Michael Palin in North Korea

I love travelogues. Not only can travel enable you to see the world, but the act of traveling itself can open your eyes to the world at its best. Done well, a travel documentary can take you on that same journey, open a window into a world past and present, and provide comfort and inspiration to those of us stuck at home. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. This is Travelogia.

Journey time: late April/early May, 2018

Countries visited: China, North Korea, South Korea

Way back in Full CircleMichael Palin had the opportunity to ever so briefly cross into North Korea from the South. To him, the Democratic People’s Republic represented an incorrigible blank spot on the map, and 22 years later, Palin returns to fill it in.

Michael Palin in North Korea is weird. It is Palin’s first travel series for a company other than the BBC– produced by the obscure (to me) Channel 5– and comprises only two episodes. He arrives in the country at a time when tensions seem to be cooling between the two Koreas, but under circumstance that read to me as an American as mindless appeasement.

But strangest of all is the act of visiting the country itself. Throughout his journey, Palin is accompanied by at least two minders appointed by the government– whether in Pyongyang, the seemingly doomed beach resort of Wonsan, with its empty but fully-staffed international airport, or the grand wildernesses of Mt. Paekdu. Everything Passepartout shoots has to be reviewed by these handlers. Never before has voiceover done such heavy lifting. Palin, repeatedly reprimanded for asking the wrong questions, must feign contentment and positivity to a visibly pained degree. But perhaps most revealing is the recognition of that same feigned contentment in many of the everyday North Koreans he encounters.

Michael Palin in North Korea does not dispell anything we think we know about the so-called Hermit Kingdom. But it does fill in the blanks, and that’s what brought us here in the first place.


Don’t expect Michael Palin to come on any more adventures. During the filming of this series, he turned 75, and there is a definite sense throughout that he is here to finish what began 30 years earlier at the outset of Around the World in 80 Days.

That’s not to say that this series is permanently concluded. Just last month, production began on Long Way Up, in which Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman have reunited to trace the length of the Americas on cutting-edge all-electric Harley Davidsons. I’m also hoping that Stephen Fry will be able to bring his cuddly charm to some familiar-yet-misunderstood corner of the world. In the meantime, I’m considering a tribute to Lonely Planet/Globe Trekker‘s Ian Wright, and even posting a long-lost manuscript from my own grant pan-American journey in 2012. Let me know what you think.

Sam Aronow is the author of An Armada of Cats: Travels in Israel.