The Middle Kingdom Ride

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf// Photos by Chad Ingraham
June 6 2011

Following a whim can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences, like finding yourself the owner of an uncontrollable puppy named Marley or married to a Las Vegas call girl named Ginger. For two brothers from Toronto, a whim turned into something far more positive: a 65-day, 17,674 km circumnavigation of China by motorcycle.

The impetus that drives people to an adventure is deeply personal. Some set out to test themselves by pushing their limits, while others – it could be argued – are just looking for an escape from the unpleasant realities of day-to-day life. For Colin and Ryan Pyle, an adventure would symbolize a turning point in their lives. The president of a currency brokerage firm, Colin Pyle needed a sabbatical from his business life; he wanted to quit his job, sell his house and see the world. While discussing the idea with his brother Ryan, the two decided on a whim that a motorcycle trip around China would be the perfect answer.

At the time, Ryan was already living an adventure. The freelance photojournalist had been a permanent resident of China since 2002, and was intimately familiar with the land and its people. For Ryan, the journey would be an adventure in his own backyard. “China was my idea,” says Ryan, “because it is what I know. Shanghai is home, and I’m well versed in the Chinese motorcycle community.” The pair immediately got down to the business of planning. Both already had experience with motorcycles; Colin owned a BMW R1200R and Ryan a BMW F800GS. The latter was the bike they agreed would be ideal for their trip; however, getting Colin’s BMW into China proved to be a major challenge. “The most serious problem was importing everything. It involved working our way through Chinese customs,” explained Ryan, “which included paying a 100 percent luxury tax on the BMW, importing spare parts (almost bureaucratically impossible in China), importing motorcycle-specific GPS navigators (which are officially illegal), and paying a 30 percent import duty on rider clothing.”

Two weeks prior to their planned August 14th start date, Colin and Ryan met in Germany to participate in an off-road riding course at BMW’s Hechlingen Enduro Park. “The training was a crucial part of our preparation,” claimed Ryan, “and we gained a lot of confidence riding in difficult situations.” Demanding off-road segments wouldn’t be their only concern. China is reported to have the most dangerous roads in the world; statistically, they have more road traffic fatalities per capita than any other country.

Adding further complexity to their preparation, the brothers had decided to thoroughly document the journey for a book and documentary film. It was an extremely ambitious idea, but Ryan maintained that their objective was a realistic one. “We kept excellent journals that will make the basis of our book. We hired Chad Ingraham as a full-time cameraman and got an SUV to carry him, as he didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. You have to go big or go home. We reached for the stars and are very pleased by the outcome.”

The Pyles even drew from the experiences of Charley Boorman of Long Way Round fame. “Charley was nice enough to give us a call, which was a wonderful thing for him to do since he has a lot of adventure-riding experience,” Ryan recalled. “He advised that we take a foot pump, because we’d need to adjust tire pressures daily. They were words to live by.”

Believing that their journey should have a charitable aspect, the two decided to raise awareness for the SEVA Charitable Foundation ( Ryan had previously worked with the Foundation and its director, Jack Blanks, who is also a fan of adventure riding. SEVA works in remote regions of the world, assisting those who are struggling for basic health care and cultural survival; it was an appropriate cause to adopt, and it fit well with the spirit of their journey.

Despite a tumultuous build-up, the Canadians left as planned in August 2010, riding northeast from Shanghai in the direction of the North Korean border. The timing of the ride had factored in extreme weather conditions that could potentially be encountered. According to Ryan, “the summer is too hot and wet – the winter is far too cold in Tibet. The trip had to be in the spring or fall; we opted for the fall for no real reason, but it worked for Colin’s schedule.”

After 13 hours and 400 km of intense heat and relentless rain, the pair stopped in Funing, 134 km short of their goal of Lianyungang. It was an inauspicious start, and would have dampened the enthusiasm of many. “There was no Plan B,” stated Ryan, explaining their pragmatic mindset. “We just needed to pick up our socks and get cooking.”

