In 2004 Hollywood actor and uber boy toy Ewan (pronounced you-an) MacGregor otherwise known to the general public as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his fellow actor and best mate Charlie Boorman set upon riding around the world by Motorcycle. While I generally think motorized transport is for pansies, the idea of a cross continental journey on the back of bike struck me as an evocative idea. My father recommended this movie to me ages ago and I just never got around to it.
Ewan and Charlie share a lifelong passion with motorcycles something I at least understand a little. They decided they would ride all the way from the UK through western Europe, (France, Belgium Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia,) to the Ukraine, through a little bit of Russia almost all the way through Kazahkstan, through another little part of Russia again, and then into Mongolia, and then back into Russia again along the Road of Bones, and then over to North America by plane, down through Alaska, into Canada and then down through Montana, the Dakotas to New York, in total some 20,000 miles.
The beginning of the journey is the most difficult to watch. Ewan and Charlie attempt to get sponsored by an Austrian Motorbike company called KTM. KTM sends out a consultant who informs them that the Road of Bones section in Siberia may defeat them. KTM renegs on their offer of sponsorship and the pair are pretty despondent. Ewan thankfully confesses a little sheepishly that maybe they are behaving like petulant asses. He admits that expecting to receive free motorbikes for a trip they want to do is a little silly. Who else would expect this kind of treatment. In fact though it wasn’t mentioned, the KTM consultant did part of the trip on a bike he paid for himself.
I thought about this in terms of the sea kayaking world. I think sponsorship is a great thing. But if you wouldn’t be willing to do the trip on your own without a free kayak or free gear, did you really want to do it anyway? Granted if you could get a free kayak/motorcycle that would help with your trip why wouldn’t you? But should you expect anything? That’s another story.
I found it amusing, but not surprising that the high spirits and the exuberance lasted as long as the tarmac did. Ewan and Charlie became quite despondent when the road turned to trail. The struggle to remain on two wheels was pretty epic. Everytime one of the BMW bikes went over, everybody had to pitch in and help the rider get up again. Due to the extreme weight of the bike lifting it solo appeared to be impossible.
Once Charlie and Ewan made it to Mongolia the real pain began. But so did the beauty. It seemed they were surrounded by endless plains, prairie, mountains, and river valleys. The Mongolians they encountered seemed genuinely curious and interested in the pair. I kept wondering if a bike tour would be crazy in that area of the world. Jon Turk and his daughter passed through part of Mongolia on their Altai tour. On their blog, I read a lot about pushing bikes and running out of water. Our erstwhile hollywood stars had a support vehicle that the hardy Jon Turk could not afford. I know it’s not apples to apples here, but it just furthers a deep, deeeeep respect for Jon Turk.
The ups and downs of long trips can be like drug addiction, the ups are so up you become giddy, and the downs are so low you become almost suicidal. Separated from home and family for months on end, hardship and suffering are not passing moments, but a daily reality. The only thing that keeps you going is the tunnel vision of the finish line, and your friends. Certainly many people will never understand this. When I saw Charlie and Ewan hit tarmac after 600 miles of hard off-road riding in Mongolia and they actually laid down and kissed it, I completely got it. Having paddled into 20 knot headwinds for three days while towing a paddler between islands has left me with an appreciation for the sudden twist of fate that puts the wind at your back. When you coast for 20 miles with a twenty knot tailwind you know what it is to see God after feeling forsaken.
Ultimatley Charlie and Ewan toughened up quite a bit and when the riding became ludicrously hard, they just focused on minigoals, and began to laugh at how silly they were for imagining they could fly through the miles and miles of offroad riding.
I am not a celebrity worshiper by a long shot, but I do respect folks who achieve something tangible. For the riding through Asia and Russia’s Road of Bones I salute the Long Way Round. It seems I am also on the cusp of something monumental too. When I can say more I will. You only live once, you may as well chase the dream right.