Eight Famous (and Not So Famous) Travelers Who Really Inspire Us
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Eight Famous (and Not So Famous) Travelers Who Really Inspire Us

Going on a summer travel program can bring out the explorer in all of us. As the summer winds down, there remains a longing to travel to other global destinations to see more of what the world has to offer.

That desire is at the core of what has motivated famous explorers from the past to the present. Here is a look at just some of the people who have changed the world of travel through their expeditions, including a few travelers who overcame major barriers on their road to exploration.

Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) (602—664)

Xuanzang became a Buddhist monk at the age of 13 after he studied religious texts while he lived in the mountains of Sichuan, China with his brother. They had been sent to a monastery as refuge from a civil war. Xuanzang decided he wanted to travel to India to learn more and proposed a visit. However, the emperor forbade him from going.

That did not stop Xuanzang. He secretly set out on a journey that took him 17 years – heading through the Gobi Desert and eventually reaching India. During his time there, he studied with famous Buddhist masters and acquired many Buddhist texts. Eventually he returned to China with more than 600 Sanskrit documents.

A depiction of the Chinese monk Xuanzang on his journey to India.

A depiction of the Chinese monk Xuanzang on his journey to India. Courtesy: The Tokyo National Museum

Xuanzang’s translations and general knowledge acquired during the journey was a major influence on Chinese Buddhism. Likewise, he wrote a travel log that gave detailed accounts of countries in Central and South Asia. The wealth of information helped China’s emperor overlook the forbidden journey and welcome Xuanzang home with open arms.

Marco Polo (1254 – 1324)

During history class there are lessons about many explorers from European nations who changed the world both for the good and the bad. That includes famous names from Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci to Ferdinand Magellan. Long before they set sail though, Marco Polo hit the road to explore Asia.

The famous Venetian followed in the footsteps of his father and uncle, who traveled to Asia for business. He traveled along the Silk Road and became one of the first Europeans to visit China, where he stayed for 17 years and immersed himself in the culture.

During his journeys, he endured many hardships traveling across unforgiving territory, but he also learned about an entirely different way of living from his own and mastered four languages. He brought back to Europe the idea of paper money and a postal system, among other concepts.

Mosaic of Marco Polo, Municipal Palace of Genoa: Palazzo Grimaldi Doria-Tursi

Mosaic of Marco Polo, Municipal Palace of Genoa: Palazzo Grimaldi Doria-Tursi

His book The Travels of Marco Polo would later inspire other explorers. Two centuries later Christopher Columbus carried a copy of Polo’s book as he sailed across the Atlantic.

Ibn Battuta (1304-1369)

Battuta is considered perhaps the greatest medieval Muslim traveler and is also the author of the book Riḥlah (Travels). He covered about 75,000 miles during his journey through nearly all the Muslim countries and beyond to nations like China. In comparison, Polo traveled “only” about 15,000 miles.

Book illustration by Léon Benett published in 1878 showing Ibn Baṭṭūṭah (right) and his guide in Egypt

Book illustration by Léon Benett published in 1878 showing Ibn Baṭṭūṭah (right) and his guide in Egypt

Battuta was part of the Amazingh ethnic group in Tangier, Morocco. He began his travels with his religious pilgrimage to Mecca and then developed a passion for travel. During his journey through many nations, he met at least 60 rulers and numerous other dignitaries. Though he did not make any major discoveries, Battuta’s documentation of his travels had notable historical and geographical significance.

Sacagawea (1788 – 1812?)

Historians debate a number of facts about this famous Native American woman, including her name and year of death. What is known is that as a teenager and new mother she assisted Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark on their famous Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest.

Sacagawea was a Shosone Indian who was enslaved by the Hidatsa Indians when she was 12 years old. French Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau bought her from the Hidatsa to become one of his wives. Later, Charbonneau was hired by Lewis and Clark as an interpreter, and Sacagawea was tasked with coming along to help communicate with the Shosone Indians.

