Travel > Long Way Round

Long Way Round

By GREG MAFFETT
Published: September 14, 2010

When:
2004

Why start at the beginning, when you can start before the beginning? This 10 episode documentary contains 7 actual episodes pertaining to the subject matter of a 3 month motorcycle trip, 2 episodes on the planning and one episode reflecting on the event a year later. How they missed episode 11, reflecting on the reflections of a year later, or episode 0, thinking about planning for the trip… The biggest problem with this documentary is that there is no biggest problem. Three months of planning were put into this trip. No trip worth doing requires three months of planning. Especially a bike trip. Here is how a great bike trip starts Me: “Hey bro, lets ditch work for a couple months and bike through the second and third world” Bro: “You out of your mind?” Me: “Of Course.” Bro: “M-kay, let’s roll.” At which point we’d zip down to the local Harley dealer, buy a couple hogs and head off to our certain demise, blogging an epic story en route. But these guys are Brits. They need to painstakingly remind us why they are no longer the superpower they once were. They can’t not plan. C’mon guys, go buy two bikes are be gone. Nah, too American for them. This trip was based on a book called Jupiter’s Travels. That was another Brit who logged 126,000 miles on a Triumph in the 70’s. Had these guys read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), we might have had an adventure film. In ZAMM it only takes a page or so to list all the item needed for a long distance bike trip. This film spends two hours doing that, then they need a bike mounted cameraman and two support vehicles. As documentaries go, this is farcical. They just don’t get motorcycles, at least not in the sense Americans do, which I have to say is the only sensible sense to address these machines. You hop on a motorcycle here and you are somewhere between an eccentric Millionaire like Malcolm Forbes and a nutcase like Charles Manson and Satan’s Bike Club. The main thing, in either case, is that you are an oddball of epic proportions when you hop on a motorcycle. You don’t plan for this like you are doing a moon shot. Otherwise you plan out most of the misadventure that could make it interesting. Yet they plan and they fret. The two riders, actors Ewan Macgregor and Charlie Boorman, even have back up fretters. They worry about things the leads should be worrying about but apparently don’t have the time to get to. As the story evolves, you get a sense that many of the minor problems they encounter really are the result of the expansion of the trip from the simple “buy a couple bikes and go” to the idea of a major film production. One such area has to do with all the expensive camera equipment they are toting along. This requires the equipment be signed in and out of every country to ensure they are not video gear smugglers. Two guys with basic cameras would have been too simple, you see? Before they start on the trip, Ewan decides that “fooling with eyeglasses while wearing a motorcycle helmet is too much!” So he decides to have laser eye surgery two weeks before the trip. This reminds me of the Truman Capote line “The better the actor, the more stupid he is.” Letting someone shred your eyeballs a few weeks before a major trip is exactly the kind of thing that no intelligent person would do. But this is an actor. Now everyone I’ve talked who has had the laser eye surgery has been happy with it. And their ringing endorsement usually goes something like “It’s so great to be able to get up in the middle of the night and see where you are going when you go to the bathroom.” Now as for me, it’s not that exciting of a trip that I’d let someone shred my eyeballs. And I can hit the target just fine with 20/200 vision. But that’s me. The funny part here is that by the third episode there is an incident where Charlie does something very dumb while pumping gas into his bike and shoots gas into Ewan’s eyes. This incident could have blinded Ewan as badly as the surgery had that gone wrong. So yeah, good call there to get rid of your eye protection two weeks before the trip. The trip finally does get underway. They start in Western Europe, very much the first world. They stay in nice hotels. Ok, so the point here is…well, they have to get through these countries to get to the outback of eastern Europe and Asia, so there is not much choice. On the upside, not much time is spent here either. Everyone agrees that motorcycling through civilization is not all that interesting. But eventually they get to the Ukraine. We are now out of the first world and into the second world, the former soviet bloc. Here you see farmers using horses and hand tools to plow the ground. We finally have something. The legacy of the failed socialism of the Soviets, or the future of our own budding socialist society here in the US. Eventually they arrive at a one coal mine town. It is also a one mansion town. They stumble across the one rich guy in town who invites them over to his place for food, drink, music and guns. Turns out the mansion owner plays a pretty spiffy guitar and can sing like an opera star. Ewan gets the guitar next and holds his own on some folksy ballad. This was the first redeeming section of the film. Another section that holds water has to do with the Unicef angle of the trip. They visit a place where there are children that suffer from the effects the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The disaster occurred in 1986. This film was made in 2004 and there is a building full of children who are deformed as a result of the accident. Really? Really! How screwed up does a country have to be that it is still pumping out broken kids 10-15 years after a major nuclear accident? I was bouncing back and forth between disbelief (they may have just had random defects unrelated to the accident) and pathos (how bad is the management in this country?) Made it to Episode 4. The only thing I was sure of about this episode is that it would be the end of the review. If it was another lame effort, I’d buy a cycle, take a sabbatical and do it right. Turns out, that is not necessary. They get it now. Episode 4 is in Kazakhstan, where the trip turns bad in so many ways. First off are the police escorts. They are being escorted from town to town, interviewed, treated like celebrities. Ewan is the one who finally gets it “This is not what we had in mind! We just wanted to ride alone! This is…it’s OVERPLANNED!” Now of course he was referring to the local government, but his comment applied to his whole approach to the trip. Of course the trip was overplanned. Had they just nicked a couple bike and sodded off to the east with two hand held camera’s…they would have had the trip they wanted rather than this motorized version of the Tour De France. But the awareness has kicked in at some level. Now the trip becomes a lot more authentic. And the roads, wow. Another quote “had they set off land mines in this road it they couldn’t have made it any worse” aptly describes the conditions. They eventually figure that in many places the off is road is better than the road and they take that route. Also in this episode it becomes clear who Charlie is. He is the real biker and the level headed guy who is going to gut through the tough sections and keep plowing along while Ewan goes through the unbalanced reactions that I’d expect out of, well, me. In fact the more I see of the two of them one thing is now clear. Charlie is the guy who wanted the KTM bikes as he knew what they could do. Ewan, the not so experienced biker, wanted the BMW. The scene where they see that KTM dropped out seemed really fake to me. In that Ewan calls up the KTM guys and leaves a “WTFO?” message on their voicemail. Now really, that seemed to be a made for TV moment. The “reason” KTM dropped out is that the “heard what the plan was for the ride and were afraid something would go wrong.” C’mon. KTM is a small producer, everyone knows BMW. This would be free advertising for KTM. If the bike goes belly up when two goofy actors are riding them, the problem is the riders. If it holds up, everyone wants one. There is no downside with their loyal riders and lots of upside with the general public. I had an inkling the fix was in when I saw this play out in episode 2, but by episode 4 I was sure this was the result of a call made off camera to ask KTM to withdraw for Ewan’s sake. After they get past the first really hard section, Ewan really is getting it. “This was awful, but now that we are through it, there is a real sense of accomplishment.” Pretty sure that is how the rest of the trip will go. So I’m in for two more disks vice the purchase of another two wheeler. My suggestion if you have read this far is skip the first three episodes, go directly to four and enjoy the ride…

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