Colin Pyle on the challenges of beating Chinese bureaucracy to set a Guinness world record
Colin Pyle and his photojournalist brother Ryan spent 65 days riding around China by motorcycle. They circumnavigated the country counter-clockwise from Shanghai encountering extreme landscapes, byzantine Chinese bureaucracy and hospitable locals.
The result was a book and a TV series called The Middle Kingdom Ride and a place in the record books. But the greatest achievement, Colin tells Peter Moore, is that they still like each other.
How did this epic motorcycle ride come about?
I was working as an entrepreneur and a currency trader in Toronto and wanted to make a change in my life. I wanted do something different, go on an adventure. My brother is a well-known photojournalist based in China and it turns out he was at the same point in his life as well. Work for high-profile photographers was starting to dry up and he wanted to try his hand at film. We met up in New York where he was having an exhibition and came up with an idea where maybe we could make a TV show or a documentary film about us riding around China. We figured it would give me the adventure I was looking for and give him the opportunity to show the world what China is really about.
Obviously my brother being based there helped. But I think the media really portrays China in a very pigeon-holed way, focusing on the east coast, the pollution, the crazy cities and the factories, the human rights violations but there really isn’t a huge amount of focus on the amazing diversification of the people and landscapes. The western part of China, for example, is not talked about very often, but it’s huge and it’s absolutely gorgeous.
I hear your trip was recognised by the Guiness Book of Records.
To be honest, we never set out to get a record. It wasn’t in our sights at all. It was only after the trip we realised that we’d done something unique. We contacted Guiness Book of World Records and they were like: “We like it, but the problem with giving you a record for being the first people to circumnavigate China is that it opens up the door for the first person in the world to circumnavigate The Vatican or Barbados.”
So the record they actually gave us was: “The longest continuous journey within one country,” not the circumnavigation. I think it was the longest continuous journey within one country without backtracking or something like that. So if you take those principles, the only other country you could really probably beat it in is Russia, Canada, Australia, or the US.
What sort of motorbikes did you ride?
We rode a pair of BMW 800GS. The only foreign bikes in China at the time were Harley-Davidson and BMW. As half of our trip was off-road, we figured the Harleys just wouldn’t work. There were some local Chinese bikes but we felt their engines too small. We weren’t sponsored by BMW, so we had to pay full price, and then a 100% luxury tax on top, which is the law in China. They were the biggest expense of our trip, but they were great bikes. The only one major breakdown we had was when my brother burnt out his clutch in Western Tibet. I crashed a few times but managed to put mine back together.
Speaking of Chinese bureaucracy, how did you get around the practicalities of registration and insurance?
It helped that my brother lived there. He speaks Mandarin and his wife is Chinese so he got all the appropriate licences.
As for insurance, there isn’t really much of a 'culture' for insurance for motorcycles in China. So I don’t think we even had any. I think we had insurance for if we were to kill someone else or something like that, but no real insurance for us if we crashed our bikes.
What about 'bureaucracy' on the road?
The whole trip was a constant battle with the military and the police. Luckily, nothing really bad happened. We were of the school of thought where you ask for forgiveness rather than ask for permission. We weren’t able to get filming permits for a lot of places so we filmed illegally. It ended up working out OK but there were definitely some touch-and-go moments.
I’m guessing that it helped a lot that your brother spoke Mandarin...
Yeah, absolutely. And our cameraman as well. We also picked up local guides along the way which helped with the local dialects. The reality is that while Mandarin is the widest spoken language, in the really remote regions it’s only the little school kids who speak it, and then only what they were taught it at school.
Was it difficult to get into Tibet?
My brother had travelled to Tibet before as a journalist and a photographer so he knew the guides that could help us navigate some of the bureaucracy. We were lucky too, in that at the time there wasn't a ban on foreigners like there is now.
Having said that, we weren’t allowed to leave Tibet through the east. We had to take a short flight because there was an uprising in eastern Tibet that they didn’t want us around. It’s almost impossible to get into Tibet unless you’re allowed to. We came across military checkpoints pretty much every day that we rode in Tibet.
What was the most challenging part of the trip?
The most challenging part was battling Mother Nature. We were relatively novice motorcyclists and I was a very novice adventurer. So we didn’t really pack the greatest kit. We didn’t have a rain chute which was a huge mistake. And it rained a lot. The altitude was also a killer. In western Tibet we were above 4,000 metres for a few weeks, which was extremely tiring on the body.
So Mother Nature really beat us up – whether it was too hot in the desert, too cold in the mountains, too high an elevation or whether it was raining on us with no rain suit, it made it a very difficult and challenging trip.
You travelled with your brother. How did that work out?
We still like each other! (Laughs)
Actually, it worked out great. There was a special dynamic between us where he was almost like my tour guide. He really knew and understood China, whereas I was this ex-banker who didn’t know much at all.
We also have very complimentary personalities. He loves to control things and plan things and have everything perfect whereas I am perfectly happy just to sit back and follow what he is doing.
What were the high points of the trip?
One of the big ones for me was riding up to Everest Base Camp. It was a moment I’ll never forget. We rode from this tiny mountain village about 75 kilometres from Everest Base Camp. It took us over eight hours, through a kind of a river bed at extreme altitude. It was extremely challenging but also very remote and the scenery is just amazing. Riding at 5,400ft above sea level to an iconic mountain that’s known from corner to corner in the world – that was really special for me.
Another great moment was when we arrived up in Kashgar at the end of Ramadan. Growing up in Canada, you really don’t experience that kind of mass faith, of seeing 15-20,000 Muslims praying in front of a mosque. It was just a powerful moment that I don’t think I’ll ever really let go of.
Since the trip you’ve set up Mandarin House in London. Can you tell us what that’s about?
My brother and his wife started up a Mandarin language school – teaching foreigners how to speak Mandarin in Shanghai and Beijing. That was about eight years ago and now it’s the largest private Mandarin school in China. We started chatting and looking at trends, where the Mandarin language was going, and I felt it was a good opportunity to expand, so I’m partnering with them to take Mandarin House global. So we just opened up our first language school outside of China, in London.
Do you have any more adventures planned?
We just rode 13,000 kilometres around India in September and October last year. 54 days and it was every bit as challenging, if not more so, than China.
Colin Pyle will be in conversation with Simon Myers at Asia House Festival of Asian Literature on Thursday 9th May at 18.45; tickets from £10. For bookings and further information visit the official website here.