A Bike Ride: 12000 Miles Around the World

Anne Mustoe

Read August 2003

What an enjoyable book—a chance find (it was on a bookshelf next to Tim Moore's French Revolutions, not because of their common theme but becuase of their last names) and perhaps the book I most enjoyed reading this summer.

Mustoe, 54, has a safe, comfortable career as a British school headmistress.  Inspired momentarily on a trip, she decides to ride a bicycle around the world.  So she throws away her job and sets off on this trip.

Mustoe tells us relatively little about herself—by the end, we still have only a very limited portrait of her, and even that not literally (the book has but a few photographs and, remarkably, none of the author or her bike!).  But she peppers her book with personal revelations that slowly chip away at the initial image of a (presumably) dowdy schoolmarm—she used to operate tours, she drove an Alfa Romeo, etc.  But her heart is clearly academic, filled with the Western classics (and much other learning), and this book is so much the richer for it.

Mustoe quickly decides she will go east from England, so as to pass through familiar land in preparation for the unfamiliar.  But so many routes!  Here she chooses classically.  We follow the great paths of antiquity, at one point very nearly matching that of Alexander from Greece to India (skipping some hostile lands betwixt).  She avoids the Silk Road—a pity, given the portraits she could have painted along the way, but perhaps just as well given her conveyance—but she does take Roman roads, the Grand Trunk Road, the trails across the American West, and other notable routes.  Her tour of Anatolia makes you wish she would write a book about Alexander's travels, and there's a certain charm in the way her map of that region is labeled (with Roman names, from Cappadocia to Bactria).

For a book organized as an itinerary, her agile and prepared mind treats us to a host of observations, most (thankfully) not of the kind that regurgitate standard prejudices.  The bicycle puts her at a pace that permits steady observation and enables reflective thought, and it brings her into much closer contact with common folk.  Many of her comments illuminate the differences that automobiles have made to our ways of building and planning at a macroscopic scale in much the same way urban studies elucidate these biases at a more local level.

For instance, she finds the Alexandrian and Roman routes relatively kind to her despite mountains, because they take longer routes that nevertheless skirt around the highest passes.  She notes that older nations have rest stops at distances more amenable for foot-, horse- or other animal-powered travel, while those in the American west, say, are built around the automobile.  (In one amusing episode, a one-horse town gets pulled down but the authorities refuse to put up a sign to that effect, arguing that the person in the next town is merely trying to profit through free advertising—leaving many a traveler stranded on the road.)  Even some of her sweeping observations about nations come with some credible support: for instance, she notes that in most nations people assume she is cycling the length or breadth of their country, while the more global Malaysians guess she's going around the world.

Most of all, this is a portrait of kindness, of mostly gentle memorable moments, of poor who share their all, of people being just plain kind.  Mustoe must have a human warmth that brings all this out in the people she meets.  She is also remarkably lucky to avoid the worst of weather, nasty treatment at the hands of men and beasts, and even, for the most part, punctured tires!  And she captures all this with even temper, gentle humor and ties it all together with a hilarious unifying thread.  Guess what the Italians say of the Greeks, the Greeks say of the Turks, the Turks of the Greeks, the Pakistanis of the Indians, ... and so on, up till the Ohioans of the West Virginians?  That they wouldn't go there, because those people would steal your bicycle!

Of course, books about bicycle trips are thick on the ground, many of trips far more radical than this one.  But there is something inspiring, uplifting, educational and just plain enjoyable about this book that would make me pick it in a moment over a dozen more eXtreme ones.  Unlike the modern traveling dude, Mustoe feels little need to disguise her inner fears (without actually exhibiting distasteful prejudices); the result is altogether more human and compelling.

(See also Mustoe's travels in India.)