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December 30, 2010

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Easy riders take China's hard roads

TWO Canadian brothers take the ride of their life, circumnavigating the Middle Kingdom on motorbikes and now working on a book and documentary about roads less traveled. Sam Riley reports.

It started as a simple discussion between two brothers about taking one last adventure and ended up an epic test of endurance riding motorbikes 18,651 kilometers around China's border in 65 grueling days.

The Canadian brothers Ryan and Colin Pyle launched their odyssey, Middle Kingdom Ride, in Shanghai in August. Their travels took them across the grassy plains of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the scorching deserts of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the towering grandeur of the Mt Everest base camp.

Photographer Ryan has been based in Shanghai for the past decade, working for international publications including The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Time magazine.

Colin was involved in currency trading in Toronto and New York, before deciding to quit his job and seek a life-changing adventure.

When the brothers, natives of Toronto, met up in New York in March, they hatched their plan to discover the breathtaking expanses of China on motorbikes.

"I've always been enjoying isolation to clear my head and decide what to do next in life, and this opportunity was perfect," Colin says. "Not only did I want some time and isolation, but I had also never really had an adventure in my life and I thought this might be one of my last opportunities."

The pair was trailed by a cameraman, translator and driver in a support vehicle throughout their journey, and today they are putting together a documentary and writing a book about their travels.

The brothers rode BMW F800GS motorbikes covering more than 400 kilometers a day.

They slept in truck stops and woke at sunrise to a bowl of noodles before hitting the road. They usually rode until nightfall, taking small breaks for a snack or to drink water.

"You are really physically tired and because the roads are bad in many places you have lots of off-road and lots of sand and gravel so it isn't like you can blast away at 120 kilometers an hour. You are down to 20km/h or 40km/h and then back up to 100km/h," Ryan recalls.

"You then had scooters coming out of both sides, you got donkeys, you got cars and all this kind of random danger jumping out at you every moment. So it is very mentally tiring as well because you have to be switched on every moment," he continues.

So grueling was the ordeal that the pair lost more than 11kg each during their two months away.

Both riders had serious falls, with Colin taking the most serious tumble, falling off his bike, sliding off the road and dropping 5 meters into a bush.

"These are the most dangerous roads in the world and our No. 1 goal was not to die, so safety was our constant concern," Ryan says.

Along with dangerous roads, the riders pushed themselves and their equipment to the limit, learning to fix their bikes themselves on the road.

The most serious breakdown occurred on a high pass in the Tibet Autonomous Region, more than 5,200 meters above sea level.

Ryan burned out a clutch and friends on the support team took the part to the capital city of Lhasa. Unable to find a mechanic, they worked it out themselves from instructions downloaded from the Internet.

The breakdown added five days to their journey but it was their trip to Mt Everest (Mt Qomolanga in Tibetan) that was the emotional high of the journey.

While there was the adrenaline of high-altitude riding, the brothers also took in China's lowest geographic point, the Turpan Oasis, which is 154 meters below sea level.

One of the few places in the world below sea level, the oasis was one of the key resting points on the northern Silk Road and has recorded some of China's hottest temperatures.

Known in ancient times as the "Land of Fire," the oasis has recorded temperatures in summer as high as 47 degrees Celsius.

The Canadian brothers say they hope their film and book will highlight the diversity of China both in terms of its people and travel opportunities.

With adventure travel, and in particular motorbike tourism, still in its infancy in China, Ryan says he hopes people will be inspired to discover the beauty of many far-flung regions.

Both brothers say their 65-day journey was an adventure of a lifetime that changed their perspective.

"There were moments where I thought we were done, but we persevered; with the right team you can do just about anything," Colin says. "Before doing this I wasn't one to shy away from things that were difficult, but the successful completion of this trip has given me the vision to believe that things will happen."

The brothers hope to complete their book and documentary next year. More information can be found at


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