Why we travel – a brief history

High above tree line, a winter caravan of traders relies on their sure-footed yaks to traverse a high pass – the only way up and down from the Afghan Pamir. Never a large tribe, Kyrgyz nomads roamed central Asia for centuries and were infamous for raiding caravans along the Silk Route. From Zan Kuk to Zardibar ("yellow door"). Trekking back down from the Little Pamir, with yak caravan, over the frozen Wakhan river.

A winter caravan of Kyrgyz nomadic traders rely on their sure-footed yaks to traverse a high pass – the only way up and down from the Afghan Pamir. Credits to Matthieu Paley.

The tribe sets out on foot, gourds hanging from their waists, knapsacks slung over the mules. They stop for a moment, panting and dripping with sweat. The children struggle to find shade, closely following the steps of their mothers who leave a cool trail behind them. Two days they’ve been travelling, their previous encampment left behind for a new place they would soon be calling home. If only the sun would stop laughing at them.  



Credits to Campara.

Such a journey seems foreign to us, yet for the early humans of the pre-historic era, travel was a way of life. Settlements patterned the high plains and lowlands, springing up by the hand of seasonal changes that dictated the ebbs and flows of human migration. In the winter, communities migrated to the warmer regions in the south, only to then return north in the summer months. The elements proved a worthy foe, forcing entire communities to engage in month-long battles against glacial winters and scorching summers alike.  

Challenging the environment thus became an act of everyday survival; an inescapable aspect of a nomadic lifestyle in which pre-historic humans had yet to manage their environment and the forces that comprised it. To travel was to risk, but to successfully complete the journey was to be rewarded with the opportunity for a home and a life. Survival meant everything.


The city of Çatalhöyük, established from 7500 to 5700 BCE. Credits to Dan Lewandovski.

It was only until the advent of agriculture that travel was no longer necessary. Societies were now productive ecosystems relying on the management of crops and careful irrigation practices to produce food for the masses. Surplus was frequent and as management practices developed, cities could ensure safety and plentiness for their populations. For the first time in history, comfort could be had without the lurking possibility of having to pick up and go.

Societies still had to trade however; self-sufficiency being a practical impossibility with the limited technological development of early settler societies. Though not new to the realm of travel, boats became of heavy use during this period. The seas became criss-crossed with towers of timber, braving an empty horizon for the promise of wealth, prosperity, and land.


The Bark Europa – 1911.

The first sea-farers were defiant; men unwilling to stir in comfort. The entirety of life could not be defined by the boundaries of their homes, and their curiosity had to be sated. Facing months at sea, many of them questioned their motives for leaving. Visions were had of a treacherous sea, riddled with unholy terrors; krakens large enough to swallow a ship whole, choirs of mermaids bringing entire fleets of seamen to their knees.  

Fast-forward to the dawn of the industrial era and the invention of the locomotive has brought unprecedented progress. At the heart of the British industrial system, railways brought together corners of the globe that otherwise would have been left isolated and undiscovered. Industrial production and manufacturing demanded that raw materials and machinery between regions at an ever-increasing pace. As the technology became increasingly accessible, railways became a place for the casual tourist. Not only were people now able to move quickly and more efficiently, but they could now do so in comfort. A whole industry of caravaners thus emerged, and the casual vacationer became the face of the newly emerging tourist industry.


Train 2

George Stephenson’s first steam lomotive – 1814.

By 1840 passengers were moving at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, tearing past settlements that had once been lowly towns on the edge of civilization. Seats were only available to an aristocratic clientele; the layman having to hustle for a seat in the open freight car while those who were worthy of being deemed ‘passenger’ sat in the comfort of a heated, cushioned car.

Many of these journeys lasted several days, entire towns being tailored to cater to a wealthy clientele that required luxurious accommodation, haute-cuisine, and lavish entertainment. Finally, the people spoke and were heard; railway companies now being required to provide at least one covered carriage for the everyman at a rate of no more than a penny a mile.  


Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine.

After taming the ground, the skies were the next obvious frontier of travel. Historical records demonstrate that as early as the hundreds BC, China and Japan had been building kites capable of carrying a single man to the sky. Da Vinci was the next renown pioneer, designing and developing the starting models for what we now know today as technologically refined and advanced flying machines. His ornithopter model was the first of its kind, providing the passenger the ability to power the a set of enormous wings by both hand and foot pedals that were situated at the front and back of the machine. Though not capable of taking off by its own power, when launched from a considerable height it had the ability to glide through the air at a reasonable stability for a short duration before making an unsteady landing.  




Today, travel is an inescapable aspect of our lives. We travel to work, discover new places, and reunite with friends and family. The very foundations that were laid by inventors a millennia ago have formed the bedrock for how we decide to travel today; as social beings in need of connection with other people and environments alike. Perhaps it did begin as a desire to conquer; a realization that the unknown must be feared, yet always overcome. The unveiling of a new land and the revelry with which we dance on untrodden soil. An understanding that suspended in an unknown land, devoid of familiarity and significance, stands to be the only place to find meaning. For why we travel is an incessant pursuit, to an end we never want to reach, a place we never want to become, and a meaning we never truly want to understand. People make places, and with their stories, make them monumentally greater.