THE FIRST THING a traveler needs to pack for an enjoyable trip is a good reason for going.
The reason for Harry Rutstein, Baltimore businessman, adventurer, writer and photographer, was that Marco Polo had entranced him from the time he was a child. In The Footsteps Of Marco Polo, by Rutstein and Joanne Kroll, is the story and photographs of their expedition from Italy to the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan along the ancient trail of the Venetian merchant.
Lessons of the Road is an account by Michael Schiffer, a young Harvard graduate, law school dropout, boutique jewelry maker and writer, of his journey of self-discovery between France and Nepal.
Rutstein's book is a matter-of-fact narrative of the difficulties of travel along the old silk route, the aid and comfort his party received from strangers along the way and the similarities and contrasts between Polo's time and the present.
Schiffer concerns himself more with the frustrations he encountered, the innumerable small peaks, both literal and figurative, that he faced, until surrounded by the immense and real summits of rock and ice in the Himalayas, he found revelation in a Tibetan nun's admonition to "Stand up straight!"
Rutstein began his expedition at the Albergo Malibran, a hotel and pizza parlor in Venice's Rialto, which was the Polo home in the 13th century. Surprisingly, it is still intact after 700 years. And even though a fast-food restaurant takes up the ground floor, the Polo family coat of arms still guards the stable, and the courtyard beside the hotel carries the pejorative nickname applied to Marco Polo by the citizens of Venice who considered his reports exaggerated: del Milione or "the millions."
While Rutstein traveled as close as possible to Polo's route, he had to make detours to avoid borders closed by war in the eastern Mediterranean. His party took whatever transport was available, begging rides on sailboats, hiring cars, clinging to the backs of local trucks.
But the 1975 expedition had some comforts the original participants might have found difficult to imagine.
In Meshed, Iran, during the religious holidays of Ramadan, Rutstein's group could find no room even in the humblest lodgings. They were eventually installed in a villa kept for the use of the late shah.
"Laughing maids prepared king-size beds for the night and left dozens of thick, soft towels in the tiled bathrooms, where we showered in an unending flow of hot water. We found ice water at each bedside and flowers on the tables and dainty, silver-wrapped chocolates on our pillows."
Rutstein made friendly contacts all along his way and shared tea and bread and melons with merchants and innkeepers from Venice to Mazari-Sharif.
For Schiffer, the road to the east, and also into himself, actually began at a Harvard antiwar demonstration.
"I was there because my friends were there. People were drawing lines in those days and one felt obliged to step to either side. Besides, my girlfriend was there." But, when the police started swinging billy clubs, Schiffer fled, feeling like a coward, "and in one sense [he has] been running from that moment ever since."
The first part of Schiffer's book reflects his lack of direction, but by page 64 he is on his way east from the French countryside, reluctantly following his determined girlfriend and accompanied by a former jewelry-making student and her boyfriend.
From Greece to Nepal, the scenery passes Schiffer like so many bugs in a car's headlights. His journey into himself is as tentative and haphazard as his group's choice of route.
It isn't until Schiffer has struggled as far as Bela Morghab, Afghanistan, a town "in the middle of nowhere," that he begins to find a reason for being on the road.
"There are just two classes of people relevant out here, Afghan and other. I'm other.
"There's no more cultural garbage or baggage to haul around or explain away. I've got a pack on my back, I'm walking in the marketplace in the blazing sun and that's it. From now on I won't have such a hard time justifying my desire to write. I won't waste so much time asking, 'Who am I to say?' I'm the guy in the tan shirt who wants a Coke."
Footsore, Schiffer and his girlfriend arrive at Kyangin Ghompa, 12,000 feet up in the Himalayas, where they rest for a day, eat cheese and nod at the mountain climbers. Before they start back down the trail, Schiffer stands alone, "trying to come up with some thought or insight to carry away."
His dharma nun slaps him on the back and gives him her lecture on posture. "That's it?" he asks, and concludes that it is.
Unlike Shiffer, Rutstein found no revelation on his 1975 expedition, nor was he looking for one. His book simply tells of the first leg of Marco Polo's route, and this coming year Rutstein will attempt the remainder. He now has the necessary permission from the Chinese, and he plans to take up the expedition next August in Pakistan, cross the great mountains and follow his old hero to Peking.
Schiffer is writing a novel.