Michael Palin: Mountains of the mind

For his latest book, Michael Palin undertook a hair-raising journey into the Himalayas. He tells Sue Gaisford about the physical - and emotional - peaks he had to scale
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The Kho people of Chitral, high in the mountains of Pakistan, speak a language called Khowar. From his guidebook, Michael Palin learns some vocabulary: father is tut, mother is nun, grandfather is bap, grandmother is wow and foot is pong. "This is the sort of language I like," he writes approvingly, and he begins trying out some phrases on his Kho companions.

The Kho people of Chitral, high in the mountains of Pakistan, speak a language called Khowar. From his guidebook, Michael Palin learns some vocabulary: father is tut, mother is nun, grandfather is bap, grandmother is wow and foot is pong. "This is the sort of language I like," he writes approvingly, and he begins trying out some phrases on his Kho companions.

It's not everyone who knows how to say "Don't go naked" in Khowar, but Palin is an unusual man. He is an enthusiast, an Autolycus travelling the world optimistically and inquisitively, snapping up huge experiences along with innumerable unconsidered trifles. His latest journey takes him and his faithful crew along the length of the Himalaya range, "the raised eyebrow above India", from the Khyber Pass right down to the Bay of Bengal.

It's a complex project, comprising television series, book and audiobook. He's been back for 18 months and finished work on it only last week. "And it's now that I'd really like to begin," he smiles. Each medium has offered him a small change of perspective: his reading of the audio, for instance, includes amusing emphases not to be found in the book, while the book in turn admits episodes - such as an interview with Imran Khan - that haven't made it to the screen.

Thinking, now, about the emotional peaks he scaled, he remembers flying in a tiny microlite over the lake at Pokhara and enduring unrefined terror as the lavishly-moustachioed Russian pilot turned, grinned, gave him a thumbs-up and swooped down sideways. He speaks of getting just beyond Everest base-camp, understanding for himself (and communicating to his readers) how Malory and Irvine must have felt to stand there, 80 years earlier, barely two miles from the top of the world. He recalls meeting the Dalai Lama and being seriously impressed: "For a world leader he seems extraordinarily well-balanced, natural and unaffected: his emotions are spontaneous, his judgements carefully pragmatic." And, should all this sound a bit Mary Poppins, he adds, "there is nothing remotely weak and woolly about the man himself. He just doesn't do cynicism."

Nor, really, does Palin. But, happily, he does a lot of close observation. The absurd is never far away and little escapes him, whether it be the old houseboats of Kashmir, glorying in names such as "Young Monalisa" and "Balmoralcastle", or hoardings encouraging him to visit, say, a tailor "Where Fashion Ends", or a jungle paradise where the tempting prospect is briefly described: "Come. Get Lost."

Coupled with this eye for detail, he has the good diarist's willingness to try anything and to laugh at himself. When told that eating apricot kernels will lengthen his life, obviously he buys them. He genuinely admires many Buddhist principles but, when visiting a soothsayer who predicts he will be reincarnated as the daughter of a rich family in the West, he thoroughly enjoys his photographer's conviction that this means he'll be reborn as one of John Cleese's grandchildren. And he is tickled when the light of recognition dawns in a stranger's eye and a voice breathes rapturously "Look! It's Eric Idle!" Everything is recorded in a tiny notebook and later worked up into idiosyncratic travel-writing of unpretentious charm and enjoyable originality.

"Charm" is often a freighted quality, ironically bestowed and uneasily received, but Palin carries it lightly. He is, famously, a very nice man - and meeting him does not dispel the image. In the eclectic study of his rambling north-London house, even early on a stormy Monday morning, he looks much younger than 61, wiry and energetic. He has remarkable deep brown eyes, and is dressed in blue from denim shirt to neat suede shoes. His style - in person as in prose - is interested, prepared to believe the best of people, endearingly unfeigned, frequently thoughtful, often bathetic, sometimes lyrical. Asked to define himself, he wriggles a bit before telling a story about doing a one-man show in his native Sheffield that he called " Forty Years Without a Proper Job. And it's true. I've never had a proper job - not a salary, nor an office, nor a long-term contract. I just sort of slipped through the net."

His passport declares him to be an actor, though writing is what matters most to him. Writers, however, are not welcomed at every frontier while an actor is less potentially threatening - and can be seen, I suggest, as a journeyman (which suddenly seems rather appropriate). "Yes," he agrees, "the word actor suggests someone harmless, who might at a pinch be entertaining. And then, oh then, should I need it, I say that I once kissed Jamie Lee Curtis in a film ( A Fish Called Wanda) and that's it. No problems! It's my Get Out of Jail Free card."

