In Conversation: Michael Palin Has Travelled around the World, from Pole to Pole and across the Sahara. His Latest Adventure Has Taken Him along the Himalaya, Travelling through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Nagaland, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Jessi Tucker Speaks to Him about His New BBC Series
Tucker, Jessi, Geographical
How did the Himalaya project begin?
Almost by accident. Sahara was very successful, which meant the BBC was happy for us to make our next documentary virtually anywhere. I wanted to do something that got me away from sand for a while and the Himalaya was a region I knew relatively little about. I suggested it to others and they jumped at it. We started filming in May 2003 and made seven separate trips out to Asia, mostly in fairly long sections, returning for a couple of events such as the freestyle polo match on the top of the Shandur Pass.
What was it like to travel there?
It was fascinating seeing how much variety there is in a relatively small region. Many people spoke English because of the British influence, which made it a bit easier to understand what was happening. I'd travelled in Muslim countries before so had more idea what was going on. However, there are other major religions in the area that I was less familiar with--Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. I'm sure l put my foot in it many times.
What did you find particularly interesting?
The hill tribes are very interesting. When I visited Nagaland, I discovered that there's an independence movement to free it from India The elders still wear traditional dress, although you see the younger ones wearing jeans and T-shirts. Throughout the Himalaya there is a similarity among the hill tribes. They all have to live very tough lives while resisting the attempts of the plains people to get them to live more like they do. Politically, the hill tribes aren't all the same, but I think there's a certain mindset shared by all of them.
In the stricter Muslim areas it was intriguing to see the reactions of the men to our female assistant producer. She dressed conservatively when necessary and at times covered her hair, but as a Westerner she didn't have any problems. She did excite a lot of curiosity from the men, however, who seemed to find it fascinating to see her do everything we did--sit round the table, eat together, chat together. In the more extreme areas of Pakistan I found it quite odd to realise I might have been in a big city all day and hardly seen a single woman.
What surprised you the most?
Bangladesh surprised me. You forget how new the country is--born out of a violent civil war in 1971. I don't know what I expected--you have images of terrible floods from the news--but I was impressed by what I found. It's much more exalting and dynamic than I thought. It's also incredibly fertile. The whole country acts as a delta for the Himalaya with all the alluvium dumped by the Ganges and Brahmaputra. …