Afghanistan reopens tallest mountain to climbers

In an effort to boost adventure tourism, and show off its spectacular natural wonders, Afghanistan has reopened its tallest mountain to climbers after years of conflict prevented travel in the region. The country now hopes to become a popular destination for mountaineers and adventure travelers seeking new challenges and unique experiences in remote places.

The 24,580-foot Mt. Noshaq is located in the extreme northeastern corner of Afghanistan, falling along its shared border with Pakistan. According to National Geographic, a team of climbers traveled to the mountain in late July to commemorate the reopening by making the first ascent of the mountain by foreigners in more than three decades. Noshaq was climbed by an all Afghani team for the first time in 2009 as well.

Noshaq is located inside the Hindu Kush, a spectacular chain of snow capped peaks that run across much of central Afghanistan and into northern Pakistan. Due to the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, however, many of those peaks have been off limits since the Soviet Union invaded back in 1979. Now that a level of stability and security has returned to much of the region, the country is hoping to lure climbers and mountaineers looking for new mountains to explore.

Mountain climbers aren’t the only ones to find new adventures in Afghanistan however. Trekking the Wakhan Corridor has also become an attractive option for adventure travelers looking for an escape to a very remote destination. This narrow strip of land runs between two towering mountain ranges and was once part of the famed Silk Road, an historical trading route that Marco Polo may (or may not) have used when traveling to China. The entire route takes a couple of weeks to complete, during which time hikers cross through high mountain passes, visit tiny villages inhabited by sheep herders, and witness some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet.

Obviously Afghanistan still has a long way to go to convince travelers that it is a safe place to visit. But by reopening Mt. Noshaq and promoting treks like the Wakhan Valley, they have taken steps to demonstrate to the world that they are a first class adventure travel destination with untapped natural resources for those bold enough to experience it.

I’m definitely ready to go!

[Photo credit:]

Marco Polo: travel writer fraud

As a child, I was fascinated by stories about Marco Polo. History told us that the 13th Century Italian merchant and explorer famously traveled to the Far East, where he witnessed the wonders of Chinese and Mongolian cultures, and even served as an ambassador to the court of Kublai Kahn. For more than 24 years, Marco wandered throughout Asia, where he traded with the locals and became intimately familiar with their way of life.

Eventually, Marco returned to Venice, where he mesmerized people with tales of his far-flung adventures. Those stories would later be documented in a book entitled Description of the World, a work that was incredibly popular, even long after Polo’s death in 1324. Many historians consider it to be amongst the first travel books ever written and it helped to cement Marco’s stats as a legendary figure in history. So much so, that 700 years after it was first published, we still revel in the tales of Polo’s fantastic travels.

But what if the famous merchant wasn’t exactly honest about his exploits? What if he hadn’t traveled as far and wide as he claimed in those tales? What if Marco Polo was a travel fraud?

That’s exactly what archaeologists have now come to believe after pouring through Description of the World and lining up what Polo described in the text with what we now know about historical events and places. In fact, according to a story published in The Daily Telegraph a few days ago, historians now believe that Marco Polo never even went to China. Instead, they think that he picked up his stories from Persian merchants that he dealt with directly along the Black Sea. Polo may have then taken those stories, embellished them a bit, adding in his own details for good measure.For example, when describing the fleet of ships that Kublai Khan used on his failed attempt to invade Japan in 1281, Polo claims they had five masts, when archaeologists know that they had just three. Something he could easily have forgotten or overlooked you say? Agreed. But his book doesn’t mention the Great Wall of China at all, nor does he make even a passing reference to drinking tea or using chopsticks while visiting that country. Marco also uses a variety of Persian words to describe locations in China as well, which also indicates that he may have been getting his stories second-hand.

Dr. Frances Wood, the head of the Chinese section of the British Library, also says that there was nothing from China ever found amongst the Polo family’s possessions and that throughout his book, Marco rarely mentions that he witnessed something first hand. She believes that he actually came across a Persian guide book on China in his travel and simply used that for the basis of his tales.

So, let me get this straight. Marco Polo not only helped to launch the travel writing industry, he also became one of its first writers to plagiarize and exaggerate his content? This guy really was ahead of his time.

India opens remote trekking and mountaineering routes

Adventure travelers were given even more incentive to travel to India recently when it was announced that the government would begin allowing access to previously restricted areas in the remote Jammu and Kashmir provinces. The move has both economic and political motivations that officials hope will provide benefits for the country in years to come, but trekkers and mountaineers will begin receiving benefits of their own beginning this summer.

