My Cycle Ride To Khiva, Robert Jefferson (1899)

A desert-crossing adventure in central Asia recounted in the high Victorian style

The Wide World Magazine served up a monthly menu of derring do, exotic locations, and uncivilised natives for 66 years. From its 1899 inception, it published true-life action adventures, lavishly described and generously illustrated.

Bearing the strap-line ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, a typical issue might include ‘I Battled A Sting-ray’, ‘Snake Terror In Queensland’, and ‘Buried Alive By A Dead Elephant’. It was a Boys Own, adrenaline rush, Imperial fantasy on steroids – delivered on newsprint.

Journeys undertaken by bicycle frequently provided starting points. In April 1899, for example, the magazine commenced a three-part serialisation of ‘My Cycle Ride To Khiva’ by Robert L Jefferson, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.  

Jefferson was recreating a famous Odyssey undertaken quarter of a century earlier by Colonel Fred Burnaby, who travelled between Orenburg and Khiva on horseback. The former, a town on the Ural River 900 miles south east of Moscow, is generally considered the Europe/Asia frontier. His destination, nearly 1,000 miles further south across the Karrakum and Kyzylkum deserts, is in modern-day Turkmenistan. Jefferson asserts that this route had been completed by only three others between Burnaby and himself. 

Sadly Jefferson says almost nothing of his solo ride to Orenburg – overland from London covering approximately 70 miles a day. To enter Asia, he was persuaded that a caravan, including horses, camels, a guide and cossacks was necessary. A flock of half-a-dozen sheep were tethered to their carts to provide sustenance en route.

The subsequent journey took in attack by other travellers, formal dinners with tribal chieftains, insubordinate members of his party, and a near fatal fever. 

It is a compelling, easy-to-read, caper that imparts a vivid picture of their ride, aided by a rich selection of the author’s photographs. Today it can be enjoyed for free thanks to much of the magazine’s archive being digitised. The following links will take you to the relevant sections of the archive.

Instalment one Instalment two Instalment three

Like much of the content of the magazine, this piece speaks of an age when western powers controlled globe-spanning empires and ‘Christendom’ defined the ‘civilised world’. At the time of Jefferson’s expedition, central Asia was only a few decades under Russian control. But while the author is unequivocally a product of his era, the jarring reminders of this are less frequent that in some contemporary texts.

It is intriguing that this corner of the earth is not rather more explored by adventuring westerners. For many centuries variations of the Silk road between Orient and Europe passed this way. The advent of dependable sea routes and, in the 1890s railways, sent the route and the towns along its line, into long-term decline. 

About Jefferson, I can find no more – for reasons that are perhaps explained by the nature of the magazine’s production.

The Wide World Magazine was part of a successful stable established by George Newnes – the most important of which, Tit Bits, has good claim to be Britain’s first popular newspaper. For at least half a century of The Wide World was edited by Victor Pitt-Kethley. His niece, the writer Fiona Pitt-Kethley, relates that he ran the magazine on a shoestring. Most of the copy was obtained from unpaid amateur travellers and then knocked into shape by the editor.

The format remained remarkably consistent during its impressive run, the dramatic colour illustrated covers being particularly eye-catching.

So popular was the title that is spawned a ‘World Wide Brotherhood’ – the main benefit of which was a pen-pal connection service run in its columns. Enthusiastic local readers’ groups also met weekly in some towns and cities.

There has been a modest revival of interest in The Wide World Magazine in recent years, with a compilation of stories from its back catalogue published in 2004 (ed Paul Safont, Macmillan, 1405049316). Alas, that volume contains none of the cycling tales – but there are plenty available in the online archive. Here are links to a couple.

Six Cyclists Among The Boxers – a group of important industrialists and academics travel through China at the time of the Boxer rebellion on a ‘quad’ and a tandem.

A cub reporter in the US mid-west who collects stories by bicycle defies a villainous gang to provide his own scoop

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