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Thomas Stevens
"Around the World of a Bicycle - Cycling through China in 1886 "
Part 2

Cycling through China - Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part7 | Part 8 | Around the World on a Bicycle - Maps and Pictures

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The country beyond Chun-Kong-hoi is alternately level and hilly, the former highly cultivated, and the latter occupied mostly with graves. Peanut harvest is in progress, and men, women, and children are everywhere about the fields. The soil of a peanut-bed to the depth of several inches is dug up and all passed through a sieve, the meshes of which are of the proper size to retain the nuts. The last possible grain, nut, or particle of life-sustaining vegetable or insect life is extracted from the soil, ducks and chickens being cooped and herded on the fields and gardens after human ingenuity has reached its limit of research.

Big wooden pails of warm tea stand about the fields, from which everybody helps himself when thirsty. A party of peanut-harvesters are regaling themselves with stewed turnips and tough, underdone pieces of dried liver. They invite me to partake, handing me a pair of chopsticks and a bowl.

Gangs of coolies, strung in Indian file along the paths, are met, carrying lacquer-ware from some interior town to Fat-shau and Canton. Others are encountered with cages of kittens and puppies, which they are conveying to the same market. These are men whose business is collecting these table delicacies from outlying villages for the city markets, after the manner of egg and chicken buyers in America.

My course at length brings me to the town of Si-noun, on the south bank of the Choo-kiang. The river is here prevented from inundating the low country adjacent by strong levees; along these are well-tramped paths that afford much good wheeling, as well as providing a well-defined course toward Sam-shue. After following the river for some miles, however, I conclude that its course is altogether more southerly than there is any necessity for me to go; so, crossing the river at a village ferry, I strike a trail across-country in a north-westerly direction that must sooner or later bring me to the banks of the Pi-kiang. Sam-shue is at the junction of these two rivers, the one flowing from west to east and the other from north to south; by striking across-country, but one side of a triangle is traversed instead of the two formed by the rivers. My objective point for the night is Lo-pow, the first town of any size up the Pi-kiang.

A volunteer guide from one of the villages extricates me from a bewildering network of trails in the afternoon, and guides me across to the bottom-lands of the Pi-kiang. Eeceiving a reward, he eyes the piece of silver a moment wistfully, puts it away, and guides me half a mile farther. Pointing to the embankment of the Pi-kiang in the distance ahead, he presents himself for further reward. Receiving this, lie thereupon conceives the brilliant idea of piloting me over successive short stages, with a view of obtaining tsin at the end of each stage.

John Chinaman is no more responsible, morally, for the "dark ways and vain tricks" accredited to him in the Western World than a crow is for the blackness of his plumage. The desperate struggle for existence in this crowded empire, that has no doubt been a normal condition of its society for ages, has developed traits of character in these later generations which are as unchangeable as the skin of the Ethiopian or the spots of the leopard. Either of these can be whitened over, but not readily changed; the same may be truthfully said of the moral leprosy of the average Celestial. Here is a simple peanut-farmer's son, who knows nothing of the outer world, yet no sooner does a stray opportunity present than he develops immediately financial trickery worthy of a Constantinople guide.

The paths across the Pi-kiang Valley are more walls than paths, often rising ten feet above the paddy-fields, and presenting a width of not more than two feet. Good riding, however, is happily found on the levees, and a few miles up-stream brings me to Lo-pow.

The hittim at Lo-pow is somewhat superior to that of yesterday; it is a two-storied building, and the proprietor hustles me up-stairs in short order, and locks me in. This is to prevent any possible hostility from the crowd that immediately swarms the place; for while I am in his house he is in a measure held responsible for my treatment. The bicycle is kept down-stairs, where it performs the office of a vent for the rampant curiosity of the thousands who besiege the proprietor for a peep at me.

A little cup and a teapot of hot tea is brought me at once, and my order taken for supper; the characters on ray limited written vocabulary proving invaluable as an aid toward making my g-astro-nomic preferences understood. A dish of boiled fish, pickled ginger, chicken entrees, young onions, together with rice enough to feed a pig, form the ingredients of a very good Chinese meal. Chop-sticks are, of course, provided; but, as yet, my dexterity in the manipulation of these articles is decidedly of the negative order, and so my pocket-knife performs the dual office of knife and fork; for the rice, one can use, after a manner, the little porcelain dipper provided for ladling an evil-smelling liquid over that staple. Bread, there is none in China; rice is the bread of both this country and Japan. During the night one gets a reminder of the bek-jees of Constantinople in the performances of a night policeman, who passes by at intervals loudly beating a drum. This, together with roystering mosquitoes, and a too liberal indulgence in strong tea, banishes sleep to-night almost as effectually as the pounding of the old drug-vender's pestle did at Chun-Kong-hoi.

