Travelling the world to see and appreciate the myriad different experiences, cultures, vistas our planet has to offer itself is fascinating enough. To do it on a bicycle and almost a century ago seems like fiction. A new book called the “The Bicycle Diaries: Indian Cyclists and Their Incredible Journeys Around the World” chronicles exactly that – cyclists from India who travelled around the world. In this piece in Atlas Obscura, Arti Das features the authors Anoop Babani and Savia Viegas, a Goa-based husband-wife duo who share a passion for cycling and decided to research the history of Indian cyclists travelling the world after having chanced upon a 1931 book by a trio of cyclists about their expedition at a time when the world was going through major social and political upheaval. The article gives some fascinating excerpts from their tour including a meeting with Mussolini and the Pope to being arrested in French colonised Vietnam:
“The cyclists—Adi Hakim, Jal Bapasola, and Rustom Bhumgara—chronicled their entire, unusual, four-and-a-half-year expedition. In early 20th-century India, cycling was for commuting. It was never considered a way to see the world.
The expedition departed Mumbai in October 15, 1923. By the time they returned in March 1928, they had been to 27 countries and pedaled more than 40,000 miles—through Punjab, Balochistan, the Middle East, Europe, United States, Japan, and Southeast Asia. They encountered dense forests, swamps, and the terrible solitude of the Alps.
Each man rode a Royal Benson bicycle and carried just a British passport, some clothes and medicine, bicycle repair tools, a used compass, a world map, and Rs. 2,000—about $27. But they also brought skills to the trip. Hakim was the chronicler, Bhumgara a trained automobile mechanic known to perform circus-like acrobatics, and Bapasola the map reader.
They spent the first three months cycling through India, and then into what is now Iran, where, to earn money, Bhumgara pulled a car with five passengers down the road with his teeth. From there they went to Baghdad, and across the Syrian-Mesopotamian desert, which they crossed in 23 days.
….In Rome, they got an autograph from then–Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, and at the Vatican they had an audience with Pope Pius XI. Europe at the time was still deeply scarred by World War I: poverty, bad roads, and unhygienic conditions. In Rome they were mistaken for German spies and spent a night behind bars. But the Prime Minister’s autograph and a news report about their journey in a Roman newspaper backed their otherwise far-fetched story.
They were particularly in awe of American roads. “It was for the first time in our journey that we could ride 100 miles a day consecutively for five days,” they wrote of the trip from Boston to Buffalo. They found other parts of the American experience disheartening, such as the rude and insulting immigration authorities. “The immigrant is at best tolerated and viewed with suspicion,” they wrote. They were equally appalled by the “racial discrimination of the most demeaning character which is observed in railway trains, at railway stations, in tramcars, in hotels, and in places of amusements.”
…became the first to cycle across the “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea in winter. This brought them into China, pulsing with violent political change. Rifles were pointed at their heads when they were suspected of being spies. In Indochina (present-day Vietnam), they were furious about immigration rules and how Indians were treated by the French colonial government. Bapasola wrote an article about it for a local newspaper, at which point they were arrested—again—on charges of “bringing into hatred and the contempt of (French) government of Indo-China!” they wrote.”


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