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Follow in the footsteps of Zheng He

by Martha Hales

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Born in 1371 in Kunyang - a humble town in the Yunnan province of Southern China - it’s fair to say that Zheng He, one of China’s most heralded heroes, came from humble beginnings. Today he is known throughout China and the world as a true trailblazer; a mariner who directed huge fleets on daring expeditions across the globe in order to forge links with the wider world. As he journeyed from country to country and port to port, Zheng He gifted gold, porcelain and silks to world leaders, reporting back to China’s ruling elite with new technologies and ideas in return. Over time he became an ambassador of Chinese culture and treasures, and went down in history for his contribution to China's status as a world power.

The landmark locations which illustrate Zheng He’s life reach far and wide - from the region of his birth in China to the many exotic countries frequented by his fleet on their voyages. Between 1405 and 1433 the so called ‘treasure fleet’ of ships undertook their epic pursuits under fluttering red sails. The first three travelled as far as Calicut in Kerala, and then subsequent expeditions reached even further - to the gulf of Persia and even to East Africa.

Houseboat in Kerala, India

To follow in the footsteps of Zheng He is to embark on a journey to make any world explorer envious. Read on to discover the enchanting destinations which took him across Asia and the Middle East to Africa.

Yunnan, China

Zheng He’s adventure began in Yunnan - his birth place. This green and historic province holds sprawling rice terraces, the sleepy Mekong River and the snow-capped mountains of Tibet within its borders, and is a land of diversity; rife with adventure for travellers. Zheng He’s legacy is strong here - there is now a museum dedicated to his story in Nanjing, near his memorial tomb.

Rice paddies in Yunnan, China

Champa, Vietnam

The ancient kingdom of Champa was often an early stop on the expeditions of the treasure fleet. It was located in what is now the central and southern regions of Vietnam. With the buzzing capital of Ho Chi Minh City, the leafy channels of the Mekong Delta and the beautiful Con Dao islands making up just some of the hotspots here, paying homage to Zheng He’s voyage has never been more intoxicating. Remnants of the Cham Kingdom still survive at My Son in central Vietnam; an extensive range of ruined temples built by Champa kings (4th-13th centuries).

My Son temples built by Champa kings of Vietnam

Java and Sumatra, Indonesia

Documents reveal that as well as aiming to bring the populace of Java and Sumatra under Ming power, Zheng He’s treasure fleets delivered plentiful gifts and favours to the country’s rulers in return for horses. Today, Java is a veritable treasure chest of culture, full of patchwork fields, divine handicrafts and ancient temples. In comparison, Sumatra is a vast island of sheer Indonesian wilderness, thriving with wildlife. Indonesia’s variety is best tackled with the advice of a local expert, who can help you make the most of your time.

Prambanan temple, Yogyakarta, Java island, Indonesia

Malacca, Malaysia

Also known as Melaka, this seafaring city where Zheng He stopped is one of the gems of Malaysia, with attractive colonial architecture and a fascinating history. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and merits a leisurely visit. It is also part way between the capital and the southern part of the peninsular, so it's an easy stop-off on a Malaysian itinerary.

Old town of Malacca, Malaysia

Sri Lanka

Initially, the treasure fleets did not find a friendly welcome in what was, at the time, Ceylon. But as testament to the successful relationship built between Ceylon and China, Zheng He brought a trilingual inscription in stone on his third visit. It is now housed in the National Museum, Colombo. Visit during a tour of magical Sri Lanka; a green isle glistening with tea plantations, water-splashed elephants and divine coastline.

Asian elephants in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Calicut, India

The end point of the first three of Zheng He’s voyages was Calicut, or Kozhikode, on the Malabar coast of Kerala, India. This tropical coastal region is known by many as its most beautiful state, wonderfully serene in comparison to the country. If you are keen to explore Kerala in depth, have a look at the Classic Kerala tour run by our local partners in India.

Chinese style fishing nets in Kerala, India

Dhofar, Oman

Little is known about the fleet’s visits to the Dhofar region of Oman, but there is documentation supporting the theory that on his fifth voyage, part of the fleet made harbour here. Oman is inhabited with calm, welcoming people; a surprising destination rich in regal architecture, natural scenery and cultural wonders.

Camel on the beach in Oman

Lamu, Kenya

Reportedly backed up by DNA evidence, some survivors of one of Zheng He’s ships made it as far as Kenya, and were allowed to stay and marry into the local population. Lamu and Malindi are the likely locations of the 15th century shipwreck that came all the way from China. To see the best of Kenya your way, work with our local partners to witness the world’s most iconic wildlife grace the natural stage of the Maasai Mara.

The Lamu Archipelago, Kenya

Make it happen

Inspired by the adventures of Zheng He? Click on the links in the text to find out more about the destinations and the local experts in situ ready to plan your perfect trip. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, call +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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