LA Style sits down with Ryan Pyle, Discovery Channel Travel Host and adventurer, who was locked down in Istanbul, Turkey, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He has also been coping with the challenges of filming Season 4 of Extreme Treks in this unprecedented time.
We still hope to ignite your curiosity while currently stationary due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why–while we try to #flattenthecurve at home– we will be interviewing all sorts of game-changers, entrepreneurs, and inspiring individuals in the travel sphere.
Interview questions by Ellen Yin of Cubicle to CEO, an online membership teaching women how to monetize their passions and build a profitable business.
You took a post-grad solo trip to China and decided to move there permanently shortly after. As someone who had previously never traveled outside North America before this trip, what inspired you to make an impulsive international move? Did you experience any culture shock in your first year living in your new home country?
Ryan Pyle: I had my entire personal identity tied up in my Division 1 University basketball career, and after not being good enough to play professionally, I had a bit of an identity crisis.
Who was I and what was I going to do with my life now that the only thing I cared about was “over”?
Why China? I took a few courses on Asian History and Politics in University and thought China was a different and unique part of the world that I knew nothing about. So when my basketball life was over, I thought it might be time to learn something new about a place I had never been to, and it changed my life.
Yes, of course, there was a culture shock, but I fully embraced it. I enjoyed the challenges of learning a new language, learning about new ways of life and a new culture, it humbled me and made me much more respectful about other people and other ideas of living.
How did you leverage your work at That’s Shanghai magazine into landing a contributor role at the New York Times?
Ryan Pyle: After my initial trip to China, I knew right away that my life after basketball would be a life telling stories and learning and traveling.
I started working for local English language magazines in China like That’s Shanghai and City Weekend, from there, I graduated to doing features for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and eventually airline magazines. Once I had a diverse enough portfolio, then I was able to visit New York and make the rounds to meet all the photo editors and travel editors at all the big magazines and newspapers. From there, I became a regular contributor to the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Forbes, Fortune, the Financial Times, and The Sunday Times Magazine.
I was a steady pair of hands in an intricate part of the world, and I built up a great relationship with my editors and publishing partners because I took the time to get to know China. I often traveled for work and pleasure, and I cared about getting it right. I lived in Shanghai for more than 16 years.
When the financial crisis in 2008 caused you to lose your income, how did you make the pivot from print to television?
Ryan Pyle: I think 2007 and 2008 were the best years professionally I had as a photographer and writer. The reason was mainly the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Every magazine and newspaper wanted stories about China, and I was working almost every day for two years, which is unheard of as a freelance storyteller.
But then after the Olympics, there was a noticeable lack of interest in China, and that coupled with the global financial crisis, which also pushed most of my publishing partners, the newspapers and magazines to the brink of bankruptcy.
I went from working 4-5 days a week to working one day per month. I didn’t like corporate photography work, and I wasn’t an exquisite fashion or studio photographer; I loved traveling and telling stories and meeting people, and I knew those days were long gone unless I pivoted into television.
So in 2010 I decided to make my first television show in which I wanted to show off the parts of China that I believe mainstream media was missing, so I rode a motorcycle the entire way around China – 65 days & 14,000 miles and set a Guinness World Record for the longest motorcycle journey within one country without back-tracking or overlapping.
And I made that journey into my first television series called Tough Rides: China. Now available on YouTube and Amazon Prime in the US. That first show was successful, and I had a new career from that moment.
I did more motorcycle trips and shows in India and Brazil and then started doing adventure trekking shows as well, which is mainly what I do now.
What is your favorite part of storytelling and traveling? What are the types of stories you wish more people would see in mainstream media?
Ryan Pyle: I have lost a lot of faith in mainstream media, but don’t get me started, that’s a whole separate topic and interview. My favorite part about storytelling and traveling is being humbled by taking the time to learn about other people’s lives and other people’s ways of life.
I think continually being a guest in someone else’s home, or someone else’s country is educational and helps you not only understand the people you are learning about at the moment, but you’ll also learn a lot about yourself. You’ll get a better understanding of how you fit in the world. It’s a beautiful thing and a lovely way to see the world.
Mainstream media is about audience numbers, click-through rates, and speed. It doesn’t yield a lot of the content that I am interested in. My shows are slow, I walk across deserts for weeks on end, we don’t have competitions or contests in the middle of our adventures, and we don’t talk nasty to people.
I travel the world to learn and observe and explore and to be humbled by the magic of people and nature.
What is a myth about traveling you want to dispel?
Ryan Pyle: In pre-COVID times, I would do about 50 speaking events a year, from New England boarding schools to Ivy League Colleges to Fortune 500 companies, and so many people I speak with are afraid to travel. They are afraid to go to Kyrgyzstan or Mongolia or Uganda. They are fearful of the people, the food, the religion, everything.
