Tim Severin is almost legendary among modern explorers and historians. From his college days, he's specialized in studying an ancient voyage of discovery or some other historical travel narrative, and recreating it using technology of the period and in as practical a way as possible. In doing so, he's dispelled many myths, but he's also proved that many stories thought to be myth and fable were, in fact, firmly grounded in reality. (Two of the most fascinating are the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Ulysses' voyage from Troy to his homeland of Ithaca, both re-enacted aboard a galley built in classical Greek style.) I have most of his many books in my collection.
His first book, published when he was still studying at university, is titled "Tracking Marco Polo".
In it, he and two university student colleagues used motorcycles to retrace the footsteps of Marco Polo across Europe and Asia, trying to demonstrate that the fabled journey of this Venetian explorer was, in fact, true and verifiable. Although unable to enter China, they got through Afghanistan to the Chinese border, shedding new light in today's troubled world on how that part of the world was not many decades ago.
One of the more amusing parts of their journey was trying to get a much-abused motorcycle repaired in Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia. I thought you might enjoy their adventures there.
Mike, who had been learning to drive, crashed his machine whilst coming down a steeply winding mountain road; this time it was Stan who was in the sidecar. We had not gone much more than twenty-five kilometres from Belgrade when the accident happened, so Stan drove back to the city on the remaining motorcycle to fetch help. Meanwhile Mike and I awaited his return confidently, for we knew that Stan was at his best when faced with the problem of organizing other people into doing something that he wanted. We had noticed this phenomenon time and again when the expedition had been held up for want of some small detail or other. A favourite pastime was to ask Stan to obtain bread in some small wretched-looking village where no baker’s shop could be seen and where we did not even speak the local dialect. Like a huge bear, Stan would roll into the darkened doorway of a peasant’s hut, and gruff grunts were heard from inside. Then Stan’s tousled head would re-appear as he emerged blinking from the scene of operations, clutching a large loaf to his chest and often bearing other local delicacies as well. He seemed to take the whole exercise so nonchalantly that we never inquired how he managed the whole thing without ever parting with any money.
As ever, Stan excelled himself. After a few hours he returned from Belgrade on a very ancient pick-up truck in the company of its very, very drunken crew and a beautiful ballerina! The latter had been given a lift en route and was highly decorative, but useless, whilst the truck’s crew were not even decorative. They had been enticed away from their homes by Stan’s blandishments and on the way had stopped at every opportunity for powerful fortifiers. The scene, as we attempted to load the battered motorcycle and sidecar onto the lorry in the late twilight, was pure comic opera. The befuddled Serbs placed two planks against the truck’s tailboard to act as ramps. Then, when our precious machine was halfway up, the planks slipped away and the sidecar fell down with a shattering crash. On the second attempt we made sure that the planks were firmly positioned, but this time, when the motorcycle combination was halfway up, the lorry quietly slid away from under the planks and went careering off down the hill. Above the noise of our machine nosediving onto the road in a repeat performance, we could hear the two Serbs screaming insults at each other for forgetting to set the lorry’s handbrake. This exchange of recriminations was only brought to a halt by a dull thud farther down the road as their precious lorry came to rest against a brick wall.
Finally we recovered the lorry, loaded our machines on board and set out in the darkness along the winding mountain road back to Belgrade. The journey was a nightmare, for not only was the roadworthiness of the lorry highly suspect, but its headlights had been effectively obliterated earlier in the evening. This did not deter our Serbian friends in any way at all, even though the driver was in such a state of intoxication that he kept on getting his arms entwined in the spokes of the steering wheel, while the vehicle tore round the hairpin bends at full speed. The members of the expedition clung for dear life to the crazy super-structure of the truck, as we fought with brute strength to hold down the motorcycle which threatened to slide overboard at any moment and shoot off into space when the lorry’s tail hung tantalizingly out over the mountain shoulder of the road. Naturally, we stopped for more slivovitz, and yet somehow we were all still in one piece when we reached a garage on the outskirts of Belgrade.
