One of the most heavenly cities in the world. It’s full of kindness and poetry but it’s hard because they’ve got people watching on every street and if your head scarf slips off, someone will report you, so you’ve got to be careful. But underneath were people who were lively, who loved literature, food, music and all kinds of things that we don’t think of in the Islamic Republic of Iran because you only ever hear the bad government side.
The food in Shiraz was delicious - the best salads, fruits and vegetarian produce. I’m a vegetarian and I feared that it would be boiled goat on the menu but I was astonished. Everything is fresh and beautifully made. They thread walnuts on a string and dip them into grape juice so they come out looking like bratwurst, but when you cut into them, the sweetest grape juice is solid on the outside with walnuts on the inside. I was in Iran for about ten days and I adored Shiraz and would love to go back there. In the film I said ‘don’t take advice that’s given to you, book your ticket and come to Iran’, so I’m hoping people will do that. Go, go, go!
I was born in Srinagar, Kashmir [in 1946, a year before Indian independence] and all the trips I’ve done through India have taken me from the Hindu states at the very bottom of India, through the Muslim states and up to Sikkim, which is part of the Himalayas and to the Golden Triangle, which connects the national capital Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, but I’d never been to Calcutta until 2017 [filming Joanna Lumley’s India].
The city is tiny. There’s a population of only seven or eight million as opposed to the other cities with millions more and it has got the most extraordinary feeling. Calcutta was the capital of British India for nearly 200 years and it’s filled with ancient buildings from the time of British rule that they never had the money to pull down - great halls of justice, banks and libraries - and has the most enormous, fabulous botanical gardens and is on the Ganges, India’s great, wide holy river. Everything about Calcutta was sensational. One day we filmed in a carpet factory where they use old machines from Scotland and the north of England built in 1875, which are still thrumming away. In a way, going back to India always feels like I’m going home. Even though I didn’t know it as a little child, I’ve been back so often and I just adore it.
The Nubian Desert, Sudan
It was a childhood dream to go to the River Nile, the longest river in the world, and I had the opportunity in 2010 [filming a four part documentary series Jewel In The Nile]. We followed the Nile right from the Mediterranean through five countries, down to its source, high in the Rwandan mountains. In Sudan, we came to a big bend in the river at a holy mountain called Jebel Barkal, where, in the evening, people climb up to watch the sun setting. I climbed up, puffing and panting, and it was hotter than hell, about 55 degrees. There, people are literally dying of heat.
From the top, you look down and see tons of tiny pyramids that are much smaller and steeper than the great big ones in Egypt. Did you know that there are more pyramids in Ethiopia and Sudan than in the whole of Egypt? To be on the top of Jebel Barkal, a scarf wrapped around my head because it’s a holy mountain, and with little children who had been holding my hand during the ascent, saying ‘come on, come on!’ as I puffed and panted, was just dazzling. I could speak to you forever about the Nile. I just couldn’t get over its scale and beauty and how important it is in all the nine countries it runs through.
Lake Baikal, Siberia
In the mountainous Russian region of Siberia, north of the Mongolian border, is the hugest fresh water lake in the whole of the world. It’s two miles deep and so clear that you can see forty metres down, as if you’re looking through plain glass. In the winter, when it freezes, the ice is ten foot thick. It’s staggering. I was there in 2015 on the big Trans-Siberian Adventure for ITV. We’d come up through China and Mongolia and into Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Express. God knows, I’d got Siberia wrong. I thought ‘ooh, this is going to be a grim place’. I thought it would be vast and flat with people looking a bit menacing but it was filled with people who danced, rang bells, ate delicious food and wanted to welcome us to their houses where they cooked huge meals.
One English teacher I met there asked me the last time I’d read anything nice about Russia in the newspaper and I said ‘I can’t remember’. We’re always saying hateful things and being cross about countries but you forget the actual people. All the programmes I make are really about the people, not the governments.
I was there in June and before I visited I thought ‘what will this place be like?’. I expected it to be a bit wonky but this city took me aback. It’s sensational, like a Vienna crossed with Paris with huge, grand buildings, great avenues, vast shadowy trees, parks, chic people and beautiful little carpet shops and restaurants. I loved Tbilisi so much that I wanted to buy a house there.
Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure starts on ITV in October.
As told to Gemma Calvert.