After a nomadic early childhood and a lifetime of globe-trotting, Joanna Lumley knows one thing. “I’m not a timid traveller. I’m game for most things,” she smiles.
So when she was approached by ITV to film a documentary on the Trans-Siberian railway as it wends its way across Russia, Mongolia and China, the 69-year-old actress had just one concern. “I was thrilled, but I did think it might be a bit dull on the train itself.
“But there were all kinds of things that stopped it from being boring. The endless small dramas – being stopped in the middle of night at borders and having to turn out our suitcases, the train being lifted from one track to another because the gauge had changed. And then there were all our fellow travellers, from mothers with small children to traders with their wares.
“In the West we see the Trans-Siberian railway as an all-or-nothing experience, but for them it’s one of the backbone ways to travel.”
Then of course there’s the spectacular landscape. “I couldn’t get over the sheer scale of Russia. Eleven time zones, miles and miles and hours and hours of forest. If Siberia were separated off into being a different country, it would easily be the biggest country in the world, and that’s just part of Russia. You can’t even describe it, really.”
Filming took place in two three-week chunks last year – the second in winter, ensuring many evocative shots of Siberia in the snow – and unlike many tourist travellers, who tend to start their Trans-Siberian journey in Moscow, Lumley travelled in the opposite direction, boarding the train in Beijing.
But first she visited Hong Kong, the former British colony where she spent two years of her childhood, courtesy of her Army officer father James, who was stationed there with his Gurkha regiment.
A family photograph, shown in the documentary, shows her how much it has changed: in the snapshot an infant Lumley stands with her mother Thya and older sister Aelene near the apartment block home, the coastline clearly visible in the background.
Today, because of land reclamation from the water, that same spot stands in the middle of the city. “I don’t remember any of it because I was too small, but I was struck by the boldness of the city now. It’s completely forged its own identity.”
It was to prove just one of many thought-provoking moments for Lumley, who admits she found many preconceptions challenged along her journey.
“In Beijing we visited a Chairman Mao-themed restaurant. We had little Mao flags to wave, and it was partly an amusing thing to do. But I could see in the old people’s faces that they longed for those days back again because it was safe, and I thought that was fascinating.
What Mao brought them was the same thing Stalin brought people in Russia – security,” she continues. “You had a home, you had a job. It might not be the best home in the world or the best job, but you were safe.
“If he wasn’t going to kill you, Big Uncle Joe Stalin or Chairman Mao would look after you. We look at things with our western eyes, but you’re confronted with the reality, which is that for them it’s far more complex.”
It was a feeling reinforced continually along her journey. “We met a group of Ukrainians on the train and they were telling us they love Putin and thought he’d done exactly the right thing with Ukraine,” she recalls.
“With our outside eyes we hear about it and think, ‘That’s dreadful’, but then to hear of Ukrainians going,‘No, we’ve always felt Russian, we want to be Russian’ – well, it’s thought-provoking.”
Did the human rights record of the countries she visited not cause her to have misgivings about the trip?
“Look, there’s plenty wrong, but you can’t go into that because that isn’t our nice 9pm, ITV-audience film. It’s a light-hearted travel piece, it isn’t a political analysis of these great countries and it was never intended to be. People watching my shows know that it won’t be that.”