Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Long Way Round

(UK, 2004)

I wanted to see this after reading Long Way Down, a book which documents a motorcycle trip taken by Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman, son of director John Boorman. They started out at John o’ Groats (the northernmost point of the island of Great Britain) and went all the way through Africa to the Cape of Good Hope. You can hardly imagine how hard a trip that was. Early on in the book I learned that this trip was a sequel to a trip they took around the world—from London to New York, actually, which is good enough for me—a few years previous. This is the chronicle of that first trip.

I can’t help comparing this trip with Michael Palin’s travels, and the differences are more marked than the similarities. Both are accompanied by film crews, and both took long preparation, but where Michael keeps all that firmly in the background, Ewan and Charley devote almost the whole first episode to the technical aspects of the trip. This makes sense, as choosing the bikes and the equipment to bring along is central to the whole concept. And what a high-tech trip it is! Each of them have a helmet camera and a bike camera, and all the way there is a third bike for the cameraman. They keep video diaries. There are two support trucks which do not accompany them all the way but are there at all border crossings to troubleshoot and help smooth the way … a good idea, as crossing borders often turns out to be tougher than the tough terrain itself. On the African trip they hired a “fixer” for each country, someone who spoke the language, knew where the rebel armies were camped so they could avoid them, and knew how much to offer in bribes when crossing a border. There is less of that on the round the world trip.

We were immediately struck by what fun-loving guys these men are. They are enjoying the hell out of this trip. Ewan is a much bigger celebrity than Charley, or Michael Palin for that matter, and he regards it mostly as a nuisance but always seems to be polite and accommodating to his fans. Another difference from the Palin trips is that this one was advertised before it began, whereas Michael was able to travel in relative anonymity. This might have been a mistake, as when they get to the real boonies like Kazakhstan they find that the local police want to escort them wherever they go, terrified that something awful will happen to them on their turf and make big new around the world. So in many small towns they find a big reception has been organized for them, with dancing and singing and food and television cameras and local dignitaries, when they are so pooped they just want to lay down and die.

The biggest thing they have in common with the Palin adventures is the joy of the unexpected, and the warmth with which they are typically received. Like Michael, they hit the tourist attractions along the way and we see some marvelous sights. But the real fun happens when they have chance encounters with people who invite the boys into their homes for food and lodging and celebrating.

Many nights they camp out, but frequently they sleep in beds where they hadn’t expected to. One night in Mongolia it looks like they are in one of the most uninhabited places on Earth … and soon a man comes up on a horse, gawking at them, and then two more in a truck arrive and give them a bottle of vodka, which they repay with little airline bottles of Johnny Walker Black. Soon it seems like Grand Central Station. Well, not quite, but these lonely hills aren’t nearly as lonely as they seemed. Later they have a bike breakdown in an even lonelier place … and who should come along but three Mongols in a truck who are soon taking the bike apart. They fix it in less than an hour. Still later one of the support trucks rolls almost onto its roof, ending up on its side. Their Russian companion rants and raves, wondering why they are doing this foolish stunt. He’s a real party pooper all the way, it seems.

But they soldier on. It will break your heart to see how hard these three guys (including the cameraman) labor on roads of gravel, mud, deep sand, or no road at all, accepting no help from the support trucks who follow along a day or two behind as a safety measure, but not to help out except in the most major crisis. I’ve got to hand it to these guys. Ewan must be a fairly wealthy man, but he loves getting away from it all in the most extreme circumstances. They get down in the dumps, but always rebound once a particularly bad stretch has been overcome.

They makes many friends, many of whom they can’t talk to at all, but they are adept at learning the international gestures of appreciating. They genuinely seem to like these people from very different cultures.

One thing they do that Michael doesn’t is have a bit of a cause to promote along the way. On this trip it is UNICEF, and on the Africa trip it is that organization and several other pet charities. They visit various UNICEF projects along the way, including a heartbreaking one in Kiev, where child victims of Chernobyl are dying from cancer or wasting away from brain damage. They are obviously moved and humbled by the good humor of these doomed children.

Do they make it? Well, it’s not really worth a spoiler warning, because we know they survived … but do they fulfill their ambition to bike it all the way (except, of course, for the airplane rides from Magadan, Siberia, to Anchorage, and from New York to London)? Mostly. There is a stretch on the way to Yakutsk where there is no road at all, so they load their bikes onto a train. And on the Road of Bones—named for the Gulagites who died building the road for Stalin—they finally encounter so many road and bridge washouts that they decide it’s just ridiculous—actually impossible—to go on, so they load the bikes onto the support trucks … and it’s still almost too hairy to imagine. Remember the scenes in Sorcerer where the big trucks were dangling off a rope bridge? There are scenes like that here, and they are even scarier, as we know there are no special effects, and if these trucks are swept away in the current someone could get killed.