In all, 104 new mountain peaks have been removed from the restricted list, and opened up to climbers for the first time. Most fall in the Leh and Ladakh regions, along India’s border with both China and Pakistan. Because of their close proximity to the disputed Kashmir region, only ten previous mountaineering expeditions, primarily made up of Indian climbers, have made their way into the region. This means that the vast majority of those mountains have not yet been climbed. Climbers looking to claim a first ascent will find plenty of altitude to challenge them. Many of the peaks top out above 22,000 feet, including Saser Kangri I, II, and III, which stand 24,327 feet, 24,649 feet, and 24,590 feet respectively.

Backpackers will find plenty to love in this remote and stunningly beautiful region as well. High altitude passes and trails that have previously been off limits are now open to foreign travelers, including a route that leads to the village of Turtuk in the Nubra Valley. The village played a historically important role in the region in centuries past when caravans traveling the Silk Road passed through the high altitude settlement, ferrying goods from East to West.

This move by the Indian government comes following a recommendation from the Ministry of Defense. The region has been a source of conflict for years between India and Pakistan, but tensions have now eased in the area, and this will signal a return to normalcy. The influx of climbers, trekkers, and other adventure travelers is likely to help the local economy as well.

Sacred mountain added to World Heritage List

UNESCO has just made the latest addition to its World Heritage List–Suleiman Mountain in the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan.

This is Kyrgyzstan’s first World Heritage Site. The mountain has been a holy spot for thousands of years. Prehistoric rock art shows it was sacred long before Islam came to the region. When the new faith took over it became a focus for Muslim pilgrims. Sick people sit in the caves on the mountainside hoping to be cured, and there’s a natural rock slide that women use to promote fertility. Kids slide down it too, supposedly to make them grow up healthy, but judging from this video it looks like they’re having too much fun to think about that. There’s an interesting slide show of the mountain here.

There are seventeen places of worship on the mountain, including a reconstruction of a medieval mosque. The original was destroyed by the Soviets in an effort to stamp out religion in the region. Judging from the thousands of pilgrims who go to Suleiman Mountain every year, they didn’t achieve much.

The mountain is right next to the 3,000 year-old city of Osh, a stop on the old Silk Road, so adventure travelers following this increasingly popular route will want to stop off and see this.

Cycling the Silk Road

Cycling tours have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially amongst adventure travelers who are looking to explore the world from the seat of their bikes. One of the leaders in organizing these kinds of adventure cycling trips has always been Tour d’Afrique Ltd, the creative minds behind such epic rides as their namesake Tour d’Afrique and the Vuelta Sudamericana. The company has even launched a website called DreamTours that allows us to design and plan our own cycling adventures, leaving all the logistics to their travel experts.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep us happily peddling our way around the globe, the Tour d’Afrique team is busily preparing for another long distance ride for 2010 that will cover the entire Silk Road, starting in Istanbul, Turkey and ending in Xi’an, China. The ride will cover more than 6650 miles over 16 weeks time, crossing through Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as riders follow one of the most famous and important trade routes of all time, a route that was also explored by such historical figures as Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, and Genghis Khan.

Some of the highlights of the journey will include passing through an amazing variety of landscapes, from including snow capped mountains and desolate open plains. Travelers will get the opportunity to camp below sea level in the arid deserts of the Xinjiang Province in western China, while also ascending to dizzying heights as they climb along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, which rises well above 15,000 feet, offering a challenge for both the heart and the legs. The ancient cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Merv will be stops along the way as well, offering refuge from the road and a chance to explore marketplaces that have been bustling with shoppers for centuries.

All told, this cycling tour will put riders in the saddle for a total of 92 days, covering an average of roughly 70 miles per day. There will also be 22 rest days, and one day of travel by ferry across the Caspian Sea, bringing the total number of days on the Silk Road to 114. That’s quite a commitment for any traveler, but fortunately the route is broken down into seven stages, so even if you can’t make the full ride, you can still have the opportunity to experience part of the adventure by riding one of those sections instead. The cost for the full trip is €8500, but the company is currently running an early-bird special that cuts €400 from the price when you book the trip before November 15th. Pricing for the individual stages can be found on this web page near the bottom.

The Silk Route Tour is an amazing cycling tour that combines culture, history, and adventure into one spectacular trip that is sure to be a life altering experience. The ride gets underway on May 22nd of next year, so get training now and prepare to join in on this once in a lifetime experience