The rooms below are full of sleeping coolies, cat-and-dog hucksters and travellers, when I descend at day-break to start. The first two hours are wasted in wandering along a levee that leads up a tributary stream, coming back again and getting ferried to the right embankment. The riding is variable, and the zigzagging of the levee often compels me to travel three miles for the gaining of one. My elevated path commands a good view of the traffic on the river, and of the agricultural operations on the adjacent lowlands.

The boating scenes on the river are animated, and peculiarly Chinese. The northern monsoons, called typhoons in China, are blowing strongly down stream, while the current itself is naturally strong; under the influence of wind and current combined, junks and sampans with butterfly sails all set are going down stream at racing speed. In striking contrast to these, are the up-stream boats, crawling along at scarcely perceptible pace against the current, in response to the rhythmical movements of a line of men, women, and children harnessed one behind another to a long tow-line.

The water in the river is low, and the larger boats have to be watched carefully to prevent grounding; sometimes, when the river is wide and the passable channel but a narrow place in the middle, the tow-people have to take to the water, often wading waist deep. Men and women are dressed pretty much alike, but in addition to the broad-legged pantaloons and blue blouse, the women are distinguished by a checked apron. Some of them wear broad bamboo hats, while others wear nothing but nature's covering, or perchance a handkerchief tied around their heads. The traffic on the river is something enormous, scores of boats dotting the river at every turn. It is no longer difficult to believe the oft-heard assertion, that the tonnage of China's inland fleet is equal to the ocean tonnage of all the world.

Below me on the right the scene is scarcely less animated; one would think the whole population of the country were engaged in pumping water over the rice-fields, by the number of tread-wheels on the go. One of the most curious sights in China is to see people working these irrigating machines all over the fields. Instead of the buffaloes of Egypt and India, everything here is accomplished by the labor of man. The tread-wheel is usually worked by two men or women, who steady themselves by holding to a cross-bar, while their weight revolves the tread-wheel and works a chain of water-pockets. The pockets dip water from a hole or ditch and empty it into troughs, whence it spreads over the field. The screeching of these wheels can be heard for miles, and the grotesque Chinese figures stepping up, up, up in pairs, yet never ascending, the women singing in shrill, falsetto voices, and the incessant gabble of conversation, makes a picture of industry the like of which is to be seen in no other part of the world.

Chin-yuen, my next halting-place, forma something of a crescent on the west shore of the river, and is distinguished by a seven-storied pagoda at the southern extremity of its curvature. As seen from the east bank, the city and its background of reddish hills, two peaks of which rise to the respectable height of, I should judge, two thousand feet, is not without certain pretensions to beauty. Many of the houses on the river front are built over the water on piles, and broad flights of stone steps lead down to the water.

The usual boat population occupy a swarm of sampans anchored before the city, while hundreds of others are moving hither and thither. The water is intensely blue, and the broad reaches of Band are dazzlingly white; on either bank are dark patches of feathery bamboo; the white, blue and green, the pagoda, the city with its towering pawn-houses, and the whole flanked by red clay hills, forms a picture that certainly is not wanting in life and color.

The quarters assigned me at the hittim, here, are again upstairs, and my room-companion is an attenuated opium smoker, who is apparently a permanent lodger. This apartment is gained by a ladder, and after submitting to much annoyance from the obtrusive crowds below invading our quarters, my companion drives them all out with the loud lash of his tongue, and then draws up the only avenue of communication. He is engaged in cooking his supper and in washing dirty dishes; when the crowd below gets too noisy and clamorous he steps to the opening and coolly treats them to a basin of dish-water. This he repeats a number of times during the evening, saving his dish-water for that special purpose.

The air is reeking with smoke and disagreeable odors from below, where cooking is going on, and pigs wallow in filth in a rear apartment. The back-room of a Chinese inn is nearly always a pigsty, and a noisome place on general principles. Later in the evening a few privileged characters are permitted to come up, and the room quickly changes into a regular opium-den. A tough day's journey and two previous nights of wakefulness, enable me to fall asleep, notwithstanding the evil smells, the presence of the opium-smoking visitors, and the grunting pigs and talkative humans down below.

During the day I have sprained my right knee, and it becomes painful in the night and wakes me up. In the morning my way is made through the waking city with a painful limp, that gives rise to much unsympathetic giggling among the crowd at my heels. Perhaps they think all Pankwaes thus hobble along; their giggling, however, is doubtless evidence of the well-known pitiless disposition of the Chinese. The sentiments of pity and consideration for the sufferings of others, are a well-nigh invisible quality of John Chinaman's character, and as I limp slowly along, I mentally picture myself with a broken leg or serious illness, alone among these people. A Fankwae with his leg broken! a Fankwae lying at the point of death! why, the whole city would want to witness such an extraordinary sight; there would be no keeping them out; one would be the centre of a tumultuous rabble day and night!

