risky. Jack Kerouac’s alter ego in "On the road" frantically travels several times from the East to the West Coast of the USA and back. I read this speedy book in two hours feeling hyperactive afterwards.

Animals, and we are one of them, tend to stay in their biotope, unless they are driven out by overpopulation or food shortage. Homo Sapiens traveled for similar reasons, rarely to find new territory. Your own biotope provides the safest environment, for nutritious food, safety, immunity against diseases and perhaps most important, happiness.

In ancient and medieval times traveling was unsafe. Your could be raided by bandits, unfriendly tribes, or warlords. There was often a lack of proper food and you risked catching diseases for which you had no immunity. The physical effort was very large due to the long duration as most went on foot and even traveling on horseback or in a carriage is very tiring on the rough dirt roads. A return trip from Holland to Italy in Medieval times could take in the order of months but still many painters, philosophers, monks and traders undertook the journey.

In the 16th and 17th century, traveling to other continents was still risky. Spanish adventurers explored South America in the 16th century and most of them died quickly by diseases, usually not in battles. Only few died of old age or have made their name in history. Driven by lack of work and poverty, Dutch teenage boys would enlist as a ships mate on the lucrative spice trace to the Orient in the 17th century but a large proportion, up to 50%, died on the first trip that could last for one or two years.

Even in the second half of the 19th century traveling to Arctic regions was unsafe. Around 1850, the British John Franklin Expedition tried to find the North West passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean around Northern Canada. In the first winter, most of the officers died, including John Franklin, ironically by the latest invention of food cans for storing meat as only the officers were served this food. The soldering of the food cans had a very high, deadly lead content caused by a contractor who won the too sharply priced outsourcing contract. The remaining crew tried to make it back overland, observed by native Inuits living in the area wondering what the white men were doing here.

In the fifties, scientific expeditions to the polar regions were still done using dog sledges and would take up to half a year, staying in Igloos in March/April when the temperature was below –20 degrees Celsius and in double wall tents above this. Already in the sixties, with the introduction of the Single Otter planes that could land on the tundra, scientists were pouring in during the short two-months summer season. When I visited the Canadian Polar Region in the eighties for geological research, we used Twin Otter planes with a pay load of 1500 kg and Bell 206 helicopters with a pay-load of 300 kg, delivering food and mail once a week to the fly camps. Relative small risks were e.g. a helicopter or plane crash, which was extremely rare or a fatal attack by a polar bear that happened only once every few years. The most feared was a health risk like acute appendicitis as the nearest hospital was in Iqualuit (previously called Frobisher Bay) on Baffin Island or in Yellowknife, 2600 km and at least 3 days of travel to the South.

Mountain climbing seems to be the last risky way of travelling. Staying in unheated tents on icy cold, windswept mountain slopes for several days the number one risk is frostbite with loss of fingers or toes and the number two risk is high altitude sickness. More deadly are avalanches, against which even the most talented climber has no defense, as you often cannot avoid avalanche prone areas. For the advanced climbers, targets like Mount McKinley or the Big Walls of Yosemite are possible with limited risk. Mount McKinley has only three deaths per 1180 climbers per year and the success rate since 1990 for reaching the summit is 41% against a chance of one in 150 to die or summit successfully. In the USA only 12 sport climbers per year have a fatal accident.

This is a much better statistics than for car death, 1 in 15000 to 1 in 4000 per year, depending on the country, and if you multiply this with an average travelling life span of 60 years the risk soars to 1 in 250 to 1 in 66. When also taking into account poor drivers with high mileage and never avoiding poor road conditions, this probably goes down to 1 in 25 to 1 in 7. More frightening is that the risk for disability is five times higher. And do you know people who died in a car crash? I do.