The weather had calmed for their second day, and they began to make good time, reaching the ferry crossing at Yantai on day four. The 180 km ferry ride to Dalian across Bohai Bay was a welcome break after three consecutive days of heavy traffic, and they followed it with a day exploring Dandong and the Yalu River, and doing some North Korea border watching. However, by the end of their first week, the bad weather had returned. Soon after leaving Dandong, their progress was hampered by heavy rains, flooding rivers and landslides. The misery lasted for several days and reportedly led to the evacuation of some 50,000 people from northeastern China.

Heading west across the top of China, the weather cleared, and they were soon crossing the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, an experience they described as a pure riding pleasure. On day 12, they rode a 290 km stretch of military access road that defined the border between China and Mongolia. The uninterrupted stretch of rolling grasslands was devoid of villages, homes and gas stations; by their estimation, it was a truly stunning part of China. The end of the second week was marked by extreme contrast. The vast expanse and beauty of the Huitengxile grasslands of Inner Mongolia, home to shepherds and wind farms, gave way to one of the worst traffic blockages in history. Having started with major road closures in Beijing, a domino effect swept across the already overburdened road network, which according to Ryan resulted in a traffic jam that was close to 1,000 km in length. Stuck in the tail end of the mess, it took the Pyles over four hours just to travel 50 km.

Having arrived in Wuliji Sumu at the southern edge of the Gobi Desert on day 18, the duo were again slowed by road construction and then pounded by strong winds. The following day would be their last in Inner Mongolia, and the next several days were spent riding the fabled Silk Road and visiting Jiayuguan Fortress, the furthest outpost of Chinese rule in ancient times and the most western section of the Great Wall. At Dunhuang, they took time to visit the great sand dunes, ride ATVs and even soar in a glider to enjoy a spectacular aerial view of the area.

Their route then curled northwest and they arrived at Hami, where their nemeses, bad weather and heavy traffic, were waiting to greet them. Instead of rain, the men were at first hammered by a sandstorm, and then later, hail. It was as if Mother Nature was throwing everything she had at them. After leaving the Tian Shan range, the most northern section of their trip, they changed direction once again and headed southwest toward the most western point of China. A partial day off in Kashgar meant the pair could sleep in for the first time after ten days of straight riding, and visit a local mechanic who assisted them with much-needed tune-ups and tire changes.

Arriving in Tashgorkan the following day represented another drastic change of scenery. The border town on the Karakoram Highway, which is the gateway between China and the Middle East, was majestically framed by snow-capped mountains. An attempt to visit the Pakistani border the next day was accompanied by light rain that turned into hail; when both bikes stalled four kilometres from the border, they continued in the SUV and arrived to find the border obscured by a blizzard. It wasn’t a good day for sightseeing.

Rejuvenated from a rest period in Kashgar, and now 35 days into their journey, the Pyles were ready for the homeward leg of the expedition. With their bikes pointed southeast in the direction of Tibet, their unwanted riding partner had returned. Harsh weather followed them, and three days later, on Ryan’s birthday, his clutch burnt out from being stuck in sand. A temporary repair only lasted 70 km, and the disabled bike was stranded in the middle of nowhere. “We waited by the side of the road for several hours,” Ryan recalled, “until a large truck drove up. We managed to get my bike into the next town to do repairs, but had that truck not come by, we would still be in Tibet today.” Following the truck, Colin’s bike blew a tire. In the end, both bikes needed to be shipped to Lhasa, Tibet, where waiting for a replacement clutch cost them five days.

On day 45, they retraced their steps westward to where the bikes had broken down and detoured for a visit to the Mount Everest Base Camp. While riding on Highway 318, which runs to the border of Nepal, the Himalayan range began to appear. It took an intense 70 km, seven-hour, off-road ride over washed-out roads, gravel and sand, for the Pyle brothers to reach Everest. It was, for them, a dream day of riding and a real moment of accomplishment.