Once more the Marco Polo Route Project was back in Belgrade, heartily sick of the city and condemned to a further frustrating halt while we waited for the motorcycle and its sidecar to be repaired. The garage where we left the machines was a depot for the hard-worked lorries and buses that belonged to the State Transport Services. However it was not so much the repair of public vehicles which delayed the only available mechanic from attending to our needs; the real trouble was that he spent the whole of every morning washing down and polishing an enormous bulbous limousine which belonged to a Party Chief. The little mustachioed mechanic’s name was Popovitch, and with him was a sour-looking individual who never opened his mouth in our presence. This character’s name was never mentioned, but we were told he was a key Communist, Russian trained and a strong Party man.
Whilst the key Communist looked on, Popovitch eventually started repairing the bent sidecar. Now the Serbo-Croatian idea of repairing anything seems to be to belabour it very hard with a sledge hammer. This method is crude, but in certain situations most effective. Above all, it is quick, so once he had actually started on the job, Popovitch soon fixed things up, after which he and I decided to go for a victory spin down the main street. While I mounted on one machine, Popovitch rode the other and the Ubiquitous Communist climbed up behind him, presumably to check up on any capitalist deviations. During the race I managed to edge into the lead and when a tram forced me to brake suddenly, Popovitch, naturally enough, crashed heavily into the rear of my machine. Turning round with a sinking heart, it was immediately clear that a further dose of the Serbian sledgehammer technique was required. The only consolation was that our tight-lipped Communist fellow-traveller had at last broken silence and was hopping furiously around as he shrieked a stream of curses at the capitalist machine which had struck him a sharp blow on the knee-cap.
In an attempt to cheer ourselves up whilst the machines went back for repairs, the three of us took a bus ride a few kilometres out to a fair at Avala. The fairground was at the top of a small hill where stands a monument to the Unknown Resistance Fighter, or ‘The Ignorant Partisan’, as we were charmingly misinformed. From the hill you could look out over well-cultivated fields to the junction of the Danube and the Save where they meet at the site of an old Roman camp to flow on as one river to the Black Sea.
. . .
Next morning, impatient to be on our way, we called in early at the garage, but to our dismay Popovitch and one of the motorcycles were missing. Furious, we tracked down the Popovitch home in a dusty suburb. There we found his wife in tears, barely able to speak through her sobs. With one expressive gesture, her hand came forward and turned an imaginary, but very conclusive, key. There was no doubt that poor Popovitch had been locked up under a serious charge. So we went to the enormous grey barracks of Police Headquarters, 29th November Street. Inside, we were conducted along gloomy passages and past doors with the paint flaking from them, until we were finally ushered into the office of the Chief of Section III, Investigations. Behind an alarmingly empty desk under the usual picture of Marshal Tito sat a very tough-looking official. The translator stated our case and a quick telephone call was made.
Some minutes later Popovitch was escorted in. The poor fellow looked utterly worn out and terrified. He had been using our motorcycle to get home at the end of his day’s work when he had been arrested on suspicion of having stolen the machine. He beseeched us to verify his story, and he was so completely pathetic that we sprang to his defence with some very sharp comments about the whole situation. In the end we took Popovitch back to his home, and he was literally crying with gratitude when he moistly kissed us goodbye, and we went our way, sombrely reflecting on police procedures.
As the author freely admits, they were three ill-prepared amateurs in search of adventure, who all too frequently found what they were looking for! Still, it's fascinating to read how many details of Marco Polo's adventures they were able to verify as based on fact. Severin would go on from strength to strength as an explorer and author, writing many books based on his expeditions. All are worth reading, and many have recently been republished in very economical e-book editions. Recommended for those who like real-life travel and adventure.
You can read more about Tim Severin and his books, movies, etc. at his Web site.