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Carolyn McIntyre set off three years ago to retrace Ibn Battuta's meandering, 120,000km route across three continents.
Carolyn McIntyre set off three years ago to retrace Ibn Battuta's meandering, 120,000km route across three continents.

Historic course: following the footsteps of Ibn Battuta

Carolyn McIntyre has spent three years retracing Ibn Battuta's 120,000km route across three continents - and her journey has only just begun.

When Ibn Battuta set off from Morocco in the 14th century, he can have had little idea he was embarking on a mammoth journey that would earn him a reputation as one of the world's greatest travellers. When Carolyn McIntyre set off three years ago to retrace Battuta's meandering, 120,000km route across three continents, she was - she realises now - equally unaware of what lay ahead. "I had no idea how much time it would take," she said. "The idea was to try and do it as accurately as I could. I knew exactly where I was going to go but I didn't really know how I was going to do it."

The journey has taken McIntyre, a Scotswoman who worked in Saudi Arabia for 10 years and most recently lived in California, to 18 countries. But that is still only about a third of what is believed to be Battuta's final tally on an expedition that lasted nearly 30 years and took him as far as China. "I've got years left," McIntyre said. "I have no idea when I'll finish. It's good I didn't know how I was going to do it because it would have taken 25 years (to get going)."

As it was, it took her 15 years to put into action her vow to recreate the journeys of Battuta, who travelled far longer and farther than his better-known Venetian contemporary, Marco Polo. Battuta's achievements might have remained effectively unknown if not for the urging of the Sultan of Morocco who, when Battuta returned to his homeland after 29 years on the road, urged him to dictate his experiences to a court scholar for posterity.

The book that followed is commonly known as the Rihla, which means "the journey", although the full title is A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonder of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling. In it, Battuta describes travels throughout the known Islamic world and beyond, including China, India, Southern and Eastern Europe, East and North Africa and central Asia. More than 600 years later, McIntyre, who had just moved to San Francisco, discovered Battuta's book and was inspired to make her own epic journey.

"I read an article about him, then went to get the book that he dictated," she said. "It was a bit esoteric so I had to go to the University of California library to get it. When I read it, I thought: 'I've got to do this journey.' I have no idea why I said that. That was in 1991." In 2006, she set off, quickly finding that 650 years of civilisation did not necessarily make the world easier to negotiate. She had aimed to start from Morocco, as Battuta did, but had to start in Algeria instead because political disputes had closed the land border between the two countries.

"I spent about two weeks in Algeria doing exactly what he had done," McIntyre said. "It was just extraordinary. It's a beautiful country with huge diversity. "But I also knew I couldn't do the trip exactly. He didn't have to deal with all these national borders. And of course the transportation hubs are different. "I spent most of the rest of the first year travelling across North Africa and the Levant. I couldn't cross Gaza and of course there was fighting in southern Lebanon when I was there.

"The place I found most disturbing was Palestine. I hadn't been there, and no matter how much you think you know about it, it's a shock." Her journey has included the UAE, although Battuta is not thought to have done so. In the 14th century, Dubai was barely a fishing village and Abu Dhabi did not yet exist as a settlement. The transport hubs of the era were on the northern shore of the Gulf in Iran.

But 21st-century transport makes the UAE's two biggest cities almost inescapable for any traveller. McIntyre spent time in Dubai, inevitably taking time to visit Ibn Battuta Mall, which is themed on his travels. Just as Battuta halted his journey for long periods of time, including time to work as a Muslim scholar in the Delhi Sultanate, so has McIntyre, who turned 50 since starting her journey. Since last summer, she has been based in the capital of Yemen, Sana'a.

"Sometimes it goes according to plan and sometimes it doesn't at all," she said. "I didn't mean to come to Yemen to live at all." Whether Battuta visited Sana'a, as he claimed in the Rihla, remains in doubt. It was one of many challenges McIntyre faced in recreating a journey based on a book of varying reliability. "All his notes had been lost," she said. "It's fairly astonishing that he dictated 25 years worth of travel from memory and parts of it are incredibly accurate in the details. He's thought to have gone to 46 countries but we're not sure because by the time he gets to east Asia, his stories are fantasies. They get more into the realm of mystic things, so nobody's sure."

McIntyre's most recent journey was to East Africa, a region Battuta visited only fleetingly. "Ibn Battuta did very little in East Africa but he is remembered," she said. "In Kilwa in Tanzania, a plaque outside the Great Mosque mentions him." Next up is Iraq. McIntyre's aim to go "from Basra to the Turkish border and all points in between" is tempered by the fact she'll keep an eye on the security situation. "We'll see. I am not interested in becoming a statistic."

Her adventures so far have been chronicled on her website, girlsoloinarabia.com, but ultimately McIntyre hopes write a book comparing the two journeys. As an occasional tour leader, she has taken trips to Saudi Arabia, her home in the 1970s and 1980s, but expects a monumental challenge to get permission to visit the far-flung areas of the kingdom that Battuta did (he travelled there frequently, was an occasional resident and did the Haj five times).

"I knew it was going to be a huge problem to get to these remote areas alone and that's still ongoing," McIntyre said. "It might take a long time but I'm nothing if not tenacious."

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