REVIEW: Across Asia on a Bicycle by Thomas Gaskell Allen & William Lewis Sachtleben

REVIEW: Across Asia on a Bicycle by Thomas Gaskell Allen & William Lewis SachtlebenAcross Asia on a Bicycle by Thomas Gaskell Allen, William Lewis Sachtleben
Published: Project Gutenberg (1894), eBook, 254pg
Source: Public Domain
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction, Travel


"The day after we were graduated at Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., we left for New York. Thence we sailed for Liverpool on June 23, 1890. Just three years afterward, lacking twenty days, we rolled into New York on our wheels, having “put a girdle round the earth.” (xi on the .html version)

You know, I don’t even really want to review this book. I just want to point it out to you and say “read it yourself.” It’s a fun little book, and I did (for the most part) enjoy reading it. And I especially liked reading about the early days of world travel via an unusual mean.

Nowadays, of course, there are hundreds if not thousands of people travelling around the world on a bicycle (some of them here), but back in 189- it was pretty danged unusual. Think of what a bicycle even LOOKED like back then! And these two men were riding around on them? It seems nearly deadly, especially when compared to today’s modern bicycles.

And then they were going into parts of Asia that no one ever went to for leisure travel! To them, going into China is like us going to Mars and have tea with the Martians. But they did it because they wanted to meet people of a different culture and climate and country than they were used to, and I can’t help but admire them a lot for that.

During all of this journey we never employed the services of guides or interpreters. We were compelled, therefore, to learn a little of the language of every country through which we passed. Our independence in this regard increased, perhaps, the hardships of the journey, but certainly contributed much toward the object we sought—a close acquaintance with strange peoples. (xii on the .html version)

As with all Victorian travel narratives, I especially enjoyed comparing how countries and cultures were back then (as seen through two Western white dudes’ eyes, admittedly) and how they are today. Back then, no in China had really even SEEN a bicycle, and now they’re everywhere. Back then, China had a completely different system of government, and the fashion was completely different as well. And it wasn’t just China! The authors also went through Turkey, Persia (now Iran), “Central Asia” which I think means Mongolia and possible some of the -stans, a bit through Tibet and then into China. They met a LOT of interesting people, people who hadn’t necessarily be subjugated into another culture yet– although there was a heavy presence of Russia throughout– and that “originality” of certain cultures was still present. It reminds me of the Albert Kahn photographs, which were starting to be taken around the same time, and which captured many a dying or changing culture.

For all that they were white middle-class American from the Victorian times (or would it be Edwardian then?), they’re surprisingly NOT racist about…anything! They didn’t even really do that “oh the poor heathens” thing that some of Ye Olde Travellers do. They were surprisingly modern in their attitudes about other cultures and other people, which basically boiled down to: “live and let live.” There were a couple instances, however, where I went “wtf,” mostly because of one paragraph which relates a story about the Chinese people in a town they were staying at who were SO curious about them that, while they (the authors) were staying in a house for the night, they (the Chinese people) licked the windows and then tore them open with their fingernails. And then stared at them through the slits. WHAT.

It’s so ridiculous that I don’t know if it’s TRUE or if it as exaggerated for some entertainment purpose. It could be both. (Chinese windows were made of paper, btw.)

Anyway, besides being amazing with their bicycles they also climbed to the top of a mountain that no one said could be climbed, survived some sort of horrible fever sickness, and generally did interesting stuff! It’s too bad, then, their their writing isn’t so hot. It’s not HORRIBLE, but it moves mighty quick and it sometimes felt like I was missing chunks of paragraphs (I wasn’t, I just checked). I think they they left out some of the really bad stuff, too– or just glossed over it (or their names should actually be Pollyanna). There were also a couple of instances where they’d say something like “and then one of us got ill and nearly died” and I was like “WHO?! WHO NEARLY DIED?” which I think is one of the pitfalls of writing a nonfiction book with another person.

Thus, from first to last, every judgment was against us, and every prediction was of failure, if not of something worse; and now, as we stole out from the tent by the light of the rising moon, even the specter-like mountain-peaks around us, like symbols of coming events, were casting their shadows before. (1489-91)

I read my copy without images, which I think was a mistake. Sometimes pictures are necessarily for a story to be told well, and I think the pictures are necessary for Across Asia on a Bicycle. If you DO end up reading this, and I hope you do, be sure to get a copy with pictures! They took over 500 of them on this one section of their trip alone, which is, again, pretty amazing if you consider early photography and what it entailed.

Read: October 2010

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Across Asia on a Bicycle by Thomas Gaskell Allen & William Lewis Sachtleben”

  1. This sounds really interesting – history, memoir and travelogue all rolled into one. I agree that pics would be essential to reading this. I think I’ll check first on Paperbackswap if someone is willing to swap… hmmm.

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