In 2002, Ryan Pyle moved from Canada to China. That was the start of a career filled with journeys to the most remote corners of the world. In 2004, Pyle started photographing for papers such as The New York Times and Time magazine. After the financial crash of 2008, Pyle ventured into the world of television. The multi-tasker took on several roles such as producing, directing and presenting. With his first series in 2010, Ryan Pyle and his brother rode their motorcycles around China, earning them a Guinness World Record for the longest motorcycle trip in a single country.
Today, Season 2 of Pyle’s show Extreme Treks is airing on BBC Earth and AUGUSTMAN had the chance to speak with Ryan Pyle about his experience filming in the toughest spots of nature and shares with us the importance of getting out of comfort zones, temporarily escaping society and finding yourself in the journey that is life.
The longest running photography project is the one you did in Xinjiang province. How did you deal with the political landscape there?
It took me 8 or 9 years to finish the book Chinese Turkistan, and it was all about the Xinjiang province in Northwest China. China has a complex relationship with many of its regions, and particularly with Tibet and Xinjiang. There have been past issues in which people have had their differences and there have been violent uprisings. That is fact. As a foreigner, I didn’t feel scared or nervous about my safety. I was very comfortable. The journey there really put me in touch with the locals and it’s wonderful being able to document those parts of the world.
How long did it take to film Extreme Treks Season 2 and where did you go?
We made 8 episodes and it took about a year to make the whole season. The thing about Extreme Treks is we spend more time in the field than most other television series. We really try to get as far out in the wilderness. It takes a bit longer to produce a one-hour episode than most other shows. We filmed in Tanzania, Morocco, China, the US, Peru, Italy, Nepal and Oman. The episode in the US shows a really rough snow trek. In Italy, the trek was through an open-air museum of where a historical battle between the Austrians and Italians took place. With Oman, many people think it’s just desert there, but we did an 8-day trek through the Al Hajar mountains which was eye-opening.
How is trekking through a region versus riding through it with your motorcycle?
It is a dream to ride motorcycles but I love walking, climbing and moving slowly through places. Extreme Treks is all about leaving technology behind, engaging with mother nature and pushing yourself in uncomfortable ways. And as much as I love motorcycle rides, I learn a lot more about where I am and about myself when I do extreme treks.
Which is your favorite episode of Season 2?
I have to admit that I loved filming in China. The Taklamakan desert was amazing as it’s so desolate and bleak. When you are trekking through a desert your emotions are just on a yo-yo. One hour you are feeling great, then you feel hopeless because the landscape isn’t changing and you feel like you are going nowhere. Culturally, my favorite episode is Oman. I loved filming in the Middle East. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about countries in that region, so it was great to visit Oman and see how safe it is and how welcoming the locals are.
What tips would you give viewers who want to try out these types of treks?
I don’t think you have to be very fit to do these. The exercise is in the discomfort. The question isn’t if you are strong or fit enough to walk through a desert for 10 days. If your life depended on it, most people could do it. It’s more about the fact that it is hugely uncomfortable. What you eat, where you sleep, walking in the sand and the dust, having the sun beat down on you and getting caught in a windstorm can be hugely uncomfortable. That’s not how a lot of people want to spend their vacations. But I actually think people should be doing stuff like that because it is such a great process, going out there, pushing yourself and going off the grid. I feel like we are a little bit over-civilized and we’re too connected. We know too much about each other, we read things every day that are private details. I feel that when you go out into nature for a trek, being connected to nature brings back something that is so natural and in the DNA of human beings. You leave this over-civilized world behind and it makes you a better human being. Anyone who is looking for personal growth has to look for challenge and discomfort because if you want to be comfortable your whole life, nothing is ever going to change.
If you hadn’t moved to China what would you be doing?
I probably would have been in banking. My dad is a banker. I was playing basketball at university and I really invested my youth in that. But during the summers, I would intern at banks and consulting firms. I actually really enjoyed it, but basketball was my passion. The issue with sports is that when you graduate university, even if you have reached a very high level you often can’t become a professional. That makes you depressed. You are always associated with basketball until suddenly someone says you’re not good enough to keep playing. So I was depressed after university and I felt like I had to get out of Canada and see the rest of the world. I had to see something different and unique as a way of finding who I was without basketball. I found myself in China, or the version of who I was after basketball. When things get difficult it’s about how you cope with it. What is the mechanism for getting through it? Some people exercise, some people bury themselves in their work, some turn to drugs and alcohol, but what if you go trekking or climbing? What if you tried to turn it into something very positive? And using it as a way to disconnect from the modern world, which I think is healthy from time to time.