Head for the hills with Michael Palin.
“Himalaya,” a six-part series premiering Monday night on the Travel Channel, chronicles his six-month journey over the Khyber Pass from Pakistan to Afghanistan and then into India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Burma.
Known as the stammering Ken in “A Fish Called Wanda” – and, of course, for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” – Palin took up the BBC’s suggestion in the late ‘80s to go “Around the World in 80 Days,” channeling his natural wanderlust into a series of documentaries.
Since then, he’s ventured with chatty verve in “Pole to Pole,” “Full Circle,” “Hemingway Adventure” and “Sahara.”
Palin said his quest typically is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and vice versa – “go out there as a sort of everyman … just watching life as it goes by.”
By phone from his London home, he said: “We just try to fit in, be as friendly as we can to the people who are there, so they know what we are doing and they know we are not trying to trick them, because the programs that we make are not investigative journalism in any sense. They are more a portrait of a country we are going through.”
Interviews with world leaders are not usually part of the agenda. “It’s just not our style, and others do it better,” Palin said.
Yet during “Himalaya,” a chance to meet the Dalai Lama was irresistible.
“I was expecting to be rather overawed, sort of a bit dumbstruck by him, but as soon as he came in, it was just sort of something in the eyes, a little look of mischief that he really has … it was just sort of like meeting a fellow Python,” Palin said.
A Python, however, is not something the 62-year-old actor wants to be recognized as on these documentary journeys.
“The filming is really about meeting other people,” Palin said. “It’s not about me, it’s about them. The worst thing that can happen is if someone starts talking to me about what I do. I want to hear about what they are doing.”
But he does see nudge-and-wink signs of recognition sometimes – though not always for the right reason.
On the “Himalaya” journey, two American women “got very excited and sort of nudged each other and pointed me out,” he said.
“So I sort of pulled myself up to my full height and tried to look like, you know, a sort of star. As I walked by I heard one say to the other, ‘Oh my God, it’s Eric Idle.’ “
Idle was one of Palin’s fellow Pythons in the innovative British comedy troupe, along with John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and the late Graham Chapman.
Palin, who earned a history degree at Oxford University, said his parents never quite got used to his career choice, although his mother – “a good God-fearing member of the community” – was always supportive, no matter how outrageous his Python antics.
“Even when ‘Life of Brian’ came along and I was sort of seen as the devil by various of her friends, she would always say, ‘It’s a very good film. It’s not about what you think!’ ” he said, laughing.
On the other hand, he thinks his three children have always been “vaguely embarrassed by their father.”
Even he was astounded at times by the silliness of being a Python. He recalls the expression of “utter bewilderment” on onlookers’ faces watching the troupe crawl along the pavement in a skit about “climbing” the “north face” of a nearly flat London road.
Climbing the Himalayas, of course, presented a far steeper challenge for Palin.
He said it included “dizzying heights … right up to 18,000 feet with very little time to acclimatize, so you don’t sleep that well … and every step just seems slightly more difficult to achieve.”
Returning home to England, Palin was suddenly appreciative of things like “tea, tomato sandwiches, the smell of new mown grass.”
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