Across Asia on a Bicycle
by Thomas Gaskell Allen and William Lewis Sachtleben
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A week's journeying after this unpleasant episode brought us among the peanuts, pigs, and pig-tails of the famous Pe-chili plains. Vast fields of peanuts were now being plowed, ready to be passed through a huge coarse sieve to separate the nuts from the sandy loam. Sweet potatoes, too, were plentiful. These, as well as rice balls, boiled with a peculiar dry date in a triangular corn-leaf wrapper, we purchased every morning at daybreak from the pots of the early street-venders, and then proceeded to the local bake-shops, where the rattling of the rolling-pins prophesied of stringy fat cakes cooked in boiling linseed oil, and heavy dough biscuits cleaving to the urn-like oven.

It was well that we were now approaching the end of our journey, for our wheels and clothing were nearly in pieces. Our bare calves were pinched by the frost, for on some of the coldest mornings we would find a quarter of an inch of ice. Our rest at night was broken for the want of sufficient covering. The straw-heated kangs would soon cool off, and leave us half the night with only our thin sleeping-bags to ward off rheumatism.

But over the beaten paths made by countless wheelbarrows we were now fast nearing the end. It was on the evening of November 3, that the giant walls of the great "Residence," as the people call their imperial capital, broke suddenly into view through a vista in the surrounding foliage. The goal of our three-thousand-one-hundred-and-sixteen-mile journey was now before us, and the work of the seventy-first riding day almost ended. With the dusk of evening we entered the western gate of the "Manchu City," and began to thread its crowded thoroughfares. By the time we reached Legation street or, as the natives egotistically call it, "The Street of the Foreign Dependencies," night had veiled our haggard features and ragged garments. In a dimly lighted courtyard we came face to face with the English proprietor of the Hotel de Peking. At our request for lodging, he said, "Pardon me, but may I first ask who you are and where you come from?" Our unprepossessing appearance was no doubt a sufficient excuse for this precaution. But just then his features changed, and he greeted us effusively. Explanations were now superfluous. The "North China Herald" correspondent at Pao-ting-foo had already published our story to the coast.

That evening the son of the United States minister visited us, and offered a selection from his own wardrobe until a Chinese tailor could renew our clothing. With borrowed plumes we were able to accept invitations from foreign and Chinese officials. Polite cross-examinations were not infrequent, and we fear that entire faith in our alleged journey was not general until, by riding through the dust and mud of Legation street, we proved that Chinese roads were not altogether impracticable for bicycle traveling.

The autumn rains had so flooded the low-lying country between the capital and its seaport, Tientsin, that we were obliged to abandon the idea of continuing to the coast on the wheels, which by this time were in no condition to stand unusual strain. On the other hand the house-boat journey of thirty-six hours down the Pei-ho river was a rather pleasant diversion.

Our first evening on the river was made memorable by an unusual event. Suddenly the rattling of tin pans, the tooting of horns, and the shouting of men, women, and children, aroused us to the realization that something extraordinary was occurring. Then we noticed that the full moon in a cloudless sky had already passed the half-way mark in a total eclipse. Our boatmen now joined in the general uproar, which reached its height when the moon was entirely obscured. In explanation we were told that the "Great Dragon" was endeavoring to swallow up the moon, and that the loudest possible noise must be made to frighten him away. Shouts hailed the reappearance of the moon. Although our boatmen had a smattering of pidjin, or business, English, we were unable to get a very clear idea of Chinese astronomy. In journeying across the empire we found sufficient analogy in the various provincial dialects to enable us to acquire a smattering of one from another as we proceeded, but we were now unable to see any similarity whatever between "You makee walkee look see," and "You go and see," or between "That belong number one pidjin," and "That is a first-class business." This jargon has become a distinct dialect on the Chinese coast.

