“Sacred Mountains Of China With Ryan Pyle” was an event hosted by the Asian Institute of Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. The event featured a well-known photographer and producer Ryan Pyle, who is also an alumni of the University of Toronto with a B.A. in International Relations (2001). Pyle spoke about his experiences in filming his television series, “Extreme Treks: Sacred Mountains of China” and his documentation of the pristine mountains of Qinghai and Tibet. Professor Joseph Wong, Director of the Asian Institute, chaired and moderated the event as well.
Pyle first travelled to China in 2002 as a professional photographer. Later, Pyle permanently settled in China, working with publications like The New York Times as a photographic journalist. Pyle’s work garnered him wide acclaim: Pyle was listed by the Photo District News Magazine as one of the 30 emerging photographers in the world in 2009. Pyle later expanded from the “limiting” medium of photography, and started to develop his own films after circumnavigating China in 2010. Pyle utilized his experiences and the accompanying footage to develop a television production. This was followed by a series of his circumnavigation of India and Brazil. This development eventually led to his film series, the “Extreme Treks: Sacred Mountains of China.” Professor Wong praised Pyle for having the increasingly lost skill of storytelling: Pyle’s ability fashion stories out of visual images led him to simultaneously become a successful journalist and producer.
Pyle’s most recent production, “Extreme Treks: Sacred Mountains of China” is a testament to his ability as a producer and storyteller. The show covered the four sacred mountains of China, Minya Konka, Amnye Maqen, Kawa Karpo, and Mount Kailash. These are all located in the Qingdao and Xizang (Tibet) Provinces in China. The show was broadcasted on the Travel Channel, and received high ratings. The show was a success. As a resident of Shanghai, a city of 25 million individuals, Pyle describes the production process as an “escape back” and “reconnection with nature.” Drawing on his journalistic instincts, Pyle used the opportunity to explore and document the culture and way of life of individuals who live around these mountains.
Pyle’s emphasis on culture offers a unique perspective of the mountains. Pyle explains that this was done instead of summiting the mountains as the indigenous Bon culture in Tibet indicates that the mountains were reserved for the God. Therefore, any attempts at summiting the mountains would be sacrilegious. With the travel taking Pyle to almost 6,500 meters above sea level, Pyle comments on his struggle in adopting to the elevation while the indigenous Tibetan people walked with relative ease. Although Pyle intended this remark as a comedic side note, it demonstrated that Pyle’s travel was a physical challenge. This was a testament to Pyle’s dedication towards journalistic perfection.
The first episode of his new series documented Pyle’s travel to Mount Kailash. Located in Eastern Tibet, the mountain is sacred to four religions: Bon, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In the episode, Pyle focused on his effort to complete the traditional pilgrimage around Mount Kailash, and he documented the scenes of nature and individuals he met along the way. Conducting an investigation into the culture surrounding Mount Kailash while interjecting comedic relief and captures of beautiful scenarios, the episode was a testament to Pyle’s photographic and storytelling skills. The episode as a result was able to draw the attention of the audience at Innis Hall.
For Pyle, he describes his travel to Mount Kailash as one of education and exploration. In terms of education, Pyle describes the mountain as a symbolic and literal “fountain of life” since its glaciers feed the waters to all major rivers in Southeast Asia. This episode indeed serves an educational tool. As Pyle’s explains, many viewers could not believe that the showcased mountains were located in China. Pyle considers his work of exploring the last remanences of intact and pristine wilderness as critical in an increasingly urbanizing China. And, in terms of exploration, Pyle saw his travel as a rare opportunity to get off “the grid.” The travel consisted of many unpredictable factors like weather. Pyle saw these factors as an opportunity to embrace the nature of these mountains and leave the trouble of urban livelihood behind.
In conclusion, Pyle remarks that he considers his work as a glimpse into the natural environment of China in the face of rapid urbanization. Referring to the rapid urbanization of Shanghai, Pyle describes China’s development not necessarily as “pretty,” like the imbalance of development between urban and rural areas, and the replacement of older historical spaces with modern ones. As the series have shown, Pyle clearly demonstrated his skills as a photographer and storyteller with his awing and inspiring documentation of Mount Kailash, while contrasting between China’s natural beauty and urban development. Essentially, Pyle’s presentation was a demonstration of his own personal development in documenting the two varying faces of the Chinese nation.
Timothy Law is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto, Victoria College. Currently, Timothy serves as an event correspondent and editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.