Friday, January 26, 2018

Across Siberia on a Bicycle

Siberia. The word conjures images of endless ice and snow, not to mention hints of forced isolation and punishment. The vastness, harshness, and remoteness of the place makes the very word Siberia cause shivers of trepidation for many—and tingles of excitement for a few hardy adventurers. Riding a bicycle across Siberia may sound like a mad feat, but it’s been done, and more times than you might imagine. I can think of a handful of books about trans-Siberian bicycle trips, by Erika Warmbrunn, Jane Schnell, Mark Jenkins, and Rob Lilewall, to name a few.

But one of the first to do it was the English cycle-adventurer and author Robert Louis Jefferson. Born in Missouri in 1866, Jefferson grew up in Victorian England, where, as a young man, he was an impressive athlete and, later, a journalist. (He shares the Christian names of the celebrated contemporary Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jefferson admits that these names came in handy more than once in the world of writing. He once told an interviewer, “anything by a man with those prefixes was certain to sell.”)

In the 1890s, as the bicycle boomed, he embarked on a series of extensive adventures awheel, which took him from London to Constantinople, Russia (twice), Mongolia, and Uzbekistan. Jefferson wrote a book about each trip, the first published in 1894 and the last in 1899. Although the cycle-travel-adventure books of his contemporaries Thomas Stevens, William Sachtleben and Thomas G. Allen, and John Foster Fraser are better known, Jefferson was one of the most prolific cycle-travel writers in this inaugural golden age of trans-continental bicycle adventures.  Yet for some reason, his legacy remains obscure in comparison, and his books, today, are hard to find. Not a one is in print, even in this age when some of the most obscure Victorian texts can be acquired via print-on-demand publishers.

But with a little work and the help of inter-library loan, I got my hands on a copy of Across Siberia on a Bicycle (1896). And while the volume is brief and uneven, to be sure, it offers enough insight into early bicycle-adventure travel and some perverse bits of entertainment to make it worth checking out.  

The book certainly is slim, a mere 80 pages, and the first 37 of those cover Jefferson’s mostly uneventful ride from London to the Ural mountains, the beginning of Siberia proper. This first section feels a lot like filler meant to pad out what is otherwise a 40-page account of crossing Siberia on a bicycle. Once Jefferson gets there, however, there’s a palpable excitement in his voice: “Here I was at last! Siberia! … The land of steppes, forests, mountains, mighty rivers, innumerable races—of almost illimitable space! What possibilities lay before me? What wonders should I see?”

Wonders, indeed. He is attacked by dogs and also a wolf (he shoots at both with his trusty gun, one of the very few pieces of gear he brings along), but his “most terrible fights with wild animals” were battles against mosquitos—“bloodthirsty and persistent” and immune to Jefferson’s revolver.  
Even scarier are the terrible Siberian roads, which are often not really constructed roads at all, so much as paths worn by human traffic. Jefferson is wonderfully creative in his description of road conditions, which ranged from deep sand to impossible mud: “execrable,” “torturous,” “villainous,” ”rutty and with here and there some sharp declivities,” and, of course, “inferior to the worst road in England.” He walked a lot.

Some of the best descriptions in the book are of Jefferson’s crossing of the great steppes, 2000 miles of vast, flat emptiness. This was the part of the trip that intrigued him in the first place. “The sublimest phase of Siberia,” he explains, “is its extent.” Jefferson adopts the local parlance for a unit of distances, the verst (as in, “I put a dozen versts between the village and myself”), which made me laugh every time I read the word, as it sounds like something he made up. (It reminds me of the goofy invented units of measurement in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels—glumgluffs and drurrs.) The challenge of the steppes is as much psychological as physical. “Monotonous?” Jefferson scoffs. “How could it be otherwise? Think of it! A field circumscribed only the horizon; not a bush, not a tree; a long line of telegraph posts dwindling to nothingness in the distance.” Progress was incremental. “I might as well have been pedaling a stationary cycle or home trainer for all the difference that took place around me.” At one point he compares himself to a flea crawling across the surface of a billiard table.

