Since Oct. 24, the AsiaQuest team of bikers, led by explorer Dan Buettner, has traveled the upper rim of China along that ancient highway of commerce and information, the fabled Silk Road. The trek officially ended Nov. 6.
Buettner and his "Gang of 10" bikers have been in search of the truth about Marco Polo: Did he really go to all those places he wrote about--an adventure story that captivated and energized over 600 years of explorers? Or was Marco Polo an armchair traveler who relied on a ghost writer and plagiarized the words and co-opted the travel adventures of others?
The AsiaQuest team also was in search of adventure, enough to capture the restless imagination of a couple of million 8- to 13-year-old children around the world who traveled with the bikers via the Internet. Clustered around computer monitors in classrooms and homes from Eumenclaw, Wash., to Eufala, Ala., to Denmark and beyond, the young people did more than watch: They were the captains of the ship. Each week, the students voted on projects and destinations.
And each week the team followed the children's decrees. "We're surrounded on all sides by desert, and no matter where we turn, we're likely to make some great discovery," one message from the team said, "so where do you go?" On camels to the ruins of the mysterious city of Rawak in the heart of the Takla Makan Desert? To the thousand-year-old silk factories and back alleys of spice-laden Hotan? To search the desert for a mosque long abandoned?
This great engagement of the children's minds with the team's bicycles made for great and true adventure--and great and true terror, at least for any adult reading a feature rated high on the adventure's 1 to 10 "gross" scale. As you would expect, student engagement with the subject shot up as the gross scale increased.
What self-respecting 10-year-old, for instance, wouldn't love this accurate description of a fly's tenderizing process for yak meat in Mongolia? "Flies eat by spitting digestive juices onto the yak meat, liquefying it, and then sucking it back in before spitting it on the meat again, making it soft and juicy."
What kid in Nebraska wouldn't dream of making (in his mother's kitchen) his own winter scarf from home-grown silk worms after reading this description of silk production in mysterious Kashgar: "I peered into the bubbling caldron of cocoons. Worms jiggled around the boiling brown froth, and an odor reminiscent of old socks and dead animals made me gag!"
And, even without the need for a gross scale, what kids wouldn't want to belong to a secret club headed by these two 55-pound brothers from Hotan? "Chasing down a huge camel on the edge of the great Takla Makan Desert, they caught it by rope, and with a small but mighty yank, Metkassan brought the 1,200-pound beast to its knees. Metkassan and Metyassan then jumped on top of the camel and with a loud THWACK of their riding sticks, went galloping down the main street on the outskirts of Hotan, kicking up clouds of dust."
Each week during AsiaQuest kids met other kids like Metkassan and Metyassan, e-mailed questions to 23 noted China experts around the world, fretted over "mystery" photos (many posted on the Web by the Museum of Natural History, an AsiaQuest partner), and held lively discussions sparked by their virtual travels, and guided by teachers and the AsiaQuest study guide.
And in the final week, after great debate, after having their imaginations switched to triple-speed, the children decided that the great man who had ignited their adventure and even inspired the likes of Christopher Columbus was indeed a fraud of sorts. A press release from the children made it official: "Students and their teachers, after virtually crossing China and examining the evidence along the Silk Road, have determined that Marco Polo was never there."
Never there! Why, news that momentous in Marco Polo's day would have traveled at the pace of a stinky camel. But today, that news traveled at the speed of thought and the World Wide Web. Many young minds, thanks to this adventure, probably won't slow down any time soon.
You can enjoy the entire AsiaQuest adventure online. Go to http://www.classroom.com and click on "AsiaQuest."
CAPTION: AsiaQuest's camel caravan makes its way through the Takla Makan Desert.