On our arrival in Tientsin we called upon the United States Consul, Colonel Bowman, to whom we had brought several letters from friends in Peking. During a supper at his hospitable home, he suggested that the viceroy might be pleased to receive us, and that if we had no objection, he would send a communication to the yamen, or official residence. Colonel Bowman's secretary, Mr. Tenney, who had been some time the instructor of the viceroy's sons, and who was on rather intimate terms with the viceroy himself, kindly offered to act as interpreter. A favorable answer was received the next morning, and the time for our visit fixed for the afternoon of the day following. But two hours before the appointed time a message was received from the viceroy, stating that he was about to receive an unexpected official visit from the phantai, or treasurer, of the Pe-chili province (over which Li-Hung-Chang himself is viceroy), and asking for a postponement of our visit to the following morning at 11 o'clock. Even before we had finished reading this unexpected message, the booming of cannon along the Pei-ho river announced the arrival of the phantai's boats before the city. The postponement of our engagement at this late hour threatened to prove rather awkward, inasmuch as we had already purchased our steamship tickets for Shanghai, to sail on the Fei-ching at five o'clock the next morning. But through the kindness of the steamship company it was arranged that we should take a tug-boat at Tong-ku, on the line of the Kai-ping railroad, and overtake the steamer outside the Taku bar. This we could do by taking the train at Tientsin, even as late as seven hours after the departure of the steamer. Steam navigation in the Pei-ho river, over the forty or fifty miles' stretch from Tientsin to the gulf, is rendered very slow by the sharp turns in the narrow stream—the adjoining banks being frequently struck and plowed away by the bow or stern of the large ocean steamers.

When we entered the consulate the next morning, we found three palanquins and a dozen coolies in waiting to convey our party to the viceroy's residence. Under other circumstances we would have patronized our "steeds of steel," but a visit to the "biggest" man in China had to be conducted in state. We were even in some doubt as to the propriety of appearing before his excellency in bicycle costume; but we determined to plead our inability to carry luggage as an excuse for this breach of etiquette.

The first peculiarity the Chinese notice in a foreigner is his dress. It is a requisite with them that the clothes must be loose, and so draped as to conceal the contour of the body. The short sack-coat and tight trousers of the foreigner are looked upon as certainly inelegant, if not actually indecent.

It was not long before we were out of the foreign settlement, and wending our way through the narrow, winding streets, or lanes, of the densely populated Chinese city. The palanquins we met were always occupied by some high dignitary or official, who went sweeping by with his usual vanguard of servants, and his usual frown of excessive dignity. The fact that we, plain "foreign devils," were using this mode of locomotion, made us the objects of considerable curiosity from the loiterers and passers-by, and in fact had this not been the case, we should have felt rather uncomfortable. The unsympathetic observation of mobs, and the hideous Chinese noises, had become features of our daily life.

The yamen courtyard, as we entered, was filled with empty palanquins and coolie servants waiting for the different mandarins who had come on official visits. The yamen itself consisted of low one-story structures, built in the usual Chinese style, of wood and adobe brick, in a quadrangular form around an inner courtyard. The common Chinese paper which serves for window-glass had long since vanished from the ravages of time, and the finger-punches of vandals. Even here, at the yamen of the prime minister of China, dirt and dilapidation were evident on every hand. The anteroom into which we were ushered was in keeping with its exterior. The paper that covered the low walls and squatty ceiling, as well as the calico covering on the divans, was soiled and torn. The room itself was filled with mandarins from various parts of the country, waiting for an audience with his excellency. Each wore the official robe and dish-pan hat, with its particular button or insignia of rank. Each had a portly, well-fed appearance, with a pompous, dignified mien overspreading his features. The servant by whom we had sent in our Chinese visiting-cards returned and asked us to follow him. Passing through several rooms, and then along a narrow, darkened hallway, we emerged into an inner courtyard. Here there were several servants standing like sentinels in waiting for orders; others were hurrying hither and thither with different messages intrusted to their care. This was all there was to give to the place the air of busy headquarters. On one side of the courtyard the doors of the "foreign reception" room opened. Through these we were ushered by the liveried servant, who bore a message from the viceroy, asking us to wait a few moments until he should finish some important business.

The foreign reception-room in which we were now sitting was the only one in any official residence in the empire, and this single instance of compliance with foreign customs was significant as bearing upon the attitude toward Western ideas of the man who stands at the head of the Chinese government. Everything about us was foreign except a Chinese divan in one corner of the room. In the middle of the floor stood a circular sofa of the latest pattern, with chairs and settees to match, and at one end a foreign stove, in which a fire had been recently lighted for our coming. Against the wall were placed a full-length mirror, several brackets, and some fancy work. The most interesting of the ornaments in the room were portraits of Li-Hung-Chang himself, Krupp the gun-maker, Armstrong the ship-builder, and the immortal "Chinese Gordon," the only foreigner, it is said, who has ever won a spark of admiration from the Chinese people.

While we were waiting for the viceroy, his second son, the pupil of Mr. Tenney, came in and was introduced in the foreign fashion. His English was fluent and correct. He was a bright, intelligent lad of nineteen years, then about to take his first trial examinations for the Chinese degree of scholarship, which, if attained, would make him eligible for official position. Although a son of the viceroy he will have to rise by his own merit.

