Michael Palin: Himalaya

Journey time: Various points, 2003

Countries visited: Pakistan, India, Nepal, China1, Myanmar2, Bhutan, Bangladesh.

If Sahara was attempting to shine a light on an oft-overlooked part of the world (at least for the time), Himalaya is a deliberate highlight reel of flashpoints, nearly accomplishing intentionally what Pole to Pole achieved accidentally.

Starting on the notorious Khyber Pass, Michael Palin and a now-conspicuously inconspicuous Passepartout go through one of the weirdest countries I’ve ever seen in a travelogue– the kind of place where an entire city makes counterfeit firearms, whose sound echoes constantly through the streets, gets some amateur dentistry, and hangs out with an anachronistic local aristocrat with a fabulous mustache. Then its onto India– particularly Amritsar, Shimla, and Kashmir, though Palin must regularly cross through the massive country in between stops further along.

In Kashmir, he marvels that such a beautiful place could nearly start a nuclear war. His travels in Nepal come shortly after the horrific Royal Massacre, and are marked predominantly by a constant intrusion by never-seen but reportedly very polite Maoist insurgents. Later on, Palin finds a fan in the Dalai Lama before heading off to his forbidden homeland of Tibet, and reflects on his own friendship with the late Beatle George Harrison at journey’s end in Bangladesh.

For all Himalaya’s attempts at ripped-from-the-headline relevance though, the conflicts depicted along the mountains’ spine have precious little to do with each other. Whereas Pole to Pole rode the wave of revolution from Leningrad to Johannesburg, Himalaya simply draws the line through a handful of random conflicts that happen to be near each other, rather like my own West Asia today. The series is interestingly consistent, but offers none of the highest highs. It’s too consistent, too clean, and once more loses some of the subtler notes that come with the literal act of traveling.

Five Stars: Our collective image of the Himalayas tends to ignore the fact that said peaks have more than one side. Luckily, here we get both, and in the far northeast we get our biggest surprise in the form of Yunnan province, home to a vast number of Chinese minority groups, including the matriarchal, unmarrying Musuo people.

One Star: Bhutan is always a popular pick for interesting countries for how differently it acts– traditional dress is still the norm for both men and women, the nation absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces, national success is measured by happiness instead of GDP, and people draw dicks on everything for good luck– but in a travelogue all about conflict, the country is a little to serene for its own good. The one exception is a barstool conversation with the Chief Justice, who dreams of being reincarnated as a black, 7-foot basketball star.

Next Time: And now for something completely different. If you watched the last few entries and yearned for the traveling minutia and cinema-verite of Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole, hold on to your fucking hat.

Next week, we begin looking at the documentaries of Big Earth as Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman travel from London to New York– by motorcycle– in Long Way Round.