Although these days he is probably best known as a television traveller, for many of us he will forever be the man who sold a dead parrot to John Cleese in one of the most famous Monty Python sketches. His own favourite role, however, is the agonised liberal centurion in Monty Python's Life of Brian. "There he is, sending people off to their deaths, but it's taking such a lot out of him. He really doesn't want to do it and then along comes Eric and says 'Guess what? I've been set free!' and he's so pleased and everything has come right in the world. And then Eric says 'Nah! I'm going to be crucified!' and he's been had again. He's so lovely: a man who goes through history being decent, hopeless, liberal - and continually fooled."

There are some marvellously Python-esque moments in the new book. One comes when young Tibetan monks unwittingly re-enact the Argument Sketch (you remember it; the clinic where clients can pay to be shouted at) in a trumped-up quarrel, traditional, formalised, furious and performed just for the sake of it. Another time, an old Chinese poet sings his famous poem (a love song to a yak) and Palin, called on to respond, obliges with a snatch of the "Lumberjack Song". Most bizarrely, on the hostile, bristling border of Kashmir, Palin is solemnly commanded to suck one of his travel sweets in front of the guard (presumably to prove its innocence) and then his director arrives and has to eat one of his sultanas and bite an apple. "If we'd dared even to smile," Palin recalls, "heaven knows what we'd have had to eat."

There were moments of pure delight, such as being asked to help bath a 55-year-old elephant and making him rumble with pleasure, but there were also unnerving episodes. In a remote Nepali village, three young Maoists materialised and abducted the Gurkha officer who had been looking after Palin's group. "They were young, only about 19. They had no weapons, just a pocketful of pens and a clipboard. They looked as if they were doing a survey about bus routes - but the village people, even our wonderfully brave Sherpas, were so terrified they could scarcely speak. Their fear frightened me, or at least produced a feeling of uncertainty. Why should I think these people like me just because they smile? And then, of course, the Maoists have killed lots of people..."

As for the anti-British feeling he might have expected in the wake of the Iraq war, he saw little of it, even in Pakistan, although he admits he might have been protected from it. "Partly," he explains, "it's because there is such a strong tradition of hospitality. If you're not armed, you're under their protection. People would think it rude to start talking politics. But in truth I never felt any hostility or aggression towards us at all. People wanted to know were we British or Ameri- can. There's a need to have a 'spook' and the Americans qualify for that - but not us. Towards us, there's a feeling of residual affinity, just because of a shared inheritance, a sense that they can talk to us and we'll know what's going on."

But it's seldom that simple: thinking back, he smiles at a memory: "I was in a street in Rawalpindi, on my own, when a rather shady man comes up with a proposition. First he asks, am I CNN? And when I say no, BBC, that's OK: 'BBC good. CNN shit.' Then he shows me a tape he wants me to buy: 'It's Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar,' he hisses. 'Never been seen before!' And that's when I notice he's wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. So, you could say, there's a certain amount of confusion."

The thing about this man is that, although many of us envy him his adventures, we can't hate him for them. If we can't get to these places ourselves, he's the one we're glad they sent. Towards the end of his book, there is a photograph of some Mishing women in off-the-shoulder saris standing in the waters of the Brahmaputra. They are fishing, leaning on upturned conical baskets as if they were Zimmer frames and then scooping the fish, wriggling, into their bodices. At the top of the picture, Palin is just visible. He has stopped his bicycle and is watching in amazement as the fish flap about beneath the bright silk. He looks about nine years old. You can't help hoping that the apricot kernels do their stuff.

Biography: Michael Palin

Michael Palin was born in Sheffield in 1943, the son of an engineer. In his first role, as Martha Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, he fell off the stage, but his dignity was restored by winning the Bradford Co-op Drama Festival's Best Perf. (Gent) Award. At Oxford, he read history and met Terry Jones. Their writing-and-performing collaboration culminated, in 1969, in Monty Python's Flying Circus, a phenomenon that flowered through films, books and charity shows into the 1980s and beyond. His other films include The Missionary, A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda, and he has written a novel, pantomimes, plays and children's books. His travel documentaries began in 1989: this week the sixth, Himalaya, is broadcast on BBC1 and published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicholson (£20) and as an audiobook by the BBC. He is married, has three grown-up children and lives in London.

'Himalaya with Michael Palin' starts on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm..

Michael Palin will be appearing as part of the 'Distant Climes' series at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on 16 October. Book tickets on 01242 22 79 79 or visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk