Publisher, journalist, motorcycle racing fan and motorcycle/SUV tour operator with a keen interest in the less well travelled areas of China and South East Asia.
A New Zealander, Michael Esdaile has been interested in China and Asia generally since his early years as a farmer’s son in the southern New Zealand province of Southland.
After a period as a sub-editor at the Otago Daily Times, and later acting Business News Editor, the travel bug took him to Australia then the USA before the offer of a position with a Sydney-based publishing company saw him return Down Under.
One day in 1986, a telephone call from Chinese-born Australian Michael Wu and a subsequent meeting with him re-kindled Esdaile’s desire to see China.
At the time Esdaile was Editor-in-Chief of the fortnightly motorcycle publication REVS Motorcycle News andMr. Wu had made the telephone call to ask what he thought of the idea of a motorcycle tour through China.
Almost from boyhood, the Orient had held a fascination for Esdaile and here was an opportunity too good to let go.
“I was extremely interested in Mr. Wu’s proposal, so much so that I publicised it in REVS and elected to take 23 days leave to join his tour, after talking Steve McKenzie, an old friend from Dunedin, to come as well,” Esdaile recalls.
“From memory, Michael Wu had a few potential customers and from the publicity in REVS, we got enough people together to make it happen. If I remember correctly, the all-up cost was around $3000 Australian, but that was back in 1986,” says Esdaile.
In short order he put down a deposit and signed on for the 23-day adventure.
“The price included everything, meals, accomodation, motorcycle hire, airfares, the lot. I think I spent about $50 in China that first time, because everything was paid for before we left.
“Travelling by motorcycle proved an excellent way of seeing a large slice of China – we travelled through Manchuria into Inner Mongolia almost to the border with the former Soviet Union,” Esdaile recalls. “At that time there was some border tension and we were unable to get right to the border, but we were more than compensated by staying with local tribesmen and living in their tents, or ‘yurts’. Our hosts organized a dancing party with local girls that went ‘till midnight.”
Not only was this the first Western motorcycle team to make this journey, in most of the towns and villages the 12-strong motorcycle group stopped in, they were the first Western people the locals had ever seen.
“I well remember asking one 15-year-old boy if he could guess where we were from, and his reply, through our interpreter, was ‘Russia’. Our explanation that we were from Australia was met with a blank look, until we showed him a map. He couldn’t understand how we could have got from Australia to his village. That was just one of scores of similar experiences we had on that journey. It was obvious from the way most of the local people reacted they had never seen Westerners before,” Esdaile adds.
“I was also surprised how much freedom we were allowed in stopping and taking photographs whenever, and wherever we wanted, with the natural exception of a forward military base in Inner Mongolia.
“I cannot imagine how we could have made it into some of the areas we visited if it weren’t for the expertise, and persistence of Michael Wu and the fact we were on motorcycles.
“Indeed, it also became obvious to us that our Chinese guides were also venturing into unknown territory as they had calculated some of the distances between towns from the railway distances!
“My immediate impressions of China then were of its vastness, the friendliness of its people, and its change toward a more open economy.
“It was clear from the slice of China we experienced then that the nation had begun its march toward a more free-enterprise economy and one member of our party was able to use this new-found knowledge to open up trade links for his father’s business.
“I was impressed by the manner in which Michael Wu planned, organised and executed this first motorcycle tour to China and one of the members of our original party went on a subsequent tour and later told me it was even better organised than the first.
“I could see that dealing with the Chinese isn’t easy. It takes patience, skill and understanding. As he was born in China, Michael Wu was able to communicate effectively and smooth the way for Westerners travelling through that vast and fascinating country,” Esdaile concludes.
Michael Esdaile is now with a publishing company in Auckland that produces medical catalogues and journals, but his interest in China is unabated. As a result, renewed communication with Michael Wu in 2002, and much e-mail correspondence, led to the decision to organise a tour into the mountainous area of SichuanProvince west of Chengdu.
Esdaile promoted the concept, and in July 2004, a small band of Australians and New Zealanders flew into Chengdu for a 12-day, 2000 km adventure.
Drawing on this experience, the two Michaels ran further tours through Sichuan Province and then through Yunnan Province.
Michael Wu has since retired, leaving Michael Esdaile to continue on with specialist China tours, with the help of some excellent contacts in China.