The challenge of the century: in 1910, four Romanian students travel around the world
They were only 19 years old at the time of the beginning of the trip. And they did it dressed in traditional Romanian peasant costumes, and they supported themselves with money earned from playing traditional songs wherever they arrived to.
It all started in 1908, in summer, when Touring Club de France, a sports and tourism agency, launches a daring challenge: whomever would travel 100.000 km by foot, around the world, using their own funds, would receive 100.000 french francs. The four Romanians, who were students in Paris at that time – Dumitru Dan, paul Parvu, Gheorghe Negreanu and Alexandru Pascu – apply for it. Out of more than 200 dreamers who register in the race, only the itinerary of the four Romanians is approved. So they can start the trip!
But before that, they ask for one thing: to be allowed to stay in Romania for 2 years and prepare for the journey. They mean to learn as many folkloric dances and songs as possible, to be able to support themselves on the way, and also they want to study geography, meteorology and ethnography, as well as a little medicine. They each learn a different language and they walk 45 km everyday, rain or shine.
The trip starts in April 1910, in Bucharest, carrying not more than 8 km on their back, each. Harap, their dog will follow them wherever they go. They reach Budapest 3 days after leaving. They don’t stop until they get to Vienna, where they also perform for the first time. next: Berlin, where the show meets with a huge success for the second time. At the border with Denmark, they come over the first difficulty: one of the customs people, “rejecting the idea of international travelling”, arrests them and sends them to Flensburg, as he thought they were spies! They explained everything and they were let go.
Oslo follows, then Stockholm and Helsinki, where the public think of them as “exotic and authentic”, and their shows are widely acclaimed. They stop for 3 days in St Petersburg, and reach Moscow at the end of July 1910. Then, they walked through the unfriendly climate to Tbilisi, , walking for 200 km through mountains, wet with rain and frozen to the bones. At this stage, they were walking at least 10 km a day.
One month later, in Persia, they were writing: “The Caucasus is more beautiful than any other mountain sight”. In Teheran, their songs and dances were appreciated more than anywhere else. They were writing in their diary that in those parts of the world, where the locals were so poor that they barely had food and the terrain was an unforgiving desert, yet, the children were all learning how to read and write, and they were studying the Koran and astrology, rhetoric, Persian. Arabic and Turkish! Between Baghdad and Syria, they walked along the Euphrates river, and the Arabs all showed pity towards them. In vain did they try to explain why they were walking: the Arabs thought them either sick, greedy or very poor and they showed them sympathy. In Damascus, they has the great surprise of being given gifts and money especially from families of Romanians living there, from Galati and Braila!
They traveled through Jerusalem, Cairo, Alexandria and further on into the heart of Africa. In Sudan, they didn’t meet anyone for 11 days, and they didn’t see trees or fresh water. In the Saudi desert, a terrible storm threatened their lives… Ethiopia – Somalia – Tanzania – Mozambique drained their powers completely so they were grateful to reach Madagascar and board a ship that would take them to Australia. They had planned to walk 2100 km in Australia. They visited Sydney, Canberra, the Blue Mountains and the Jenolan caves, and they showed concern that the aboriginals only counted 2012 souls as compared to 40.000 that were living there 100 years before. They weren’t resting on the boats either. They had special pedometers fixed to their ankles and they had to walk at least for 10 hours everyday on the deck of the ships that were carrying them, as they had to add up the distance they were crossing by boat. They visit Wellington, Java. Borneo, Brunei and Singapore.
In India, they had planned to spend 62 days only, so that they reach Bombay in July 1911. The surprise was huge: hundreds of curious people were waiting for them, and they had reserved them rooms at the Prince of Wales hotel !
But here they meet with the first tragedy, too. The Rajah invites them for a 2-day visit to his palace. After dinner, they go into the city to gather whatever they needed for the trip, and Pascu stays behind to tell the Rajah about their adventures on their journey. When the other come back, Pascu was dead. Although they had sworn they wouldn’t taste any of the local “specialities” of the places they were visiting, pascu had tried the opium the Rajah had offered him and he died of an overdose.