The river contains long reaches leading in a totally contrary direction to what I know my general course to be. My objective point is a little east of north, but for miles this morning I am headed considerably south of the rising sun. There is nothing for it, however, but to keep the foot-trail that now follows along the river bank, conforming to all its multifarious crooks and angles. Every mile or two the path is overhung by a big bamboo hedge, behind which is hidden a village.

The character of these little riverside villages varies from peaceful agricultural and fishing communities, to nests of river-pirates and hard characters generally, who covertly prey on the commerce of the Pi-kiang, and commit depredations in the surrounding country. A glimpse of me is generally caught by someone behind the hedge as I ride or trundle past; shouts of "the Fankwae, the Fankwae," and screams of laughter at the prospect of seeing one of those queer creatures, immediately follow the discovery. The gabble and laughter and hurrying from the houses to the hedge, the hasty scrambling through the little wicket gates, all occurs with a flutter and noisy squabble that suggest a flock of excited geese.

A few miles above Chin-yuen the river enters a rocky gorge, and the marvellous beauty of the scenery rivets me to the spot in wondering contemplation for an hour. It is the same picture of rocky mountains, blue water, junks, bridges, temples, and people, one sometimes sees on sets of chinaware. Never was water so intensely blue, or sand so dazzlingly white, as the Pi-kiang at the entrance to this gorge this sunny morning; on its sky-blue bosom float junks and sampans, their curious sails appearing and disappearing around a bend in the canon. The brown battlemented cliffs are relieved by scattering pines, and in the interstices by dense thickets of bamboo; temples, pagodas, and a village complete a scene-that will be long remembered as one of the loveliest bits of scenery the whole world round. The scene is pre-eminently characteristic, and after seeing it, one no longer misunderstands the Chinaman who persists in thinking his country the great middle kingdom of landscape beauty and sunshine, compared to which all others are- "regions of mist and snow."

Across the creeks which occasionally join issue with the river, are erected frail and wabbly bamboo foot-rails; some of these are-evidently private enterprises, as an ancient Celestial is usually on hand for the collection of tiny toll. Narrow bridges, rude steps cut in the face of the cliffs, trails along narrow ledges, over rocky ridges, down across gulches, and anon through loose shale on ticklishly sloping banks, characterize the passage through the canon. The sun is broiling hot, and my knee swollen and painful. It is barely possible to crawl along at a snail's pace by keeping my game leg stiff; bending the knee is attended with agony. Frequent rests are necessary, and an examination reveals my knee badly inflamed.

Hours are consumed in scrambling for three or four miles up and down steps, and over the most abominable course a bicycle was ever dragged, carried, up-ended and lugged over. At the end of that time I reach a temple occupying a romantic position in a rocky defile, and where a flight of steps leads down to the water's edge. All semblance of anything in the nature of a continuous path terminates at the temple, and hailing a sampan bound up stream, I obtain passage to the northern extremity of the canyon.

The sampan is towed by a team of seven coolies, harnessed to a small, strong rope made of bamboo splint. It is interesting, yet painful, to see these men clambering like goats about the rocky cliffs, sometimes as much as a hundred feet above the water; one of the number does nothing else but throw the rope over protuberant points of rock. One would naturally imagine that Chinese enterprise would be sufficient to construct something like a decent towpath through this caiion, considering the number of boats towed through it daily; but everything in China seems to be done by the main strength and awkwardness of individuals.

The boatmen seem honest-hearted fellows; at noon they invite me to participate in their frugal meal of rice and turnips. Passing sampans are greeted by the crew of our boat with the intelligence that a Fankwae is aboard; the news being invariably conveyed with a droll "ha-ha!" and received with the same. Indeed, the average Chinese river-man or agriculturist, the simple-hearted children of the water and the soil, seem to regard the Fankwae as a creature so remarkably comical, that the mere mention of him causes them to laugh.

Near the end of the canon the boat is moored at a village for the day, and my knee feeling much better from the rest, I pursue my course up the bank of the river. The bank is level in a general sense, but much cut up with small tributary creeks.

