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'Trying to film while crossing Russian borders was a bit stupid'

From the Great Wall Of China to the Russian ballet, Susan Griffin gets on track with Joanna Lumley's Trans-Siberian expedition

Published 11/07/2015

Joanna Lumley in front of the Trans-Siberian train in Mongolia
Joanna Lumley in front of the Trans-Siberian train in Mongolia
Joanna Lumley in Beijing with Madam Lu

Joanna Lumley is no stranger to travel and adventure. She's spent time on a desert island, sailed up the Nile, and embarked a Greek Odyssey during her six-decade career. Next up, she's boarding a train to experience one of the world's greatest journeys, in Joanna Lumley's Trans-Siberian Adventure.

The three-part documentary will see the 69-year-old actress, presenter and activist depart from Hong Kong and travel more than 5,000 miles through China, Mongolia and Russia, before arriving in Moscow.

Lumley, who has a son and two grandchildren and is married to conductor Stephen Barlow, talks us through her latest epic exploit.

The scene is set

"It's always nice to have some sort of reason as to why someone does something, rather than just being airlifted in, and because I'd been a child in Hong Kong - we lived there for nearly two years - and because I'd been a model in Moscow, those seemed to be nice bookend for a Trans-Siberian adventure. Also, [it was] the chance to go on a journey that, quite honestly, I would never have made in my life. We don't often have the time or inclination to go on these colossal train journeys."

Memories of Hong Kong

"It wasn't especially emotional to return [to Hong Kong], because when you're a child, it's just a place. You remember the heat and what it smells like. It's changed so colossally, but what I do remember is when we did the driving up onto the peak to do the very beginning of the programme, I had the faintest feelings of memory of the way the trees overhang the roads, and the steepness of the road. But the rest of Kowloon [northern Hong Kong], I couldn't recognise at all.

"What was lovely about Hong Kong was to find the old hotel and the markets, which felt the same, the stalls and the hustle-bustle about it. It's very different from Beijing. Hong Kong is very different from China. One country, two systems, they say."

Modelling in Moscow

"We were so constrained in 1966 [when Lumley was modelling in Russia], which was the grip of the Cold War, so we were literally marched from our hotel [to modelling jobs]. We stayed in the same hotel [during the TV series], which has been hugely redecorated, but I stood there and thought, 'This is familiar'. Of course, when I'd stayed there before, it had been taken over by the communists and had babushkas sitting on each floor, counting you in and counting you out like border guards. This time of course, there's a freedom in Russia, and a gaiety and charm."

Wonder wall

"The Great Wall Of China took my breath away, I have to say, that was awesome. You've seen it forever, drawn on things, and it seems almost mythical in its beauty and the tremendous extent of it. It's 5,500 to 6,500 miles long. You can't even get your head around that. And to see the wild part of that, at dawn, having climbed for over an hour through a forest, it was truly extraordinary."

Bowled over by ballet

"Watching the ballet dancers in Perm, Russia, was stunning, and it always touches me when very young people are dedicated, either as musicians or dancers or mechanics. Whatever they're doing, they have applied themselves and they have to push themselves hard, and to see that resolve in very young ones is magnificent.

Abiding by the rules

"The trip was very carefully planned, because you can't waste time when you have so little. We were idiots trying to film going through the Russian border, nobody permits it. It wouldn't be permitted here, so why would it be permitted in China or Mongolia or Russia? We had to wipe almost all the film we'd taken. Borders everywhere are tough and they have to be, but the people were exceptional. I found friendliness everywhere we went. They were slightly more circumspect in China, as if they had a feeling that they were being watched, nobody would step out of line much."

Whiling away the time on board

"You film a lot, quite a lot of the time you're banging up and down the corridors interviewing people, talking to people. Packing, repacking. The beds are beautifully made, so you can sleep through the night, which is lovely. I'd go stir-crazy if I had to stay on a train for seven days without getting off, but we were getting off all the time. But as a child, I did long boat journeys. All our journeys out to Hong Kong were five weeks, and to Singapore when I was in Malay was four weeks, so I'm a good traveller."

Tips for Trans-Siberian travellers

"I would recommend people to go to Mongolia, they would have a fantastic time. You can fly direct to [capital] Ulan Bator. It's the friendliest city. I would also go to Sibera, which sounds like hell because that's what it used to be, but it's full of the most adorable people. I was thrilled to be in that bitterly cold street, opposite the house where Chekhov had stayed on his trips there. He said, 'This is the Paris of the East'."

  • Joanna Lumley's Trans-Siberian Adventure is a three-part documentary beginning on ITV on Sunday, July 12

Belfast Telegraph

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