Saturday, March 5, 2011

Bicycle-Free China: A Review of The Lost Cyclist

The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, hardcover

Reviewed by Bob Eberlein

In a recent post on the Atlantic’s web site, Xujun made the claim that I was the first American to ride a bicycle across China in 1987. She was thinking, of course, about her China, the one she had grown up in under Mao that had pretty much shut Americans out and certainly had no appetite for foreign adventurers. I would be very surprised if I was the first post-Mao, though I have no idea who beat me. I just know that there are lots of people who do things just to do them, and don’t try to call attention to themselves. Perhaps, in this day of YouTube and Tweeter, such actions have fallen by the wayside, though I still like to think of the multitudes out doing odd and wonderful things all under the cover of anonymity.

Forget about modern China. Before Mao, before the Nationalists, before the Warlords, while China still had an Emperor (or at least a Dowager) in charge, the Americans Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben rode their bicycles together across the Gobi desert, reaching Peking in the fall of 1892. A kind reader sent a comment to Xujun telling her about a book, The Lost Cyclist, which gives an account both of their trip, and another by Frank Lenz heading east to west shortly thereafter. Xujun clarified her meaning, and acknowledged the book in a follow-up post. The publisher, noticing mention of The Lost Cyclist on the Atlantic site, sent along a copy – a wonderful surprise!

No one ever did identify any of the cyclists I assume preceded me in crossing the People’s Republic of China, perhaps this review will prompt such a revelation.

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and his Mysterious Disappearance by David Herlihy is both an adventure story and a murder mystery, unique for nonfiction, with a fair bit of historical information thrown in. It chronicles the emergence of the vehicle we now think of as a bicycle, then called a safety bicycle to distinguish it from the high wheelers that preceded it, and the, mostly, men who rode them. Then it takes off across America, Europe and Asia from west to east with Allen and Sachtleben, and east to west with Lenz.

Drawing on the material that Lenz himself had written, the book paints a very interesting picture of 1890s China as Lenz perceived it. Remarkable to me was that he thought of it as the most wild and uncivilized place on the planet. In an interview while in China Lenz says “Afghanistan, Persia and Asia Minor, each have formidable difficulties. But they are not of so dangerous a nature as those who entertain the superstitious belief that a man on a bicycle is a flying devil from the clouds.” 

This was a China that had never seen a bicycle. To me that is almost as unfathomable as Lenz must have been to the Chinese peasants. Almost a century later I also astonished people in the countryside, but they knew exactly what a bicycle was. They would ride side by side with me and marvel at my beard and the foreign vehicle on which I traveled.

As I read of Lenz’s travels through China a feeling of dread fell upon me. I feared, as did those he met along the path (for there were few roads in China), that his life would end there. It was with a sigh of relief that I turned the pages onto his passage into Burma.

Lenz never finished his trip and never returned home. I will not say where his travels ended so as to allow some feeling of mystery to remain for those who have not yet read the book. A third of the book is devoted to the attempt to unravel what happened to him, and bring those responsible to justice. Sachtleben took on this responsibility and found himself in the midst of amazing and heart rending political unrest. On his quest Sachtleben demonstrated bravery, tenacity, competence and even guile. More than anything though, the events depicted saddened me, for he was caught in a dangerous and dark moment in human history, and Sachtleben was lucky to escape with his life.

Though he did solve the mystery, justice was never done. Rather the injustice that Sachtleben witnessed carried him back to the United States with a heavy heart. The book opens with a brilliant scene some sixty years later, where Sachtleben returns to his boyhood home to look again upon that innocence. That scene is nice on first reading, but ever so much more powerful when reread after finishing the book.

So all in all The Lost Cyclist is a great read. And yes, for those purists among us, Thomas Stevens road across China in 1886. But his bike was one of those high wheelers and, for goodness sakes, the guy was British.


Fan Wu said...

Greetings from San Jose.

Xujun, I loved your article on the Atlantic, a magazine I read regularly. It was well written and inspiring. I've shared it with quite a few friends. There're so many myths and misunderstandings in the Chnese history waiting to beshattered or cleared. I've done some 'red travelings' in China (Hong Se Lu You) and was always amazed about the propaganda people are fed as education and truth.

Bob, thanks for your review. The book is in my to-do list now. It's endlessly interesting to see what China looks like in the west's eyes.

Fan Wu

Xujun said...

Good to see you here, Fan. The "red travelings" you mentioned sounds interesting. When did you do that?