From 14 April 2004 to 29 July 2004, Ewan McGregor, Charley Boorman, motorcycle riding cameraman Claudio von Planta, along with director/producers David Alexanian and Russ Malkin travelled from London to New York City, via Western and Central Europe, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan,
Mongolia, Siberia, and Canada, for a cumulative distance of 18,887 miles (30,396 km). The only sections of the trip not undertaken by motorcycle were the 31-mile (50 km) passage through the Channel Tunnel, 580 miles (930 km) by train in Siberia, which circumvented the Zilov Gap; several river crossings and a short impassable section in eastern Russia, which were undertaken by truck; and a 2,505-mile (4,031 km) flight from Magadan in eastern Russia to Anchorage, Alaska.
Upon encountering numerous swollen rivers and a serious lack of functioning bridges while travelling along the Road of Bones to Magadan, the riders got their BMW motorbikes through some fairly deep rivers. The summer run-off from the Siberian winter was in full flow and after a valiant effort, the bikes eventually had to be loaded on to the trucks of passing drivers and ferried across a few of the deepest rivers.
The journey visited thirteen countries, starting in the UK, then passing through France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Canada, and the USA, ending in New York City.
The team mainly stayed in hotels while travelling in Europe, North America, and populated parts of Russia, but frequently had no option but to camp after reaching Kazakhstan and Mongolia. They took time to visit a variety of sights and landmarks while travelling, including the Church of Bones in the Czech Republic, the Mask of Sorrow monument (described as the "Mask of Grief" in the show) in Magadan, Russia, and Mount Rushmore in the USA. They ultimately arrived in New York City on schedule and rode into the city accompanied by a phalanx of bikers, including McGregor's father Jim and the Orange County Choppers crew.
McGregor advocated riding BMW motorcycles, while Boorman preferred KTM, a specialist Austrian motocross and off-road bike manufacturer. They had also considered Honda bikes. After off-road tests on the KTM and BMW machines, McGregor acquiesced to Boorman's passion for the KTM. After one of their specialist terrain riders met with the LWR team and learned more about their intentions, KTM ultimately declined to provide them with their bikes, citing concerns that the team might fail. Boorman took the news badly as he had been particularly attached to the idea of riding a KTM motorcycle on such a journey.
BMW then contributed three BMW R1150GS Adventure all-terrain motorcycles. The bikes featured a range of modifications to help the team achieve and document their mission. The bikes were also equipped with cameras, microphones and display/viewfinder screens mounted on the dashboards. A customised GPS with specially mapped waypoints in Mongolia and Siberia was crucial in areas with no roads or signposts.
The trip was inevitably not without accidents and incidents. Ewan McGregor had petrol sprayed into his (recently laser-corrected) eyes at filling stations on two occasions (one of which required a trip to an optometrist in Ukraine).
In the first case, Boorman attempted to stop a petrol pump by putting his finger over the nozzle, only to send a jet of fuel directly into McGregor's face; in the second, petrol gushed out of McGregor's own bike's tank while filling. McGregor's forehead became badly swollen around a mosquito bite in Kazakhstan (Claudio and Ewan joked that it could be a black widow spider bite) which required treatment and threatened to curtail the adventure. McGregor also showed his badly bitten rear and revealed that his penis had become swollen and painful during the trip, again due to mosquito bites.
Russ Malkin and Vassili the doctor rolled their off-roader in Mongolia and were lucky to escape with minor injuries. Boorman badly strained the muscles in his left shoulder in Siberia and was unable to ride for several days (this occurred while they were unable to cross the rivers and were largely riding on local trucks and with their support crew). McGregor was rear-ended by a very young driver outside Calgary and was lucky that his panniers took the brunt of what could have been a very serious incident had the rear wheel taken the full force of the impact. The following day Boorman was bumped while stationary by a Calgarian who reversed into him at slow speed, fortunately without causing injury or major damage. Cameraman Claudio von Planta suffered a theft on the trip, when an opportunist thief stole his tent and personal effects which had been briefly left unattended while in Siberia. Charley Boorman also had his wallet stolen from his jeans at some natural hot springs in Canada, which contained $500 and €400 along with his credit cards.
The bikes also took their fair share of punishment. Cameraman von Planta's bike had a broken frame after a bad fall in Mongolia and only a "bodge job" by Boorman using tyre levers and cable-ties enabled them to get the bike to the next town where the frame could be welded. After the frame was arc welded, they discovered that the anti-lock braking system no longer worked and the entire bike had to be shipped to Ulaanbaatar and sent home. A replacement was found locally (nicknamed 'The Red Devil'), a new Russian-made red IZh Planeta 5, purchased for about US$1,000. This cycle later developed gearbox problems. Two Mongolian sheep herders happened to pass by and quickly repaired the cycle, laughing at the fact that McGregor and Boorman had such a variety of high-quality tools and no idea how to fix the bike. Ironically, the next area they had to drive through was especially wet and muddy, making the heavy BMW bikes undrivable, forcing McGregor & Boorman to man-handle and push them for long distances, while von Planta, now on the much lighter Planeta, had no trouble riding through it. The frame of McGregor's bike broke in two places in Siberia leaving them no option but to flag down a passing truck which took them back to Tynda for more welding.
One of McGregor's greatest fears was drawing water into his engine, which affected him twice while crossing the Siberian rivers. He pumped out the water from the engine and exhaust and the bike started. The bikes also sustained various problems after being incorrectly stowed during the flight from Magadan to Anchorage, necessitating a full service when they arrived in Alaska. Boorman suffered the only serious tyre puncture of the trip. All of the motorcycles suffered various other bumps, scrapes and cracks, though the bikes (except for Claudio's BMW) ultimately survived the journey.
When life gives you a difficult turn... lean on it