The cringiest part of reading this book now is Jefferson’s unabashed judginess and condescension toward the locals. The Siberians’ greatest fault appears to be their non-Englishness. They don’t adhere to English standards of cleanliness or hygiene or industriousness, and, therefore, Jefferson is frequently exasperated by them. In fact, by the time he’s half-way across Siberia, exasperation has turned to disgust with all he encounters—the shoddy infrastructure, lack of services, squalor and stench of settlements, and, most of all, the Siberians themselves. The contempt in his voice reaches its peak at Tomsk: “Sanitation there is absolutely none in Tomsk . . . . You cannot enter a house without nearly breaking your leg in a flooring, or knocking your head off against the door-joist . . . . The cabs which patrol the city are lumbering masses of filth . . . . The common Tomskites are ragged, shoeless, indescribably lazy . . . .” He warns would-be cyclists to avoid riding on village roads on Sunday morning, for the roads, he claims, are littered with the bodies of passed out Siberians who took their “love of vodki” too far on Saturday night.

Jefferson is certainly patronizing and racist, as were many Brits at this time, but I have to admit there is often something entertaining about just how appallingly judgy and whiny he is. The disgust, contempt, and sarcasm in his voice places this book firmly in the tradition of grumpy travelers, à la Tobias Smollett and Paul Theroux. Jefferson writes,
“Happy Siberians! May the onward march of progress and civilization deal lightly with you—or better, may it never reach you, for what would you do, poor inert vodki-sodden land, with competition, energy, and brains? Happy in your filth, sublime in your laziness and ignorance, why disturb you in what is after all your Eden?”
Sure, Jefferson sounds like an arrogant Brit here, but it’s hard not to chuckle at his grumpy, over-the-top shtick.   Here’s Jefferson mockingly listing off some highlights: “Other delightful aspects of cycling in Russia are runaway horses, yelping, snapping curs, stick and stone throwing urchins, and drunken moujiks sleeping off the effects of vodki in the middle of the road.”

Jefferson frequently laments the poor state of hospitality in Siberia. Many of the small, isolated settlements he passed through had no accommodation for travelers, nor any food or drink even for sale. Jefferson discovers, the hard way, that the Siberian tradition is for travelers to be self-supported, bring everything they might need with them, and count on nothing from the locals. But Jefferson, in that presumptuous British Imperialist fashion, chose to travel light, bringing only tea and sugar for sustenance, assuming that he could rely on local hospitality. This proves a bad plan. He’s constantly hungry and in search of “eatables” (great word); his diet is a miserable assortment of black bread, eggs, tea, occasional sardines, and “vodki.”   

Strangely, for all the remoteness and extreme isolation of the trip, Jefferson does encounter other cyclists, believe it or not. As was the custom for Victorian cycle-travelers, Jefferson is occasionally greeted, entertained, and escorted by members of local cycling clubs who are thrilled to meet a fellow brother of the wheel. Several times he even encounters cyclists waiting for him in the middle of nowhere, stationed at ten-verst (!) intervals, anticipating his progress across the steppes and offering rare bursts of hospitality. At one point, in Krasnoiarsk, one of the few Siberian places Jefferson actually likes, he runs into Thomas G. Allen, of all people, the intrepid American cyclist who, with William Sachtleben, travelled across Asia by bicycle in 1890 and wrote a more famous book about the journey, Across Asia on a Bicycle, published in 1894. 

Jefferson’s book isn’t as good as Sachtleben and Allen’s, but it’s still noteworthy as an example of the kinds of accounts of extreme cycling adventures that were all the rage in the 1890s. Jefferson, grumpy as he is, not only makes it through the vastness and mystery of Siberia, he does so, as he says, on “the present day pioneer of civilization—the bicycle.”


  1. I like reading your book reviews, Jasper! And, like you, I got a kick out of Jefferson's grumpiness.

  2. hard to believe it could be done livng in a era of specialized bikes, clothing, etc. once again proving where there is a will there is a way.
    stories like this always bring me back to the simplicity of Just Ride by Grant Peterson


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