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The Middle Kingdom Ride

June 6, 2011

By Uwe Wachtendorf
Photos by Chad Ingraham

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.

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

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