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  The Chatter Box : Messages from Michael
Letter from London by Michael Palin on 18 September 2003 2:21pm
My attempt to surround my new journey with an air of mystery and surprise has been less than successful. The Sunday Telegraph recently published a piece which gave a reasonably accurate summary of where I’m hoping to go, together with wildly inaccurate summaries of things like cost of the series, which they headlined as £10 million. This must have caused minor heart attacks at the BBC. Before the crew responded with demands for luxury hotels, individual helicopters and round-the-clock Swedish massage, I had to write to the Sunday Telegraph and point out that the reporter had overestimated our funds by about seven and a half million pounds.

Then I felt very bad that Sunday Telegraph readers should know more about my movements than loyal Palin's Travels supporters, so here’s the low-down on what I’ve been doing, from the horse’s mouth as it were, with no reporters in between.

The new series, wittily entitled “Himalaya with Michael Palin”, has to be delivered, along with a book of mine, illustrated by Basil, and a book of Basil’s photos, unsullied by me, plus DVD and video and all the works, in time for transmission on BBC1 in the autumn of 2004.

Under the expert guidance of Mr. Roger Mills and Ms Vanessa Courtney we have filmed our way through Pakistan, from The Khyber Pass to Lahore, via the stunning mountain scenery on the North-West Frontier and the Karakoram Mountains, paying a visit, on the way, to the world’s highest polo match, a test of strength and speed for horse and rider over 12,000 feet (3600 m) above sea level, not to mention getting to within five miles of K2, the world’s second highest mountain.

Thanks to some last-minute help from the Chinese, who, because of the SARS outbreak, were very worried about foreigners travelling in and out at that time, we were given permission to travel to central Tibet to film a once-a-year horse festival. Tibetan nomads come together in the middle of the 13,000-foot (3900 m) plateau. Very colourful. Music, dance, feats of horsemanship, party atmosphere and lots of yak butter tea.

After six weeks of very exciting and productive early summer filming in Pakistan and Tibet, we came back home to enjoy our own heat-wave, and highest temperature ever recorded in UK, 100.6F (38C), whilst letting the monsoon blow itself out in Southern Asia.

Meanwhile I’ve been at work, fighting the temptations of gardens, cold beers and exciting Test matches, to write up as much as I can of the Pakistan adventure for the book.

And it was a great adventure, in busy, lively cities, beautiful countryside, and amongst magnificent peaks, glaciers, snow-fields and isolated, spectacular villages.

Though we spent some time on the Afghan border, where many Taliban and indeed Osama himself are reported to have sought refuge, we received wonderful hospitality and at no time sensed any direct hostility towards us.

The image of Pakistan is, sadly, linked in our Western press headlines with terrorism, and other bad news, which has resulted in an explicit advice against unnecessary travel from the British Foreign Office.

I felt that there is a danger of over-reaction here. There is barely a country in the world where you will be completely safe (certainly not in the UK or America), and Pakistan has many links with Britain, has many articulate and well-educated people and the Muslim tradition of hospitality remains strong. Taking reasonable precautions, you should find yourself safe in a country with modern communications and accommodation facilities and English widely spoken.

Unfortunately fear feeds on ignorance and the less we go to Pakistan the less we know about their country and the less they know about ours. This is an ideal situation for the fear-mongers on all sides to exploit.

Contrary to what the politicians and religious leaders would like us to believe, the world won’t be made safer by creating barriers between people. Cries of “They’re evil, let’s get ‘em” or “The infidels must die” sound frightening, but they’re desperately empty of argument and understanding. They’re the rallying cries of prejudice, the call to arms of those who find it easier to hate than admit they might be not be right about everything.

Armageddon is not around the corner. This is only what the people of violence want us to believe. The complexity and diversity of the world is the hope for the future.

I’m writing this, by pure coincidence, on September 11th. In a few days time myself and the crew will be in India and, Insh’Allah, continuing our Himalayan journey through Nepal, back into Tibet and hopefully across to southern China, before chasing the tail of the Himalaya as it flicks south and west through Assam, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

I know that we shall meet problems along the way, but I’d far rather see for myself what’s going on in the world outside, than rely on newspapers, television, politicians and religious leaders to tell me what I should be thinking.

From the polls on the site, I notice that 60% of those of you who responded would still travel despite the current global situation.

That’s the way. Go out there and find out for yourself. But always take care and whenever possible, establish a local contact to help you understand the fine detail of wherever you’re going.

I’ll be on the road for most of the time between now and March next year, with occasional fleeting glimpses of home, family and cats, but next time I promise to let you know what’s happening before The Sunday Telegraph.

Oh and by the way, I’ve just seen a sneak preview of the new Around the World in Eighty Days DVD. The improvement of quality over the old videos is very impressive, and I surprised myself by watching my pre-grey-haired self and his adventures with real pleasure (normally I hate looking at my old material!) And, if you’re interested, there is a long, rambling, but all new, interview with myself on Disc 3.

Keep your comments coming in. It’s good to get feedback and I’m glad so many liked the extras on Sahara DVD. Now with electronic editing and camcorders etc it’s much easier to get extra material than it was in the days of Eighty Days, so Himalaya should be rich too. Insh’Allah.

Happy travels.


P.S. - A Traveller's Reading List

Books for travellers who make their own minds up. I’ve enjoyed all these, for different reasons, over the last year.

Alain de Botton: The Art of Travel. Lovely, readable thoughts on why we travel and what we get out of it. Stimulating, easy to read and makes you think about why we leave home at all.

Michel Houellebecq: Platform. Novel, dark and powerful but interesting take on modern travel, tied in with quite a sexy story.

Tom Segev: One Palestine, Complete. Despite the title, which is a quote, this is an excellent, unprejudiced history of how Israel was created. Very relevant to what’s happening now.

Alistair Horne: A Savage War of Peace. The conflict in Algeria explained and documented. A compulsive read about what happens when force is used to teach a country a lesson.

Anthony Swofford: Jarhead. Very well-written, personal account of an American infantryman in the first Gulf War. Hard-hitting, unglamorous insight into the mindset of those who have to do the dirty work in Iraq.

Richard Darwood: How to Stay Healthy Abroad. Gruesomely helpful!

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