"I am sitting in a hovel a few hundred yards off Tiananmen Square," Dan Buettner writes, his computer wedged by a bubbling Mongolian hot-pot, the central feature of each table in the stifling restaurant. It's 99 degrees.
A waitress has brought Buettner a plate that holds seaweed and cow brain, among other ingredients. He dips the selections, fondue-like, into the hot-pot, then stops to type again, "It's oddly quiet on the street outside -- the purr of passing bicycles rather than the roar of a car engine."
Buettner is comfortable with the sound. His own bike -- along with five others -- rests outside the rough restaurant. He is very tired, 36 hours without sleep, but he is exhilarated. In his pocket is a phone number from China-Net, the only way out on the great adventure that starts today.
Just days before the 50th anniversary of the birth of the People's Republic of China, 724 years after the supposed adventures of Marco Polo in the Imperial Court of the great Kublai Khan, and 1,500 years after the fabled "Silk Road" became the world's first true information highway, Buettner's AsiaQuest has begun.
Using the Internet and bicycles -- tools kids relate to better than most adults -- Buettner's "Team of 10" will bike and camp their way 2,500 miles through the outermost reaches and villages of the Chinese empire, driven by mysteries surrounding Marco Polo's life.
The team will be directed, literally, by the online votes of 5- to 11-year-old children monitoring the trek on the AsiaQuest Web site in grammar school classrooms around the world.
Over six weeks, the bicyclers plan to retrace portions of the Silk Road, traversing the lethal Takla Makan Desert (Takla Makan means "If you go in, you won't come out"), following the Great Wall of China, and exploring the ruins of desolate, ancient cities, such as Chiao-ho, destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.
Each inch of the way, the children and the bikers will be questioning the legitimacy of the West's most influential explorer, Marco Polo. The Venetian adventurer's impact on the imagination fueled 700 years of explorers' expeditions. Christopher Columbus traveled to America with a copy of Polo's "The Description of the World." As late as the 1900s, explorers still used his accounts as road maps for exploration along the Silk Road.
Recent studies by scholars such as Frances Wood, however, suggest that Marco Polo may have borrowed most of his adventures from others' travels and probably never set foot in China -- a thought roughly as heretical as finding out that Earth is flat after all.
AsiaQuest's Web site allows visitors to read almost real-time reports from the biking team, view near-time videos sent via the Internet from expedition locations, download audio feeds, receive e-mails from the group, and read the comments of 20 online China experts -- all for free.
The experts, along with a 145-page study guide designed for teachers, beef up the already rich mix of experiences shared by the bikers as the team explores social issues, language and arts, mathematics, science, history and social studies, all from the Chinese perspective.
Starting with pictures of AsiaQuest team members when they were kids, the young visitors to the Web site are reminded that this is their adventure, run by people who remember the powerful influences of their own childhood experiences. Dan Buettner, expedition leader, was given his first "bike" when he was 4 -- a red fire engine with pedals. By age 14, he was biking 100 miles a day. AsiaQuest marks the ninth world-class expedition Buettner has undertaken via bicycle.
When she was 4, team biologist Christina Allen says her mom found her "pouring an entire jar of fishing worms all over my lap, and loving it." By age 6 she was telling people she would be a veterinarian or biologist. She is both now.
Throughout the China trek, Allen will host three online features: "Christina's Critters," "Cool Science" and "Gross and Disgusting." The latter feature has, of course, been the kids' favorite during previous quests.
AsiaQuest archaeologist and anthropologist John Fox was taken to Inwood Park in northern Manhattan when he was 8. The park was the site of ancient Indian caves and proved to be the formative experience of his life: "It fascinated me to think that Indians used to hunt, fish and play in the same places where there are now skyscrapers and cars," says Fox, who has a Harvard PhD.
And to think, not a member of the team has a definite idea where they will bike on the next day of their trip. That's not just because children online will be telling them where to go. On Sept. 23, the China Educational Association for International Exchange, a quasi-governmental body, unexpectedly terminated its involvement in AsiaQuest. The team is traveling on tourist visas, without government escort or protection.
How did they react to the news? "Oh, we're all freaking out," Buettner says with an energetic laugh. "Chaos prevails. But what we do best on these trips is take chaos and turn it into an interactive experience."
That approach worked during "SovietTrek," when the team was constantly attacked by bands of gypsies as they biked through Romania during the height of the revolution. And it worked through a series of earthquakes. And it worked on "AfricaTrek," as they biked the length and breadth of Africa, at times traveling with armed guards.
"We've done our homework and our groundwork" for AsiaQuest, Buettner says. "In the course of our research, we've sent 12,000 e-mails, made 1,100 phone calls, read hundreds of books. We've done all we can.
"What we can't control is what the Chinese will finally let us do. We can't control transportation, or the weather, or sickness. And that all creates a playing field that is very rich for an online audience."
It's a playing field that is very exciting, too, especially if you are a kid who is calling the plays in this game.
Coming up: 2,500 miles from Beijing; the oasis town of Kashgar, an hour from Pakistan; a day from the Takla Makan Desert. And one spare tire per bike.
You and your children are welcome to bike along with the "Team of 10" from home as well. You'll find "AsiaQuest" online at http://classroomconnect.com.
The American Museum of Natural History, http://www.amnh.org/, also is a partner in AsiaQuest. Joined to the Quest by an Internet link, the museum will give AsiaQuest participants access to thousands of artifacts and specimens relating to China.
Remar Sutton will report on AsiaQuest's progress over the coming weeks.