TV UK, 21 October

Himalaya: one man and his mountain.

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

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With the killing of hostages becoming a regular occurrence in Iraq, Michael Palin’s latest series took on an extra edge.

Himalaya (BBC1, Sunday) took him this week from Annapurna to Everest. On the way, he visited a fairly remote part of western Nepal and saw a Gurkha recruitment day. Apparently, tens of thousands of young Nepalese men compete to get one of just 300 places in the British Army and, as a result, the recruitment tests are pretty taxing.

Given the desire of these men to join up, essentially making them millionaires by Nepalese standards, and the relatively high quality of the resulting recruits, you wonder why they don’t get more than 300. Better than the flabby and feckless British recruits who have to be persuaded that army life is just one big adventure in personal growth. These Nepalese men are up for it.

But so are the local rebels. Western Nepal is Maoist territory, so one evening a group of rebels turned up and suggested to the officers in charge of recruitment that they might like to come and meet the local rebel leader. As it turns out, the whole thing seems to have been a publicity stunt and the officers were subjected to nothing worse than a cup of tea and a chat. But being shown just days after a British hostage was killed in Iraq, this incident suggested that occasionally the real world does intrude on even the most affable traveller.

Palin’s various series present a very cosy vision of the life of the traveller. But then you realise that it isn’t just one man and a backpack. It’s one man, a backpack, a cameraman and 40 local porters carrying half their own bodyweight up the world’s tallest mountain.

Once the illusion is broken you realise that every spontaneous shot has to be set up, that Palin walking into a temple means that the cameraman was there first to get the light right, that every chance meeting was set up by email months in advance.

But the biggest illusion is the idea that travelling on your own is all that wonderful. I was inspired by a previous Palin travel series to travel around the world. It’s great when you see some world-famous landmark or meet an interesting individual. But between the Manhattan skyline, the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China are lots of boring and lonely bits when you think that some company would be handy. It makes you hanker for package tours.

What makes the trips worthwhile is the anthropology, not the geography. Finding out about how other people live is fascinating, but as a solo traveller you often remain on the outside. Arriving in Japan when you don’t speak the language is like arriving on Mars.

So it’s nice when you get the chance to communicate with the natives. Eating dinner on the train in the USA, my fellow diner remarked with wonder at my eating style. ‘I just love the way you British push the food on to the back of your fork like that.’ Meanwhile, her redneck husband just hacked and stabbed at his meal.

While we’re on the subject of isolated villages in the developing world, this week’s edition of the Money Programme (BBC2, Wednesday) visited the Outer Hebrides to report on how Nike was making a new line of trainers from, of all things, Harris Tweed. One weaver was delighted his pattern had been chosen. ‘It’s like the landscape round here in the summer’, he said. The pattern seemed to be almost uniformly grey with the odd fleck of green. It’s pretty bleak in the Outer Hebrides, then.

Still, being isolated from civilisation, with the locals speaking a peculiar form of English and eking out a marginal existence, you’d have thought the Outer Hebrides would be a perfect place for Michael Palin to visit.

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