So the three travelers that were left and the dog , continued their journey, through Benares, towards Calcutta. In Cape Town, they are shocked by the injustice they find there. Then, they go on through Congo and Gabon.
In January 1912 they reach Rio de Janeiro, where hundreds of locals wait for them. Their adventures had been followed with much interest by all the local papers. In Rio, their dances and music meet with the biggest success and they also hold conferences about the experiences they went through on the way.
Then follow Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. At the border with Peru they spend one night in the company of the Jivanos indians, also called “head hunters” and later on, during one night with the Itucalli indians, Dumitru dan was bitten by a strange insect that made necessary a sort of a live operation performed by a sort of a doctor. All was good though.
After 2 years since the beginning, they reach San Francisco, where they only rest for 3 hours and they board a ship to Yokohama. It was the exact reverse trip of Phileas Fogg, in “80 days Around the World”! The trip on the sea lasted for 27 days, while which they walked 1400 km on the deck. After Japan, they arrive in Hong Kong, and Beijing. Their itinerary was taking them over the Nau Lin mountains, on narrow paths and over terrible precipices. One of these 30 days on the mountains, walking in a line, under a drizzling rain, they hear a scream: negreanu had fallen into a precipice, into a river. They pull him up with ropes, but he is badly hurt and after one day, he dies.
The two travellers and the dog leave for Russia. They travel 1150 km under blizzards and colds they had never seen before in their lives. They find a Dutch boat, and thus, they reach Juneau, and walk to Vancouver.
Dan notices something was wrong with his friend, Parvu. He had been the most optimistic of them all, laughing at hardships, but now he was very silent. He was just saying that his legs hurt.
They take part in a bear hunt, in canada, and after that they leave and they reach Seattle, and then Portland and San Francisco, and they regenerate their budget by performing their shows. They cross California and they get to Mexico and panama, where they board a Transatlantic toward Gibraltar. Then, Tanger, Tunis, Sicily, Switzerland, France and Holland, and then England. They perform their last show in great Britain in Edinburgh, where they learn that one company was offering 100 free tickets to America – the accident of the Titanic had made people afraid of the trip. They take the boat to Quebec, and then they walk to Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit, where they visit the Ford factories. In Washington, they are invited to spend one day in the White House: it was on the 24th of December 19014. This joy was shaded though by the news that in Europe war had broken out, and Romania was in a difficult position.
In Florida, Parvu given in: his legs were badly hurt and the four doctors who saw him agreed that it was very serious and that he had to stop walking. Parvu asks dan to leave Harap, the dog, with him, to keep him company. Dan leaves, by himself, encouraged by the word of his friend, who urges his to finish the race, so that nobody can say that the Romanians has abandoned their journey! A few months later, Parvu died, with both of his legs amputated…
On the 18th of January 1918, Dan reaches Havana and then Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Barbados and Venezuela, and then he crosses the Atlantic to Lisbon. After a stop in Malta, he is arrested in Salonic, by a British officer who believes him to be a spy, on account of the magazines in all the languages that dan was carrying in his suitcase. he is sent to London to be checked and then he is freed.
But, because of the war, he is forced to interrupt his journey, and he comes back to Romania after with only 4.000 km left out of the 100.000.
He will resume it in 1923, after Touring Club de France decides on a new itinerary for him, and he leaves Bucharest through Belgrade – Skopje – Tirana – Zagreb, crossing the north of Italy and Switzerland. He arrives in Paris on the 14th of July 1923. He hasd left when he was 19 years old; he was now 34!
In a ceremony, he is being awarded the 100.000 – which had lost almost all its value, n the meantime – together with the title of World Champion.
Dumitru Dan’s brave is in a cemetery on Buzau, guarded by a nameless cross…
The 100.000 French francs would have been equal to 500.000 euros today, at the time when they announced it, in 1908. In 1923, when he received the prize, they only meant 40.000 euros. He had worn out 497 pairs of leather traditional Romanian shoes and 28 folkloric costumes, on this journey.