As long as the country is not in open warfare (Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc.), you are most likely going to be okay, traveling and exploring the world. And I just try to tell people to stay open-minded and positive and treat people as you would like to be treated, and everything is most likely going to be okay.
You might get food poisoning, and you might get your pocket picked, and that’s not the end of the world; what is terrible is having regrets and having “I wish I had seen that” or “I wish I had traveled there” moments. I always just go, and you’ll figure it out.
And if you have a tough time, you’ll learn, and then the next time you go out, it’ll be more natural. But I do have one qualifier here, and that is “Know Yourself” if you are up for an adventure go find an adventure. If you need everything to be neat and proper, find that experience. Don’t go to Northern India and expect Paris.
When you got rejected by all the major networks, you bootstrapped your funding + production to create a television series that eventually led to the creation of Extreme Treks. What advice would you give to other people who are trying to transition into a completely new career and are told they don’t have the experience, skills, or contacts to make it work?
Ryan Pyle: I was lucky with my transition, I had a clear vision of what I needed to do and where I needed to go, and I was confident I could do it. Perhaps it was my basketball experience or my career as a story-teller, but I knew I could make this happen. I think my advice to anyone trying to make a similar transition is “Make Something, Anything.”
A lot of people sit around waiting for funding or waiting for the sky to fall. My suggestion to anyone and everyone is to make something first. A student film, something for YouTube, something low budget, something with your friends or family, just make something.
No one will listen to you or give you a chance in this world if you are not already willing to take the first step on your own. The first step is the riskiest and the hardest, embrace, and walk on.
What have been the challenges of taping Season 4 of Extreme Treks during a pandemic? Any tips for those who are stuck abroad during COVID on how to make the most of this time?
Ryan Pyle: I was filming the second episode of my Extreme Treks season 4 in the Simien Mountains of Northern Ethiopia in March when the world closed their borders, something that I previously thought could never happen. We had just gotten to the top of a high ridgeline about 12,000 feet above sea level, and our guide said that we would catch a mobile signal, the previous few days we didn’t have a connection to the outside world.
And then the messages started coming in, about the US stopping flights to Europe and Europe closing their borders and also the United Arab Emirates closing their borders, as I live in Dubai.
So from the trail, we trekked back to the road and caught a ride straight back to the airport in Addis Ababa, and I couldn’t go home to Dubai and didn’t want to go back to Canada and stay with my parents who were both in their 70s.
So I opted for Istanbul, as Turkey was slow to close its borders, and it was between Asia and Europe where I have a lot of business partners and could keep staying busy and working. I arrived in Istanbul on March 21st at 7 am. I haven’t moved in over three months—the first time in 20 years.
As for what I have been doing to stay busy, I created my television show called The COVID Calls, where I interview friends, other creatives, or people I’ve always wanted to reach out and connect with. I’ve done over 75 episodes (each one hour) now, and they are done in the very interactive environment of Instagram Live, and then I also put them on my YouTube channel.
I have also started up my podcast, and I am continuing to plan episodes for hopefully Q4 when travel might be possible again. Must stay busy and stay positive, but I do believe the future of travel is looking not great, see my podcast about that in the links above.
Your latest Discovery Channel show, Expedition Asia, looks at options for travel in a post-pandemic world. Tell us more about why practicing solitude and social distancing is a great way to experience a country for travelers who regularly flock to tourist destinations and hot spots?
Ryan Pyle: Nature is the answer to almost everything. You want to feel healthier, go out into nature. You want to reduce anxiety, so for a long walk or trek into nature. You need to social distance and avoid crowds, go out into nature. My favorite quote is by John Muir, an early advocate for protecting Nature in the United States.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life.”
My Television shows don’t “pound home” this idea of being an environmentalist or protecting the planet, you get enough of that in your daily media consumption, but my TV shows are every bit about adventure and exploration as they are about the wonders of nature and the importance to protect our greatest treasure.
I always end my interviews by asking entrepreneurs, what does being a CEO mean to you – if we were to take that question and view it through the lens of life, what does being the CEO of your life mean to you?
Ryan Pyle: Being the CEO is the Captain of the Ship. The buck stops with you, and when you are looking around for someone to blame, there is no one. I crave that responsibility, and I love that ruthless honesty in the role. Be the CEO of your life.
Make your own decisions and make your own choices and steer your ship, and live with the consequences knowing there is no one else to blame—ownership of your career, ownership of your path, ownership of your brand.
It’s not about having control, because anyone in the entertainment industry will tell you that power is a facade, but it’s about managing your choices and deciding where to put the effort in and what to pass on. I love it. I crave it, and every day I wake up and go to work in the most beautiful and exotic locations and the world. I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my professional storytelling life as a photographer and writer and now as a television host.