I love travelogues. Not only can travel enable you to see the world, but the act of traveling itself can open your eyes to the world at its best. Done well, a travel documentary can take you on that same journey, open a window into a world past and present, and provide comfort and inspiration to those of us stuck at home. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. This is Travelogia.
Journey time: April-July 2004
Countries visited: United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, United States, Canada
In 1997, Ewan McGregor performed in Philippe Rousselot’s film The Serpent’s Kiss. The movie was barely distributed and poorly received by critics, but it also forged an unexpected friendship between McGregor and his co-star Charley Boorman, particularly bonding over their love of motorcycles. Despite an ever-growing gap in their respective Hollywood fame, Ewan and Charley would routinely go on road trips after wrapping up shoots, and it was while filming Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith that McGregor first proposed an epic motorcycle journey from London to New York– the long way round, by way of Europe, Asia, and North America.
Possessed by this bizarre and probably unworkable idea, Charley reached out to the upstart digital production company Big Earth to turn the trip into a television documentary. After months of preparation, the two friends set off on a three-month journey through some of the most exotic– indeed, nigh-impassible– parts of the world. The result is as fresh and exciting as Around the World in 80 Days, a pioneer of the travelogue genre.
Part of what makes Long Way Round so fascinating is the way by which Big Earth et. al. attempt minimize the artifice of the filmmaking process, in the same spirit as Around the World in 80 Days but with far better technology. Not all of the footage is ready for primetime, but it’s highly compatible with this series’ sportier format. Instead of the five crewmen of Michael Palin’s Passepartout, Ewan and Charlie have personal camcorders, mounted cameras on their bikes and helmets, and an accompanying Swiss cameraman– Claudio Von Planta– with a unique taent for biking offroad while shooting professional-grade TV footage. It’s not quite at the point where the viewer could be inspired to do something similar on their own– though that’s coming– but just the challenge is exhilarating in itself and is a huge part of the series.
To that end, two full episodes are dedicated exclusively to the the exhaustive (but highly entertaining) preparations necessary for the actual trip– working out, learning how to give bribes to Russian police, acquiring brand new BMW 1150s. The guys unashamedly speak of it as a boyish wish fulfillment fantasy, but can you blame them?
Long Way Round is not without its share of danger– an unexpected night in with Ukrainian mobsters, a near miss with Kazakh bandits, accidents, injuries and an overwhelming tendency by onlookers to underestimate our hosts, seeing them as brash thespians playing explorers, but their ingenuity and determination is the heart and soul of the show. Their energy is infectious, and the unprecedented intimacy of the digital format– akin to that found in podcasts and the better parts of YouTube– makes it even moreso.
If Michael Palin’s series inspire fantasies of far away lands, Long Way Round makes you want to get up right now and go wherever the road takes you. If only I had a motorcycle.
- Among the best parts of this show are what can only be described as side-quests, like an American diplomat on the far end of Mongolia giving Ewan and Charlie a special medallion to send to his sister when they reach her farm in Minnesota, or the guys randomly encountering the motorcycle-loving author Ted Simon in Ulaan Bataar.
- The finale is technically a crossover with American Chopper, so meme away.
SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Since we’re talking about travelogues, let’s talk about mine!
An Armada of Cats: Travels in Israel is a humorous journey throughout my adopted country that tries to get past the ubiquitous baggage of religion and politics and explore the human side of the (mostly) Jewish state.
However, I can’t do it alone. The northern leg of my journey book was made possible through generous donations on Indiegogo. The money I raised went way further than expected, but not enough to head south. I’m hoping to raise just $1000 over the next two weeks, and you can check out details here. Thanks.
Next Time: Charley Boorman goes solo, makes some new friends, and flirts with disaster in Race to Dakar