Imagine travelling 11,600 miles. That’s more than twice the distance from Beijing (sure-fir city for China travel deals) to London as the crow flies – or the distance needed to circumnavigate China, as Canadian brothers Ryan and Colin Pyle found out on their epic journey motorcycling all the way round the country’s border roads.
The subject of their newly released book, The Middle Kingdom Ride, this odyssey earned them a Guinness World Record for ‘the longest continuous journey within a single country by motorcycle’. Taking just over two months to complete, the ride was one of extreme highs and lows – quite literally. The brothers battled altitude sickness along Highway 219, known as the ‘Road in the Sky’ because its average elevation is above 4,000m, and camped overnight in the Turpan Basin – the third lowest point on Earth. They faced temperatures ranging from 42°C to -15°C and, after subsisting on a diet of Oreos and whatever else they could forage at rest stops along the way, they each lost 9kg in weight.
Their trip, extraordinary by any account, is all the more remarkable because neither brother had travelled by motorbike for more than two days continuously before they determined on this marathon undertaking. ‘We’re not gearheads, we don’t make our own bikes, or even fix them,’ says Ryan, speaking from his home in Shanghai. ‘But we thought: Why wrap four doors around you when you can feel the open road on two wheels?’
The idea for this expedition first formed in New York in March 2010. Colin was working in a soulless finance job in Toronto, the kind, says Ryan, ‘where you earn good money but don’t really like yourself’. Ryan was frustrated too. Since 2001 he had built up a successful career in China as a freelance documentary photographer, collaborating with the likes of The New York Times on major stories such as the Sichuan Earthquake. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit newspapers hard, slashing his income in half – and the work he was able to get no longersatisfied him: ‘I wanted to show what China was really like, to show that there was more to the country than what the newspapers were willing to pay me to cover.’
As the brothers shared their gripes in New York’s Central Park, their complaints transmuted into a joint resolve to go on an adventure. At first they thought of hiking, then of driving through China’s varied landscapes. But ultimately, they couldn’t escape the lure of the motorbike. ‘It’s a beautiful tool,’ Ryan enthuses. ‘It allows you to fully connect with your environment in a way that a car can’t. You smell the smells. You feel every kilometre. It’s a holistic experience.’
But that same property almost caused the Pyle boys to hang up their riding gloves on their first day. Setting off from Shanghai (popular travel city included in top 10 China tours) on 15 August 2010, the pair faced bad traffic in Jiangsu province. ‘We had our full equipment on because we wanted to be safe, which meant ten hours of cooking in our suits,’ remembers Ryan. The cocktail of exhaust fumes and intense humidity left Colin with heatstroke.
When Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman motorcycled across Europe, Asia and North America for the TV series Long Way Round, they were accompanied by a security expert and a doctor, as well as an extended camera crew. By contrast, the Pyles left with one person in tow – Chad Ingraham, their friend and videographer, who followed them in an SUV, capturing their escapades on film (the DVD is released next month). They couldn’t rely on medical assistance on the road, and their day-one setback left Colin with doubts. ‘He began worrying what the whole trip would bring,’ says Ryan, before adding, with the obvious pride of an older brother, ‘but to his credit, he bounced back.’
The rest of the journey would be even more eventful. In Jilin, the brothers stayed overnight in a town that was off-limits to foreigners and were escorted out by police guards the next day. Elsewhere in northeast China, they narrowly avoided flash floods that left dozens dead. Having embarked on this epic journey in the hope of escaping his day-job covering breaking news, Ryan found newsworthy events following him wherever he went. On the road out from Beijing to Inner Mongolia, they became entangled in China’s worst-ever traffic jam, which stretched back over 60 miles on Highway 110 and eventually lasted more than ten days:‘We were heading west, the jam was in the other direction, but there were trucks on our side of the road trying to head east. It took six hours to go 30km. When we stopped to ask drivers how long they’d been there, some said three-to-four days. We didn’t believe them until we got to our hotel that night and switched on the TV.’
It wasn’t until they left crowded eastern China that the Pyles really began to enjoy themselves. They relished the wide, wild expanses of the west, tearing along near-empty roads through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, over deserts of Xinjiang (destination for Silk Road travel), past Tibet’s mountain ranges and Yunnan’s dense forests. But these areas came with their own trials: dirt highways prevailed; the brothers shared the way with military vehicles and mineral-laden trucks, and battled clouds of dust or sinking pools of mud, depending on the weather. It was here that the off-road training course they had taken in Germany earlier that year came in handy. ‘On those aggressive roads, you’re bouncing all over the place,’ explains Ryan. ‘It’s not like sitting back on your fat Harley. You have to stand up to minimise the impact of the bumps, and in Tibet that meant standing for eight-to-ten hours a day, which really hits your arms and back.’
It’s lucky that aches and bruises were the only injuries they suffered. On the Karakorum Highway, Ryan fell badly during a freezing hailstorm. But his worst moment during the trip was watching Colin slide off the road at 30mph in the rain in Yunnan: ‘You can endure pain for yourself. But this was my little brother. I was meant to be taking him on this adventure, not getting him hurt.’ Fortunately, what looked like a nasty fall, turned out to have a relatively soft landing, as caught on camera by Chad. In one of the YouTube clips from The Middle Kingdom Ride, a muddied, shaken, but still smiling Colin turns to the screen and says, ‘The bike works, I work, so we’re carrying on.’
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