Their return to Lhasa was marked by bad news: their application to travel through Eastern Tibet to Yunnan province had been denied. The huge setback would force them to ride around Eastern Tibet, a bypass that would add some 4,000 km to their journey. Although tempted to sneak across the border, the pair decided it was too risky and chose the only option left: fly to Yunnan from Lhasa and wait there for the bikes after having arranged their legal shipment through Eastern Tibet.

After several days of concerned waiting, Colin and Ryan were finally reunited with their bikes on day 54 in Shangri-La (Zhongdia). However, their relief was short-lived. Once again, their return to the road was met with heavy rain and freezing temperatures, which lasted for four days. The ride from Rongjiang to Guilin on day 58 brought good weather, and finally their riding gear had an opportunity to dry. To celebrate the respite, the Pyles spent a restful day in the Guilin area, enjoying a boat cruise down the Li River and the view of Karst Mountain.

On October 17, 2010, the two Canadians had come full circle and rode into Shanghai on the 65th day of their incredible journey.

According to the Pyles, their trip was the first of its kind to be completed by motorcycle. “We did extensive research before we went to see if anyone had documented such a trip,” Ryan added. “While on our journey, we didn’t meet any other motorcyclists; China is not a well-known adventure-riding destination.” The people at Guinness World Records agreed. On their return, the brothers made a retroactive claim, and after five months of due diligence that involved witness reports, receipts and photographs, the pair were awarded a certificate for “The Longest Continuous Journey by Motorcycle within a Single Country.” The official distance of 16,240 km recorded by Guinness discounted a portion of the trip that had involved their backtracking to visit tourist sites.

There was plenty to reflect upon after their return home. “The high, for me, was visiting Mount Everest Base Camp with my brother – the low was falling near the border of China and Pakistan during a hailstorm,” said Ryan. “Documenting the trip was a huge burden, but we feel it was worth the effort. Filmmaking is a difficult process and very time consuming. If you make a commitment to do that from the start, you need to know what you’re committing yourself to; we knew that, and I feel we executed it well.”

Capturing material for their multimedia projects was only a part of the ordeal. The risk that natural obstacles, thrown in their path, could have broken their spirits was even greater. “The changing weather was the most challenging part of the trip. We had daily temperature swings of twenty degrees Celsius.” Then there were the physical and psychological demands of riding close to 20,000 km through adverse weather and demanding roads. “Sure, Colin and I had to motivate each other every day, but it was never because one of us wanted to quit, but rather, each day was full of mini-highs and mini-lows. The physical aspect of the journey was very serious. We’re pretty fit, but Colin and I lost a lot of weight. In the off-road portions, we spent entire days standing on the pegs at very high elevations, which left us exhausted and with altitude sickness. We also had one serious fall each, and we did suffer injuries; it’s not something a 60 year-old could do.”
Despite a few mechanical problems, the consensus was that the motorcycles had performed well and had been a good choice. “The F800GS is a light and well-rounded machine,” commented Ryan. “The R1200GSA is a monster; Colin and I both believe that had we used it instead, it would have added three to five days to our trip, because we would have been dropping it all the time. You can hold the F800GS up with your legs, and that makes a huge difference when you have a wobble.”

Whether because of time, financial or physical constraints, the pages of this magazine will be the closest that most of us will come to adventure travel. Fear of the unknown and the unexpected is another hurdle for the majority of riders, but it’s the willingness to meet those fears that defines an adventure rider. “We had a lot of fears,” says Ryan. “Would we complete the trip? Would one of us get hurt? Would we run into government interference that would shut our journey down? These were all stresses throughout the trip; we feel very lucky to have completed the journey safely.” But it’s not all doom and gloom. Ryan puts things into perspective for doubtful travellers: “Don’t be afraid to dream. The longest trip either of us had previously taken was four days.”

More information on the Middle Kingdom Ride and the upcoming film and book can be found at:


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