All great journeys must start with a single step, it is said. That's in an ideal world. Some great journeys start with a 250-kilogram motorcycle, laden with all the equipment needed to keep a man happy and mobile over 32,000 kilometres, falling on top of that man. Repeatedly.
It was here, on a street in Shepherd's Bush, London, that Charley Boorman found himself underneath his BMW as the world, it seemed, looked on: cameras, family, friends, and his riding companion and fellow actor, Ewan McGregor. If you ask Boorman about that rocky start, he looks momentarily as if he's swallowed a dirty sock.
"Ah, Charley," says McGregor, full of mock sympathy. "It's not fair that was one of the first questions. I'm sorry."
But the shame is clearly far enough in the past that Boorman can view it with equanimity. "It was this huge realization that I was leaving my wife and children," he says, tipping his chair back. "Suddenly all the energy drained from my body and I couldn't ride the bike, I was wobbling all over the place." His ruddy face breaks into a smile. "So that's my excuse. It's good, don't you think?"
"It's almost working," McGregor says. "I bought it."
They have a nice patter, these two. Travel with anyone for long enough, even in the most luxurious circumstances, and you need to develop heightened social graces and a bountiful sense of humour. Travel with your combustible friend over some of the wildest, most pot-holed, dangerous country in the world, where the final meal of the day will sometimes be bull-testicle soup, and hey, you'd better be Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
In fact, McGregor and Boorman often fall about in giggles, like a couple of oddly hirsute schoolgirls. The actors, who met in 1997 while making Serpent's Kiss in Ireland, decided last year that they needed to take their mutual love of motorcycles on the road. "London to New York -- the long way round," writes McGregor in their newly released book of those travels, predictably called Long Way Round.
There's a map on the wall of their office/garage in Shepherd's Bush that marks their trip: Western Europe, Slovakia, Ukraine, Mongolia, Siberia, leap across the water, Alaska, Canada, across the United States -- in coloured yarn. Their giant BMWs, still covered in decals and dirt two months after their return, sit in a corner. McGregor, who's alternating between a bran muffin and full-strength Marlboros, often leaps up to indicate a particular adventure on the map.
A television series about their trip is currently airing on Bravo, although they're almost unrecognizable from the grimy beasts the camera caught in the wilds. (They were followed by camera operator Claudio Von Planta, also on motorcycle.) McGregor is as shiny as a new penny, his blond hair flopping over one eye, and Boorman (son of director John Boorman) looks like he's lost about 10 kilograms since the journey's start.
For McGregor, the trip offered not just an adventure but a way to escape, if only for four months, the control-freak atmosphere of moviemaking, even though Von Planta's camera was trained on them throughout the trip. In one town, a young man thought he recognized McGregor from films -- porn films, that is. Another semi-fan, a market vendor in Ukraine, mentioned one of the actor's personal favourites, Big Fish. "Not so nice," the Ukrainian said. One night in Siberia, they returned to their hotel to find the words "Ewan" and "Charley" scrawled in lipstick on the pavement, obviously a big thrill for the town's teenage girls.
"It was like a wee fan club," McGregor says.
"It was lovely," he says, of hiding in the doorway from fame. "It's not something I feel I need to escape from, but it's nice to meet people who don't already have an idea of who you are."
Before McGregor and Boorman set out, they had to persuade BMW to give them bikes (not difficult) and prepare for the countless vagaries of man and nature (a little more challenging). To that end, they took a three-day course on "hostile environments" from a super-efficient, if enigmatic, Englishman named Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton. The actors were convinced that Lowther-Pinkerton, who liked to show his students photos of horrendous casualties by way of warning, is a former member of Britain's elite Special Air Service (SAS).
He taught them at least two valuable lessons. First, always to approach a border slowly, with respect, and second, that everywhere in the world people would understand two English words: a certain Anglo-Saxon expletive, and "Beckham." This turned out to be good advice, as they ran into a couple of policemen, or "rozzers," as Boorman calls them, who shouted "Arsenal! Chelsea!" and then told them recent football scores.
The survival training came in handy on a couple of occasions. Igor, a local bigwig in Ukraine, made his money in appliances (McGregor draws air quotes around the word appliances) and treated his two guests to a dangerous evening of booze, guns and song.
The second episode, and perhaps the only time McGregor came close to losing his life, occurred not in Igor's madhouse, or on the rickety bridges of Siberia, but on the highway near Calgary.
Travelling at 100 kph, McGregor was forced to slow suddenly. Behind him was a teenager in a red Honda who couldn't hit the brakes quickly enough and hit McGregor's bike instead, causing him to go out of control,. So the star of Moulin Rouge almost ended up road kill in Alberta, and this only a day after Boorman's wallet had been stolen. "God bless the Canadians," McGregor laughs. "Thieving maniacs!"
Despite of the challenges, they're keen to embark on a boys' own adventure, part II. They'd like to perhaps do another trip in Africa, or South America, and continue the work they began with UNICEF, which saw them visiting an orphanage in Chernobyl, Belarus and homeless kids living in tunnels under the streets of Ulan Bator. The book concludes with a plea urging readers to support the charity.
The journey itself ended with McGregor and Boorman being escorted into Manhattan across the George Washington Bridge by members of the Orange County Choppers motorcycle club. The friends, who are each married with two daughters, had spent months pining for home, and the combination of riding triumphantly into New York and the prospect of seeing their families unmanned (although not unseated) both of them.
"We blubbed like babies going over the bridge," McGregor says. "It was incredibly moving."
"We blubbed a lot going around the world, actually," Boorman says.
"Blubbing around the world," says the star of Trainspotting, with a theatrical flourish, "with Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor."