Retracing Marco Polo’s Footsteps

National Geographic Young Explorers Drive from Venice to Beijing

Inspired by Marco Polo’s historic travels through Central Asia, we are a team of three explorers, sponsored by National Geographic’s Young Explorers Program, driving from Venice to Beijing this spring. Employing a sociological and economic lens, we will be driving across the Eurasian continent, retracing the Silk Road. Whilst visiting both ancient and modern sites, we will follow the new path paved by China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, and capture the stories, resources and cultures that define China’s twenty-first century encounter with Central Asia.

We believe our project is extremely timely. OBOR’s launch phase was characterized by a period of hyper-excitement as a flurry of multi-billion dollar deals, multilateral agreements and hyperbolic media rhetoric permeated the atmosphere. Three and a half years later, in January 2017, analysis of the OBOR initiative still lacks transparent, reliable and organized data from the ground. Nonetheless, the key to China’s success lies at a local level; consequently, our expedition prioritizes a bottom-up perspective above all else. As we drive across 16 countries, and 15,000 kilometers, we will visit many of the prominent projects of China’s infrastructural network. It is at these sites that we will use our combined experience and skills as economists, sociologists and linguists to provide grassroots data and stories for the Reconnecting Asia platform.

The methodology of our project is straightforward: to observe and record what we see along the way, creating a patchwork of accounts and a new layer for analysis, to examine the new Silk Road. Our findings will be presented principally in written form, but will be supported by alternative mediums including photographic and cinematographic evidence, which will create a more tangible and accessible experience. We will explore projects in early construction phases and those already completed, meeting with the people who interact with these sites daily. There are unanswered questions around how the communities who live along the Silk Road are adapting to the great changes brought on by globalization. A twenty-first century Silk Road is being paved on top of age-old cultures and traditions, and our project will give a voice to the communities along the way who are experiencing these changes.

Silk Road Project Route

As China initiates plans to build oil refineries, roads, and tunnels, its visionary economic and political project may face multiple challenges, from Russia’s own ambitions to a lack of understanding of local cultures across Eurasia. China-sponsored infrastructural projects are taking place across a myriad of ethnic, linguistic and religious environments. A lack of onsite accountability may lead to community displacement and environmental degradation. Many questions remain as to how the Chinese-led projects will overcome these complex challenges, where perhaps further investment and diplomacy may prove to be inadequate. It is precisely these issues, which our team seeks to study.

Additionally, in preparing for our expedition, we have attempted to research current rules and regulations in place at land borders, in order to prepare for the kinds of issues we are likely to face as we leave one country and enter another. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find up-to-date or accurate information related to the customs processes and checks at border crossings in many countries. We therefore also intend to document our experiences within this domain.

While the Silk Road overland adventure is set to last for several months, we anticipate that the Silk Road Project will go on beyond that. Upon our return from China, we anticipate the creation of a short documentary film and the publication of a number of essays on the trip and on our findings. We could also collaborate with further projects in the region and help raise awareness about OBOR and the peoples affected by it.

The Silk Road has never left our imaginations. China is willing to write a new chapter to Polo’s never-ending story. We aspire to be among its narrators.

Written by The Silk Road Project Team