When exploring an unfamiliar country, most travellers would choose the comfort of reliable tour buses, trains or taxis to get around. Ryan Pyle opted to take the road less traveled. The award-winning photographer and producer journeyed 14,000 km over 54 days through some of India’s toughest and most treacherous terrain – all on the back of a medium-range motorbike. Pyle and his crew traversed mountains, jungles, deserts, cities, and remote villages on motorbike in an attempt to capture the country’s true essence on film.
“Tough Rides: India” was the visual project that emerged from the expedition, a screening of which was held on November 1st, 2016 at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. The event, sponsored by the Asian Institute and hosted in the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility included a short viewing, followed by a discussion and question and answer session with Pyle about the grueling journey, what he learned and how his interest in adventure and storytelling was first piqued.
A Toronto native, Pyle graduated from the University of Toronto in 2001 with a degree in International Politics, but with little idea of what to pursue professionally after graduation. He recalled a fascinating course on Chinese politics he took while at U of T with Professor Victor Falkenheim in the Department of East Asian Studies which inspired his spontaneous move to Shanghai a year after graduation.
While in China, Pyle taught English to locals for some time before foraying into photojournalism and digital storytelling. By 2004, he was a regular contributor to the New York Times. In 2009, he was listed by PDN Magazine as one of the 30 emerging photographers in the world and soon began working full time on television and documentary film production. He has since produced and presented several large multi-episode television series for major broadcasters in the USA, Canada, UK, Asia, China and continental Europe. Pyle’s decade-long career has taken him on a series of exhilarating trips to some of the most fascinating places on the planet. His 2012 ride through India was no exception.
The ‘India’ crew consisted of Pyle, his brother Colin and a small camera team that followed closely behind to capture their journey. Shunning the comfort of luxury hotels and transport, the group tested the limits of their endurance while navigating completely unfamiliar territory – Pyle himself had never been to India before. He admitted that the fear of the unexpected “generated significant fear in my soul,” as the crew departed for their journey with no locals in tow to translate or guide them along the way. Their carefully planned trip spanned 14,000 km in total – starting from Delhi and going up north along the country’s heavily militarized border with Pakistan, straight down the southern tip down to Madarai and Bangalore, up the coast to Calcutta and Darjeeling, cutting back through the heartland through Varanasi, Lucknow, Agra, and finally culminating back in Delhi.
Pyle and his team visited several cultural and religious landmarks during their time off the road which included the stunning Golden Temple at Amritsar and the sacred site of Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. They even witnessed a dramatic display of what Pyle called “chest-thumping nationalism” at the Wagah Border with Pakistan.
The audience was treated to several video clips from the trip, after which Pyle opened up the floor to a discussion. He talked about the setbacks he faced along the road, both physical and emotional. There were days, he said, that the crew would wake up early in the morning and be on the road for hours on end to make it to their next scheduled destination on time. Many “man-tears” were shed along the way, joked Pyle, while narrating some of the crew’s riskiest “white-knuckle” rides. One excerpt from the India episode showed the crew carefully maneuvering their bikes across a tiny cliff-top road, where one misstep would have led in a steep drop to death.
When asked what gives him the courage to undertake such adventures, Pyle remarked that for him, part of it is instinct. Coming from an early athletic background, he was conditioned to not “overthink things.” Even so, a trip like the India ride doesn’t come without hefty preparation. Pyle talked about the long time it took to get sponsors on board with the project, admitting that his idea was initially rejected by travel television productions such as National Geographic and The Discovery Channel.
However, he stressed the importance of not letting rejection deter the team from their goals. Processes that the establishment wants you to take, he noted, usually don’t take you where you want to go. “To succeed,” he said, “you can’t listen to anyone.” Time and dedication, too, are key. Every project that he has undertaken in the past, Pyle said, has stretched to at least two years from conception to post-production. But at the end, despite the struggles and setbacks, Pyle said he has few regrets. “Independent travel is an incredibly empowering thing,” he says. “You’re going to come back ready to go back to work or school with the confidence that you can do anything.”
He encouraged students in the audience to explore the world around them and internationalize their experiences to the best of their capacities. “We compete for our jobs in a global environment now,” said Pyle. “If you can think and act globally then you can live and work globally.”
Emaan Thaver is a fourth year student studying International Relations and Economics at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of interest include the historical periods of post-war Europe and the logistics of peace as well as contemporary global economic development.