Using the Internet and bicycles, Dan Buettner's "Team of 10" are biking and camping 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 is being 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.
"A nice Mongolian lady with steel teeth," serving a concoction of salty tea, rancid butter, and brown sugar, shared her mud-and-brick hut in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, with the AsiaQuest team as it continued to travel China's fabled Silk Road.
"We huddled, shoeless, on mortar platforms around a tiny table, happy to be sheltered from the bleak, November brown, wrenching cold, and galloping winds which pervade everything here," Dan Buettner wrote via e-mail. A single 60-watt bulb cast shadows around the hut.
Contrasts and questions haunted the team:
"This morning we mounted stubby-legged horses and headed over furrows of ice and withered grasslands" deep into the brutal, deserted Mongolian hinterlands. "And then 50 giant windmills, 13 stories high, came into view, dominating the hillsides." The custodian, a Californian, told the team "each windmill would power 10 American homes--or 4,000 Mongolian homes," Buettner said.
Meanwhile, hot on the trail of Marco Polo, AsiaQuest archaeologist/anthropologist John Fox and team technologist Jerome Thelia spent 12 hours on a sleeper bus traveling to the temple of Dafo Si, near Zhangye. "The temple contains the largest reclining Buddha in all of China," Fox said in his e-mail.
"Inside, it's so dark it takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust, and then you realize you are looking at a reclining Buddha 35 meters in length [about 38.3 yards] and seven meters high [about 7.7 yards]!" Marco Polo described it as three meters long.
"The weakness of detail in Polo's account of the Buddha is consistent with other experiences I've had on the Quest," Fox said. "His accounts read more like a refrigerator list than a travelogue."
Fox agrees with Frances Wood, author of "Did Marco Polo Go to China?" "It's likely Marco Polo borrowed from the accounts of Arabic traders," Fox said, rather than travel the entire Silk Road.
"The greatest peace I've felt in China is in Buddhist temples and caves," Fox said. "China today seems so lacking in the kind of reverence it had in the past. The Chinese were a religious people. Communism tried to take that away.
"Now China's cracking down on Falun Gong," a movement Fox believes "most outside observers see as a harmless combination of Taoism, Tai Chi, and meditation . . . The government sees it as a dangerous cult vying for peoples' energies and fervor, which they'd like to reserve for the Communist Party."
The AsiaQuest team now heads back to the city Marco Polo called "Cambaluc," modern-day Beijing. You and your family can join the Quest by going to http://classroomconnect.com. Team photographer David McLain's companion Web site features dozens of stunning photographs. Go to http://shopems.com/asiaquest/stories/asia.
Remar Sutton will continue to report on AsiaQuest.
CAPTION: AsiaQuest team leader Dan Buettner changes places with 20-year-old Lai de Feng, a bike-rickshaw driver in Dunhuang. Lai de Feng makes around $3 hauling people and goods around town.
CAPTION: A bicyclist passes an entranceway to the Dafo Si temple ("Big Buddha temple") near Zhangye. The temple holds China's largest reclining Buddha.