The last frontier is still the highest, over 8000 meter high mountains. Mount Everest has 180 death for the 900 successful climbs. Kangchenjunga in Eastern Nepal is the 3rd highest mountain in the world and may have 1 or 2 deaths per expedition, mainly due to poor weather conditions as the area often get snow storms drifting in from the Bay of Bengals. I witnessed this during the Korean Expedition in 1999 that had one official death of a registered climber and 2 unreported deaths of unregistered climbers buried illegally near the base camp. The worst of all, K2 or called "the killer mountain" has 30% of climbers dying on their way back after a successful summit. Of the 164 climbers that have reached the summit until 1999, 54 have lost their lives. Shisa Pangma, the easiest of all in Tibet, crossed my mind a few times, and again recently when I found out about an expedition in May 2002 for only US$ 6000.

Travel may simply be driven by curiosity combined with not feeling at home or lack of adaptive capabilities to your own culture. Another reason could be trying to gain wealth or escaping from poverty, and when this fails you still have the big stories to tell. For many people, once you start travelling, there is no way back, you get addicted.

Montaigne, a French 16th century philosopher discovered that customs change in time and space and stated that traveling does not increase your cultural awareness and adaptive capabilities but makes you realize how narrow minded various cultures can be in judging other cultures. In his library he made the inscription: "Home sum, humani a me nihil alienum puto" or "I am man, nothing human is foreign to me" (de Botton, 2000) (Note: check further, to be completed). The 12th century crusaders who went to the Holy Land to clear the land of the so-called "hedons" to their surprise discovered they were barbarians and not the Moslems who were has a thriving, mixed culture and tolerated various religions.

I met a lot of unique, often very difficult but interesting characters although with a high degree of escapism. Paul Theroux in traveling for his book "The Happy Islands of Oceania", just left a long lasting broken marriage. His account of Oceania is very sad as nearly all the islands were infested by tourists like Tahiti, corruption like Fiji, or the essential lack of "Joi de Vivre" in American Samoa. The only attractive place seems to be the Marquesas. When I mentioned this to him during a book presentation in Amsterdam, "This book is a sad story except on the Marquesas", he asked, "Did you visit the place?", and "You should go there". I replied, "Please try the pristine Canadian Arctic", assuming he never had been there.

In his book "Into the Wild", Jon Krakauer gives examples of the current trend in trying to escape the modern world by e.g. returning to nature. Most will survive the ordeal, not realizing how difficult it is to find food. The main character in the book spent 4 months in the Alaska wilderness but had to return after accidentally eating poisonous berries. Unfortunately he was unable to cross the fast flowing rivers during the spring. Another story (p. 83) is about a city man wanting to spent 3 months in a cabin in Alaska without a radio. Unfortunately he forgot to arrange a pick up by plane. Also, he should have waved to the passing by planes with two arms up ("Help"), not one ("Hello, All fine"). The summer cabin was very cold already in the fall and he died sometimes in November after the last of his rations ran out.

The most revealing description on the impact of travel and trade is an anthropological description of the past 50000 years by Jared Diamond, "Guns, Germs and Steel". He describes how cultures evolved by firstly by domestication of plants and animals and secondly by inventions. Their success rate influences the population. Travels and trades may take over or even wipe out other cultures, however you may also be taken over although this is more rare. Examples are the Mongol Emperors in China and India. Especially the description of Australian and Papua New Guinea natives that are both the last Asian remnant of the same aboriginal culture of some 45000 years ago is revealing. They never changed their hunter-gathering culture as there was no need and were left untouched by invading Asians, in Papua New Guinea because of the inaccessible country and in Australia by the vast and barren space. The rest of the aboriginal culture of the South East Asia is wiped out apart for a few Islands West of Malaysia.

The next chapters describe various trips to the various places in the world, e.g. from medieval Afghanistan to the pristine Canadian High Arctic, from sparsely populated Newfoundland to overpopulated China.


Jared Diamond, 1998. Guns, Germs and Steel. Vintage 1998. ISBN 0-09-930278-0

Alain de Botton, 2000. The Consolation of philosophy. Vintage International. ISBN 0-679-77917-5

Jon Krakauer, 1996. Into the wild. Villard Books. ISBN 0-330-35169-9