Round the World on a Wheel 1899
John Foster Fraser 532 pages
There are a number of books about people riding their bicycles long distances in the 19th Century. There are a couple about riding around the world. Bicycling was terribly popular in those days and the public was apparently hungry for the stories so they could vicariously live the experiences. Then along came automobiles and that was the end of the bicycle mania and bicycle books.
The 19th Century was a different time from today. There was not much competition for people’s attention and so prose could be quite lengthy and descriptive. The prose is quite lengthy in this book and so it’s a good example. Round the World on a Wheel reports on almost every town and group the riders met and that can get tedious. Read just the parts of the world you are interested in but when you do enjoy the humor and the cultures described. John Foster Fraser, who was a journalist, had a “funny bone” and a clever wit. Sometimes his prose evokes Mark Twain.
In his preface Mr. Fraser says he and his friends embarked on their “round the world” journey because they “are more or less conceited, and like to be talked about, and see our names in the newspapers.” They took it easy taking two years to travel the world and were a great disappointment to their friends when they returned. They were not haggard. They had not been scalped, been tortured or had their “eyes gouged.” They’d not been rescued at any time and had not “killed a man.” “It was evident we were not real travelers.”
Still, they were proud having “accomplished the longest bicycle ride every attempted… 19,237 miles…” “Our adventures… were of a humdrum sort. If only one of us had been killed, or if we had ridden back to London each minus a limb, some excitement would have been caused. As it was we came home quietly.” That’s a bit tongue in cheek since fraser also described being stoned by Mohammedans, pelted by Chinese, sleeping in wet clothes, going hungry, only having eggs to eat (30 in one day – “a man begins to be epicure enough to desire a change”), forced to be teetotalers, coming down with small-pox and fever, having less than a dozen fights with Chinese mobs, not shaving for five months, and “only occasionally” washing.
The three riders went through Belgium (the met the king), France Germany, Hungary, Russia, Iran (they met the Shah), India, Burma, China, japan, and finally the United States.
They started their tip in 1896 on black “roadsters” that all loaded weighed about 75 lbs. They carried leather bags “stuffed with repairing materials.” They had luggage carriers on the backs which carried bags of underclothing. They wore woolen garb and each wore “big, bell-shaped helmets.”
They left England and headed across Europe. Fraser’s wit and descriptions make the trip interesting to follow as they ran into excited towns that had heard of their approach. They got flowers and autograph requests in one town and in “Buda-Pesth” the locals decorated the bikes “so that we looked quite festive.”
In other places where bicycles were not common the riders were taken for imps from the “nether regions” before they went shrieking off. There were strange customs rules at some borders, bureaucracy to be dealt with, and they had to walk through Cologne because their machines did not have numbers, The descriptions of the towns and citizens are interesting before they get to be too many. Today the world is fairly homogenized. There are McDonalds all over the world. In 1896 many parts of the world were isolated and there were great differences not just from country to country but from town to town. In one town the bicyclists wanted to experience Hungarian music but the band insisted on playing first English tunes and then “Yankee Doodle Dandy” for their guests. When finally the switch was made to Hungarian music, “…at last we got the real article, how wild and how torrent-like it was! It was like Wagner in delirium tremens.” The descriptions of towns are evocative.
Language could be a problem such as when they were greeted in Hungary by expectant citizens and then treated to long speeches and dinner. In turn the Hungarians heard Fraser say he and his friends were deeply touched, would never forget their hospitality, etc. The Englishmen and the Hungarians had no idea what the other was saying. These kinds of humorous vignettes make interesting reading as do humorous observations: the man who laid out the roads around Yalta must have been paid by the mile because they were so windy.
Some of the countryside and towns were charming and quaint. Others not so good: “We had to stay in inns dirty and dingy, the food unpalatable, and the sleeping accommodations vile. Ignorant of the language we ate anything brought to us. The land was inhabited by peasants who live in wretched hovels…”
It was hard work bicycling around the world: scorching heat, deep sand, spiked seeds that flattened tires, bad roads, misunderstandings, inhospitable locals, hunger, torrential rain, sometimes not changing clothes for days, carrying their bicycles for miles, mud (“We gathered dirt as quickly as a rolling snowball gathers snow”), extortion of high prices, sand storms, having money that was worthless because it could not be changed, interactions with Cossacks, a wild Persian wedding, being stoned in Kum (Iran), meeting bears, visiting cultural treasures like the Tah Mahal (“Nothing in this world is so beautiful”), earthquake, various kinds of welcomes (“flurried scurrying of hobbling women, screaming of affrighted youngsters, and bawling of men wedged in a crowd against the walls,” As well as being pelted by eggs and rotten fruit at one town in China)