"Lewis & Clark at Three Forks", mural in lobby of Montana House of Representatives

“Lewis & Clark at Three Forks”, mural in lobby of Montana House of Representatives

She was only about 17 years old and had given birth just a few months before she set out on the journey across thousands of wilderness miles. She helped during crucial moments on the expedition  – finding edible plants, suggesting the best route to travel, and fostering conversation with some Shoshones, who happened to be led by Sacagawea’s brother Cameahwait. With their help, Lewis and Clark got horses and a guide to cross the Rocky Mountains. In return, Clark provided Sacagawea’s son an education.

To this day, it is still debated when she died. Most historians suggest Sacagawea died young – at age 24. However, some oral traditions say she left her husband to join another Indian tribe and lived to an old age.

Elizabeth Cochran Seaman aka Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922)

Journalist Nellie Bly is well-known for staying ten days in a mental institution in New York and exposing the cruelties there. However, she also traveled around the world in 72 days using trains, ships, and horses for transportation. Her inspiration was Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days, and her goal was to beat the fictional character and complete the trip in less time.

American journalist Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Circa 1889

American journalist Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Circa 1889

Unbeknownst to Bly she had competition from another real person. Cosmopolitan writer  Elizabeth Bisland set off in the opposite direction to race Bly, but in the end rough seas ruined her chances.

The fact that two women made it around the world undoubtedly surprised Bly’s editor who told her the trip would be impossible for a female. As the Smithsonian magazine reported, Bly’s reply was:

“Very well,” she said, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

Matthew Henson (1866 –1955)

It took some time for African-American explorer Matthew Henson to get his deserved recognition. He is the first person to reach the North Pole, but his travel partner Robert Peary originally got the credit. Later it was realized that Henson was in the lead sled and was the one to plant the American flag.

In his youth, Henson’s parents were regularly targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. Henson found inspiration from Frederick Douglass in his efforts to overcome oppression. When his parents died, Henson got a job on a ship where he learned seafaring skills.

Matthew Henson in Greenland, 1901

Matthew Henson in Greenland, 1901

Eventually he met Peary, who was a U.S. Naval officer who hired Henson. They spent 18 years on expeditions together, exploring places ranging from the jungles of Nicaragua to the frozen landscape of the Arctic. It wasn’t until Henson was 70 though that he received the acknowledgement he deserved for his accomplishments as an explorer. Towards the end of his life, both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower honored Henson before he died.

Jacques Cousteau (1910 – 1997)

Cousteau is perhaps the world’s most famous ocean explorer. In 1936 he went swimming underwater with goggles and realized how wondrous the world was beneath the water. He developed with engineer Emile Gagnan the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus or SCUBA in 1943.

For years afterward he joined with partners to explore the seas for scientific research and diving expeditions. Eventually he created a nonprofit called The Cousteau Society. The organization has played a major global role in creating awareness about the effects of pollution and coastal development, while also generating an interest in many forms of sea life. Today Costeau is now recognized as the father of underwater exploration.

Wasfia Nazreen (1982 – present)

You may have never heard of Nazreen, but she is well known to millions of Bangladeshi people. She is the first person from Bangladesh to climb the so-called “Seven Summits” – which are the seven highest mountains on the seven continents. She also has worked endlessly to raise awareness about animal rights, environmental issues, and women’s rights.

Nazreen launched her summit bid to mark 40 years of progress in women’s rights in the patriarchal society where she was raised. Her mountain climbs were particularly notable since girls have traditionally been discouraged from doing outdoor activities in Bangladesh. Plus, the country’s terrain is pretty flat and often is flooded during typhoons.

Nazreen has said these natural disasters taught her to have an extreme respect for nature since it’s the “real boss.” The floods also have fostered her ongoing desire to promote environmental responsibility.

Her inspirational life led her to be named the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2014. She also was featured in the 2016 short documentary Wasfia.

These travelers are just a few of the individuals who have helped bring the world closer together and taught us many lessons about unseen worlds. Each day more explorers are sharing their journeys online to promote the joy of travel. Joining in the adventure is easy. View our programs to get started!

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer