CHAPTER XIV. THROUGH INDIA.
The heat is intense, being at the end of the heated term at the commencement of the earliest monsoons. It is certainly not less than 130 deg. Fahr., in the sun, when at 3 p.m. I mount and shape my course toward Amritza, some thirty-five miles down the Grand Trunk Road.
In such a temperature and beneath such a sun it behooves the discreet Caucasian to dress as carefully for protection against the heat as he would against the frost of an Arctic winter. The United States army helmet which I have constantly worn since obtaining it at Fort Sydney, Neb., has now to be discarded in favor of a huge pith solar topee an inch thick and but little smaller than an umbrella. This overshadowing head-dress imparts a cheerful, mushroom-like aspect to my person, and casts a shadow on the smooth whitish surface of the road, as I ride along, that well-nigh obliterates the shadow of the wheel and its rider.
Thus sheltered from the rays of the Indian sun, I wheel through the beautifully shaded suburban streets of Lahore, past dense thickets of fruitful plantains, across the broad switch-yard of the Scinde, Delhi & Punjab Railway, and out on to the smooth, level surface of the Grand Trunk Road. This road is, beyond a doubt, the finest highway in the whole world. It extends for nearly sixteen hundred miles, an unbroken highway of marvellous perfection, from Peshawur on the Afghan frontier to Calcutta. It is metalled for much of its length with a substance peculiar to the country, known as kunkah. Kunkah is obtained almost anywhere throughout the Land of the Five Rivers, underlying the surface soil. It is a sort of loose nodular limestone, which when wetted and rolled cements together and forms a road-surface smooth and compact as an asphaltum pavement, and of excellent wearing quality. It is a magnificent road to bicycle over; not only is it broad, level, and smooth, but for much of the way it is converted into a veritable avenue by spreading shade-trees on either side. Far and near the rich Indian vegetation, stimulated to wear its loveliest garb by the early monsoon rains, is intensely green and luxuriant; and through the richly verdant landscape stretches the wide, straight belt of the road, far as eye can reach, a whitish streak, glaring and quivering with reflected heat.
The natives of the Punjab, the most loyal, perhaps, of the Indian races, are beginning to regard the Christian Sabbath as a holiday, and happy crowds of people in holiday attire are gathered at the Shalamar Mango Gardens, a few miles out of Lahore. Beyond the gardens, I meet a native in a big red turban and white clothes, en route to Lahore on a bone-shaker. He is pedalling ambitiously along, with his umbrella under his left arm. As we approach each other his swarthy countenance lights up with a "glad, fraternal smile," and his hand touches his turban in recognition of the mystic brotherhood of the wheel. There is a mysterious bond of sympathy recognizable even between the old native-made bone-shaker and its Punjabi rider and the pale-faced Ferenghi Sahib mounted on his graceful triumph of Western ingenuity and mechanical skill. The free display of ivories as we approach, the expectation of fraternal recognition so plainly evident in his face, and the friendly and respectful, rather than obsequious, manner of saluting, tell something of that levelling tendency of the wheel we sometimes hear spoken of.
The park-like expanse of country on either hand continues as mile after mile is reeled off; the shady trees, the ruins, the villages, and the roadside kos-minars, with the perfect highway leading through it all - what more could wheelman ask than this. A wayside police-chowkee is now seen ahead, a snug little edifice of brick beneath the sacred branches of a spreading peepul. A six-foot Sikh, in the red-and-blue turban and neat blue uniform of the Punjab soldier-police, stands at the door and executes a stiff military salute as I wheel past. A row of conical white pillars and a grass-grown plot of ground containing a few bungalows and camping space for a regiment indicate a military reservation. These spaces are reserved at intervals of ten or twelve miles all down the Grand Trunk Road; the distance from each represents a day's march for Indian troops in time of peace.
A bend in the road, and the bicycle sweeps over a substantial brick bridge, spanning an irrigating canal large enough to float a three-masted schooner. The bridge and the ditch convey early evidence of English enterprise no less conspicuous than the road itself. Neatly trimmed banks and a tropical luxuriance of overhanging vegetation give the long straight reach of water the charming appearance of flowing through a leafy tunnel. Under the stimulus of the monsoon rains and the more than tropical heat, the soil seems bursting with fatness, and earth, air, and water are teeming with life. The roadway itself is swarming with pedestrians, trudging along in both directions; some there are with the inevitable umbrellas held above their heads, but more are carrying them under their arms, as though in lofty contempt of 130 deg. Fahr.