A high wheel through Afghanistan

In 1884, the Englishman Thomas Stevens set out on what was probably the first cycle tour around the world, which included a passage through Afghanistan.

"...I heard Mr Thomas Stevens, after the dinner given in his honour by the Massachusetts Bicycle Club, make a brief, off-hand report of his adventures. He seemed like Jules Verne, telling his own wonderful performances, or like a con­temporary Sinbad the Sailor. We found that modern mechanical invention, instead of disenchanting the universe, had really afforded the means of explor­ing its marvels the more surely. Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something, - or with a bundle of tracts, in order to con­vert somebody, - this bold youth simply went around the globe to see the people who were on it; and since he always had something to show them as interesting as anything that they could show him, he made his way among all nations."

There has probably never been a more elegant line written in praise of the bicy­cle than that written in 1887 for the pref­ace to Around the World on a Bicycle by Thomas Stevens. His adventures seem all the more remarkable today because the modern mechanical invention was a high bicycle. With his neatly strapped luggage, including a tent that used the bicycle as a central support, Stevens travelled around the world with remarkable confidence:

"The war-like Afghans have great admi­ration for personal courage, and they evidently regard my arrival here without escort as a proof that I am possessed of a commendable share of that desirable quality. As the commander-in-chief and a few grim old warriors squatting near us exchange comments on the subject of my appearance here, and my willingness to proceed alone to Kandahar, notwith­standing the known probability of being murdered, their glances of mingled amusement and admiration are agree­ably convincing that I have touched a chord of sympathy in their rude, martial breasts."

The bicycle is soon famous in the local bazaars: "Fourteen farsakhs (fifty-six miles) an hour and nothing said about the conditions of the roads, is the average Herati's understanding of it; and many a grave, turbaned merchant in the bazaar, and wild warrior on the ramparts, indulges in day-dreams of an iron horse little less miraculous in its deeds than the winged steed of the air we read of in the Arabian Nights."

His bicycle was badly damaged by a horse and required extensive repairs by local gunsmiths. "The gunsmiths are quite expert workmen, considering the tools they have to work with, and when they happen to drill a hole a trifle crooked, they are full of apologies and remind me that this is Afghanistan and not Frangistan. They know and appreciate good material when they see it, and dur­ing the process of heating and stretching the spokes, loud and profuse are the praises bestowed upon the quality of the iron. As artisans interested in mechanical affairs, the ball-bearings of the pedals, one of which I take apart to show them, excites their profound admiration as evi­dence of the marvellous skill of the Ferenghis."

Unfortunately Stevens is not allowed to travel alone through Afghanistan to India and is escorted everywhere: "Outside the gate, at the suggestion of the young man in the bottle-green roundabout (jacket), I mount and ride, wheeling slowly along between the little files of soldiers. The soldiers are delighted at the novelty of their duty, and they swing briskly along as I pedal a little faster. They smile at the exertion necessary to keep up and falling in with their spirit of amusement, I grad­ually increase my speed, and finally shoot ahead of them entirely. Kiftan Sahib comes galloping after me on the gray, and with good-humoured anxi­ety motions for me to stop and let the sol­diers catch up. He it is upon whom the commander-in-chief has saddled the reponsibility for my safe-keeping, and this little display of levity and my ability to so easily out-distance the soldiers, awakens in him the spirit of apprehen­sion at once."

Stevens was eventually escorted back to Persia. From there he travels a round­about route to India, then ventures through China and Japan.


Mesicek's beautiful high-bicycle on Cyclorama

Racing the High Wheel

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