Our conversation with the viceroy's son extended over ten or fifteen minutes. He asked many questions about the details of our journey. "How," said he, "could you get along without interpreter, guide, or servant, when every foreigner who goes even from here to Peking has to have them?" He questioned us as to whether or not the Chinese had ever called us names. We replied that we usually traveled in China under the nom de Chinois, yang queedza (the foreign devils), alias yeh renn (the wild men). A blush overspread his cheeks as he said: "I must apologize for my countrymen; I hope you will excuse them, for they know no better." The young man expressed deep interest in America and American institutions, and said if he could obtain his father's consent he would certainly make a visit to our country. This was the only son then at home with the viceroy, his eldest son being minister to Japan. The youngest, the viceroy's favorite, was, it was said, the brightest and most promising. His death occurred only a few months before our arrival in Tientsin.

We were holding an animated conversation when the viceroy himself was announced. We all stood to show our respect for the prime minister whom General Grant included among the three greatest statesmen of his day. The viceroy was preceded by two body-servants. We stood before a man who appeared to be over six feet in height, although his head and shoulders were considerably bent with age. His flowing dress was made of rich colored silk, but very plain indeed. Any ornamentation would have been a profanation of the natural dignity and stateliness of Li-Hung-Chang. With slow pace he walked into the room, stopped a moment to look at us, then advanced with outstretched hand, while a faint smile played about his features and softened the piercing glance of his eyes. He shook our hands heartily in the foreign fashion, and without any show of ceremony led the way into an adjoining room, where a long council-table extended over half the length. The viceroy took the arm-chair at the head, and motioned us to take the two seats on his left, while Mr. Tenney and the viceroy's son sat on his right. For almost a minute not a word was said on either side. The viceroy had fixed his gaze intently upon us, and, like a good general perhaps, was taking a thorough survey of the field before he opened up the cannonade of questions that was to follow. We in turn were just as busily engaged in taking a mental sketch of his most prominent physical characteristics. His face was distinctly oval, tapering from a very broad forehead to a sharp pointed chin, half-obscured by his thin, gray "goatee." The crown of his head was shaven in the usual Tsing fashion, leaving a tuft of hair for a queue, which in the viceroy's case was short and very thin. His dry, sallow skin showed signs of wrinkling; a thick fold lay under each eye, and at each end of his upper lip. There were no prominent cheek-bones or almond-shaped eyes, which are so distinctively seen in most of the Mongolian race. Under the scraggy mustache we could distinguish a rather benevolent though determined mouth; while his small, keen eyes, which were somewhat sunken, gave forth a flash that was perhaps but a flickering ember of the fire they once contained. The left eye, which was partly closed by a paralytic stroke several years ago, gave him a rather artful, waggish appearance. The whole physiognomy was that of a man of strong intuition, with the ability to force his point when necessary, and the shrewd common sense to yield when desiring to be politic.

"Well, gentlemen," he said at last, through Mr. Tenney as interpreter, "you don't look any the worse for your long journey."

"We are glad to hear your excellency say so," we replied; "it is gratifying to know that our appearance speaks well for the treatment we have received in China."

We hope our readers will consider the requirements of Chinese etiquette as sufficient excuse for our failure to say candidly that, if we looked healthy, it was not the fault of his countrymen.

"Of all the countries through which you have passed, which do you consider the best?" the viceroy then asked.

In our answer to this question the reader would no doubt expect us to follow etiquette, and say that we thought China was the best; and, perhaps, the viceroy himself had a similar expectation. But between telling a positive lie, and not telling the truth, there is perhaps sufficient difference to shield us from the charge of gross inconsistency. We answered, therefore, that in many respects, we considered America the greatest country we had seen. We ought of course to have said that no reasonable person in the world would ever think of putting any other country above the Celestial Empire; our bluntness elicited some surprise, for the viceroy said:

"If then you thought that America was the best why did you come to see other countries?"

"Because until we had seen other countries," we replied, "we did not know that America was the best." But this answer the viceroy evidently considered a mere subterfuge. He was by no means satisfied.

"What was your real object in undertaking such a peculiar journey?" he asked rather impatiently.

"To see and study the world and its peoples," we answered; "to get a practical training as a finish to a theoretical education. The bicycle was adopted only because we considered it the most convenient means of accomplishing that purpose."

The viceroy, however, could not understand how a man should wish to use his own strength when he could travel on the physical force of some one else; nor why it was that we should adopt a course through central Asia and northwestern China when the southern route through India would have been far easier and less dangerous. He evidently gave it up as a conundrum, and started out on another line.