While I am resting on the bank of one of these creeks, partly hidden behind a clump of bamboo, a slave-woman carrying her mistress pick-a-back appears upon the scene. Catching sight of me, the golden lily utters a little cry of alarm and issues hurried orders to her maid. The latter wheels round and scuttles back along the path with her frightened burden, both maid and golden lily no doubt very thankful at finding themselves unpursued. A few minutes after their hasty flight, three men approach my resting-place with pitchforks. The frightened females have probably told them of the presence of some queer-looking object lurking behind the bushes, and like true heroes they have shouldered their pitchforks and sallied forth to investigate. A whoop and a feint from me would either put them to flight, or precipitate a conflict, as is readily seen from the extreme cautiousness of their advance. As I remained perfectly still, however, they approach by short stages, and with many stops for consultation, until near enough to satisfy themselves of my peaceful character. They loiter around until my departure, when they follow behind for a few hundred yards, watching me narrowly until I am past their own little cluster of houses.

It is almost dark when I arrive at the next village, prepared to seek such accommodations for the night as the place affords, if any. The people, however, seem decidedly inclined to give me the cold shoulder, eying me suspiciously from a respectful distance, instead of clustering, as usual, close about me. Being pretty tired and hungry, and knowing absolutely nothing of the distance to the next place, I endeavor to cultivate their friendship by smiles, and by addressing the nearest youngster in polite greetings of "chin-chin."

All this proves of no avail; they seem one and all to be laboring under the impression that my appearance is of evil portent to themselves. Perchance some social calamity they have just been visited with, is attributed in their superstitious minds to the fell influence of the foreign devil, who has so suddenly bobbed up in their midst just at this unhappy, inauspicious moment. Perad-venture some stray and highly exaggerated bit of news in regard to Fankwae aggression in Tonquin (the French Tonquin expedition) has happened to reach the little interior village this very day, and the excited people see in me an emissary of destruction, here for the diabolical purpose of spying out their country. A dozen reasons, however, might be here advanced, and all be far wide of the truth.

Whatever their hostility is all about is a mystery to me, the innocent object of sundry scowls and angry gestures. One individual contemplates me for a minute with unconcealed aversion, and then breaks out into a torrent of angry words and excited gestures. From all appearances, it behooves me to be clearing out, ere the pent-up feelings of the people find vent in some aggressive manner, as a result of this person's incitant eloquence. Greatly puzzled to account for this unpleasant reception, I quietly take myself off.

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It is now getting pretty dark, and considering the unfortunate condition of my knee, the situation is, to say the least, annoying. It is not without apprehensions of being followed that I leave the village; and ere I am two hundred yards away, torches are observed moving rapidly about, and soon loud shouts of "Fankwae, Fankwae!" tell me that a number of men are in pursuit.

Darkness favors my retreat, and scrambling down the river bank, I shape my course across the sand and shallow side-channels to a small island, thickly covered with bamboo, the location of which is now barely outlined against the lingering streaks of daylight in the western sky. Half an hour is consumed in reaching this; but no small satisfaction is derived from seeing the flaming torches of my pursuers continue on up the bank. The dense bamboo thickets afford an excellent hiding-place, providing my divergence is not suspected. A little farther up-stream, on the bank, are the lights of another village; and as I crouch here in the darkness I can see the torches of the pursuing party entering this village, and can hear them making shouting inquiries of their neighbors about the foreign devil.

The thicket is alive with ravenous mosquitoes that issue immediately their peculiar policy of assurance against falling asleep. Unappeased hunger, mosquitoes, and the perilousness of the situation occupy my attention for some hours, when, seeing nothing further of the vengeful aspirants for my gore, I drag my weary way up-stream, through sand and shallow water. Keeping in the river-bed for several miles, I finally regain the bank, and, although my inflamed knee treats me to a twinge of agony at every step, I steadily persevere till morning.

An hour or two of morning light brings me to the town of Quang-shi, after an awful tugging through sand-hills, unbridged ravines and water. Hardly able to stand from fatigue and the pain of my knee, the desperate nature of the road, or, more correctly, the entire absence of anything of the kind, and the disquieting incident of the night, awaken me to a realizing sense of my helplessness should the people of Quang-shi prove to be hostile. Conscious of my inability to run or ride, savagely hungry, and desperately tired, I enter Quang-shi with the spirit of a hunted animal at bay. With revolver pulled round to the front ready to hand, and half expecting occasion to use it in defence of my life, I grimly speculate on the number of my cartridges and the probability of each one bagging a sore-eyed Celestial ere my own lonely and reluctant ghost is yielded up.

All this, fortunately, is found to be superfluous speculation, for the good people of Quang-shi prove, at least, passively friendly; a handful of tsin divided among the youngsters, and a general spendthrift scatterrnent of ten cents' worth of the same base currency among the stall-keepers for chow-chow heightens their friendly interest in me to an appreciable extent.

Next: Cycling through China - Part 3

Cycling through China - Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part7 | Part 8 | Around the World on a Bicycle - Maps and Pictures

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