NL WOMAN: Lumley’s latest adventure

Actress Joanna Lumley
Actress Joanna Lumley

From the Great Wall Of China to the Russian ballet, We get on track with highlights from Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian expedition

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 and some of the memories it sparked...

:: 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 bookends 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.

“Even when you walked down the corridor, they wouldn’t be just on their iPads, they’d all be doing their stretches or darning the toes of their point shoes. I shared a flat with a ballet dancer once, and their discipline is awesome, and that touched me very much. And I love the music of the pianos being played by those wonderful repetiteurs. There is an other-worldliness. That ballet class could’ve taken place 100 years ago and it would’ve been exactly the same.”

:: 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. They have samovars of hot water at the end of the corridor, so you can make tea at any time. Reading up on notes, reading, time passes. 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. I met some young students who were going to study in Denmark, so they were making this enormous journey rather than flying. 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

“Our trip was slightly different, because for the film, we did all kinds of things that people won’t be able to do [as tourists]. 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 and the most amazing countryside. 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.’’

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