"Do you consider the Shah of Persia a powerful monarch?" was his next question.

"Powerful, perhaps, in the Oriental sense," we replied, "but very weak in comparison with the Western nations. Then, too, he seems to be losing the power that he does have—he is compelled to play more and more into the hands of the Russians."

"Do you think that Russia will eventually try to take possession of Persia?" the viceroy interrupted.

"That, of course, is problematical," we answered, with the embarrassment men of our age might feel at being instigated to talk politics with a prime minister. "What we do know, for certain, is that Russia is now, with her Transcaspian railroad, within about forty miles of Meshed, the capital of Persia's richest province of Khorasan; that she now has a well-engineered and, for a great portion of the way, a macadamized road to that city across the Kopet Dagh mountains from Askabad, the capital of Russian Transcaspia; and that half that road the Persians were rather forcibly invited to construct."

"Do you think," again interrupted the viceroy, whose interest in the Russians now began to take a more domestic turn, "that the Russians would like to have the Chinese province of Ili?"

To this question we might very appropriately have said, "No"; for the reason that we thought Russia had it already. She is only waiting to draw it in, when she feels certain that her Siberian flank is better protected. The completion of the Transsiberian railroad, by which troops can be readily transported to that portion of her dominion, may change Russia's attitude toward the province of Ili. We did not, however, say this to his excellency. We merely replied that we believed Russia was seldom known to hold aloof from anything of value, which she thought she could get with impunity. As she was now sending cart-load after cart-load of goods over the border, through Ili, into northern and western China, without paying a cent of customs duty, while on the other hand not even a leaf of tea or thread of cotton passed over the Russian line from China without the payment of an exorbitant tariff; and as she had already established in Kuldja a postal, telegraph, and Cossack station, it would seem that she does not even now view the province of Ili as wholly foreign to the Russian empire.

At this the viceroy cleared his throat, and dropped his eyes in thoughtful mood, as much as to say: "Ah, I know the Russians; but there is no help for it."

At this point we ventured to ask the viceroy if it were true, as we had been informed, that Russia had arranged a treaty with China, by which she was entitled to establish consuls in several of the interior provinces of the Chinese empire, but he evaded the question with adroitness, and asked:

"Didn't you find the roads very bad in China?"

This question was creditable to the viceroy's knowledge of his own country, but to this subject we brought the very best Chinese politeness we could muster. We said that inasmuch as China had not yet adopted the bicycle, her roads, of course, were not adapted to that mode of locomotion.

The viceroy then asked us to describe the bicycle, and inquired if such a vehicle did not create considerable consternation among the people.

We told him that the bicycle from a Chinese point of view was capable of various descriptions. On the passports given us by the Chinese minister in London the bicycle was called "a seat-sitting, foot-moving machine." The natives in the interior had applied to it various epithets, among which were yang ma (foreign horse), fei-chay (flying-machine), szuedzun chay (self-moving cart), and others. The most graphic description, perhaps, was given by a Chinaman whom we overheard relating to his neighbors the first appearance of the bicycle in his quiet little village. "It is a little mule," said he, "that you drive by the ears, and kick in the sides to make him go." A dignified smile overspread the viceroy's features.

"Didn't the people try to steal your money?" he next inquired.

"No," we replied. "From our impoverished appearance, they evidently thought we had nothing. Our wardrobe being necessarily limited by our mode of travel, we were sometimes reduced to the appearance of traveling mendicants, and were often the objects of pity or contempt. Either this, or our peculiar mode of travel, seemed to dispel all thought of highway robbery; we never lost even so much as a button on our journey of over three thousand miles across the Chinese empire."

"Did the governors you met treat you well?" he asked; and then immediately added: "Being scholars, were you not subjected to some indignity by being urged to perform for every mandarin you met?"

"By nearly all the governors," we said, "we were treated very kindly indeed; but we were not so certain that the same favors would have been extended to us had we not cheerfully consented to give exhibitions of bicycle riding."

There was now a lull in the conversation. The viceroy shifted his position in his chair, and took another whiff from the long, slender Chinese pipe held to his mouth by one of his body-servants. One whiff, and the pipe was taken away to be emptied and refilled. After a short respite he again resumed the conversation, but the questions he now asked were of a personal nature. We enumerate a few of them, without comment, only for the purpose of throwing some additional light on the character of our questioner.

"About how much did the trip cost you? Do you expect to get back all or more than you spent? Will you write a book?

"Did you find on your route any gold or silver deposits?

"Do you like the Chinese diet; and how much did one meal cost you?

