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November 13, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

Review: Long Way Round

When I was in high school, going nuts in a small rural Virginia town, my family used to watch Lonely Planet on the Travel Channel. Our favorites starred a short, gregarious Englishman named Ian, who habitually got drunk on a local beverage. In one South American country, he sat on a park bench with a ranchhand and learned how to pick up women. He would eat anything. Living in the Shenandoah Valley, a place my mother occasionally compares to Communist Russia in terms of accessibility, watching Ian wander around the world in such an infectious good mood was actually a real inspiration for me.

Some of the better aspects that made the Lonely Planet series great are present in Long Way Round. A 7-part series that originally aired on Bravo, it follows Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman as they traveled from London to New York by way of Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Russia, and across the US (i.e., the Long Way Round). It gets off to a slow start as they prepare for the trip, but once the pair starts traveling through the less-developed parts of Europe it becomes more interesting. Perhaps because they're traveling through such backwoods areas, McGregor's fame is basically irrelevant, so he and Boorman (plus their cameraman, Claudio) take part in different cultures unencumbered. One of my favorite moments is a night at a Russian gangster's house, where the host climbs down the stairs to entertain his guests with a guitar in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. They also have prairie oysters in Mongolia, and put up with constant police supervision all through Kazakhstan (quite different from Borat, obviously).

Of course, once they cross into Mongolia and Siberia, the show changes from a mostly feel-good cultural vacation into a harsh slog (for the travelers, not for the viewers), as the motorcycles become bogged down into increasingly boggy and punishing terrain. At points the team has to stop completely as the bikes break, or as the rivers are simply too high to keep going--and at one point on the Road of Bones, even the support team's 4x4s have to be towed across a river crossing by enormous Soviet trucks. Perhaps the best take on this comes from a Russian doctor hired for the trip. "These men, they have families, children," he repeats over and over. "What are you doing this for? Why?"

It's not a question I can answer, because I probably would have given up after the second week. But it makes for pretty good television.

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