China on a motorbike

Photographer Ryan Pyle on his motorcycle exploits around China

Time In

Imagine travelling 11,600 miles. That’s the distance needed to circumnavigate China, as Canadian brothers Ryan and Colin Pyle found out on their epic journey biking all the way round the country’s border roads. According to their new 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 4,000m above sea level; they also 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. ‘We’re not gearheads – we don’t make our own bikes, or even fix them,’ says Ryan. ‘But we thought: Why wrap four doors around you when you can feel the open road on two wheels?’

The idea for the trip formed in New York in March 2010. Colin was working in a finance job in Toronto, the kind, says Ryan, ‘where you earn good money but don’t like yourself’. Ryan was frustrated too. Since 2001 he had built up a successful career in China as a freelance photographer. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit, slashing his income in half – and the work he was able to get no longer satisfied him. ‘I wanted to show what China was really like, to show that there was more to the country than what the papers were willing to pay me to cover.’

The Pyles set off with one person in tow – Chad Ingraham, their friend and videographer, who followed them in an SUV, capturing their escapades (The Middle Kingdom Ride TV show airs on the Travel Channel in April).

On the road from Beijing to Inner Mongolia, they became entangled in China’s worst-ever traffic jam, which stretched more than 96km and 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 four days. We didn’t believe them until we switched on the TV that night.’

For most amateur motorcyclists, this would have been a one-off journey. But the experience has intensified their wanderlust and made them want to take on another big challenge – India. Ryan also tells us he’s planning a trip through the Middle East and the UAE, so keep your eyes peeled for the brothers.
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