"How old are you? [One of the first questions a Chinese host usually asks his guest.] Are you married? What is the trade or profession of your parents? Are they wealthy? Do they own much land?" (A Chinaman's idea of wealth is limited somewhat by the amount of land owned.)

"Will you telegraph to your parents from Shanghai your safe arrival there?

"Were you not rash in attempting such a journey? Suppose you had been killed out in the interior of Asia, no one would ever have heard of you again.

"Are you Democrats or Republicans?" (The viceroy showed considerable knowledge of our government and institutions.)

"Will you run for any political office in America? Do you ever expect to get into Congress?

"Do you have to buy offices in America?" was the last inquiry.

There was considerable hesitancy on the part of us both to answer this question. Finally we were obliged to admit that sometimes such was the case. "Ah," said the viceroy, "that is a very bad thing about American politics." But in this censure he was even more severe on his own country than America. Referring to ourselves in this connection, the viceroy ventured to predict that we might become so well-known as the result of our journey that we could get into office without paying for it. "You are both young," he added, "and can hope for anything."

During the conversation the viceroy frequently smiled, and sometimes came so near overstepping the bounds of Chinese propriety as to chuckle. At first his reception was more formal, but his interest soon led him to dispense with all formality, and before the close of the interview the questions were rapidly asked and discussed. We have had some experience with examining attorneys, and an extended acquaintance with the American reporter; but we are convinced that for genuine inquisitiveness Li-Hung-Chang stands peerless. We made several attempts to take leave, but were interrupted each time by a question from the viceroy. Mr. Tenney, in fact, became fatigued with the task of interpreting, so that many of the long answers were translated by the viceroy's son.

The interview was conducted as nearly as possible in the foreign fashion. We smoked cigarettes, and a bottle of champagne was served. Finally the interview was brought to a close by a health from the viceroy to "Ta-ma-quo" (the great American country).

In conclusion we thanked the viceroy for the honor he had done us. He replied that we must not thank him at all; that he was only doing his duty. "Scholars," said he, "must receive scholars."

The viceroy rose from his chair with difficulty; the servant took him by the elbows and half lifted him to his feet. He then walked slowly out of the room with us, and across the courtyard to the main exit. Here he shook us heartily by the hand, and bowed us out in the Chinese manner.

Li-Hung-Chang is virtually the emperor of the Celestial Empire; the present "Son of Heaven" (the young emperor) has only recently reached his majority. Li-Hung-Chang is China's intellectual height, from whom emanate nearly all her progressive ideas. He stands to-day in the light of a mediator between foreign progressiveness and native prejudice and conservatism. It has been said that Li-Hung-Chang is really anti-foreign at heart; that he employs the Occidentals only long enough for them to teach his own countrymen how to get along without them. Whether this be so or not, it is certain that the viceroy recognizes the advantages to be derived from foreign methods and inventions, and employs them for the advancement of his country. Upon him rests the decision in nearly all the great questions of the empire. Scarcely an edict or document of any kind is issued that does not go over his signature or under his direct supervision. To busy himself with the smallest details is a distinctive characteristic of the man. Systematic methods, combined with an extraordinary mind, enable him to accomplish his herculean task. In the eastern horizon Li-Hung-Chang shines as the brilliant star of morning that tells of the coming of a brighter dawn.


1 Eight years before the first recorded ascent of Ararat by Dr. Parrot (1829), there appeared the following from "Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, and Ancient Babylonia," by Sir Robert Ker Porter, who, in his time, was an authority on southwestern Asia: "These inaccessible heights [of Mount Ararat] have never been trod by the foot of man since the days of Noah, if even then; for my idea is that the Ark rested in the space between the two heads (Great and Little Ararat), and not on the top of either. Various attempts have been made in different ages to ascend these tremendous mountain pyramids, but in vain. Their forms, snows, and glaciers are insurmountable obstacles: the distance being so great from the commencement of the icy region to the highest points, cold alone would be the destruction of any one who had the hardihood to persevere."


The list of illustrations has been added in the electronic text.

The following typographical errors have been corrected:

page 82, period changed to comma (after "was") page 140, "Siberan" changed to "Siberian"

Inconsistent hyphenation (e. g. "footsteps" and "foot-steps", "innkeeper" and "inn-keeper", "moonlight" and "moon-light", "pigtails" and "pig-tails", "wickerwork" and "wicker-work"), punctuation or italicizing has not been changed. The authors use both "Yengiz" and "Yenghiz", "bakshish" and "baksheesh", "pilaff" and "pillao".


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