Michael Palin moves his travels into Iraq

Tuesday: Michael Palin: Into Iraq - (Channel 5, 9pm)

You have to hand it to Michael Palin. At the grand old age of 79, the majority of us would be popping on our slippers and putting up our feet, but the former Python isn’t having a bar of it.

Twenty two years after he fronted his first-ever travel documentary, the nattily titled ‘Confessions of a Trainspotter’, an episode of BBC series Great Railway Journeys of the World, Michael is once again packing his passport and heading into the great unknown.

After going Around the World in 80 Days in 1988 and coming Full Circle in 1995, he explored the US, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean during his Hemingway Adventure in 1999, following it up with a scoot around the Sahara in 2001.

He’s travelled through the Himalayas, Brazil and North Korea and, just when you think he’s running out of fresh places to visit, along comes this three-part series. He’s been fascinated by Iraq since he was a boy.

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It’s often dubbed the ‘cradle of civilisation’ and Michael wants to explore the country’s past as well as its troubled present, but first he’s got to get there.

The actor boards a train in the snow-capped mountains of Lake Hazar in eastern Turkey, and follows the river Tigris until he reaches the Persian Gulf on the southern coast of Iraq.

In the bustling Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Michael meets a Kurdish woman, Dilan, for a delicious local feast and a window into her people’s troubled relationship with federal Iraq.

When Michael finally arrives at the official border, it’s a day-long, chaotic challenge to cross, and night has fallen before he makes it into Federal Iraq. The first stop is the city of Mosul on the banks of the Tigris, which was almost destroyed after the Islamic extremist group Isis invaded in 2014.

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Walking among the ruins, Michael discovers the local children still seem traumatised, but once he starts chatting and firing catapults with them, they’re just like teenagers the world over.

Driving 50 miles east, a very different Iraq emerges, in the form of a glittering five-star hotel in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

This is one of the richest parts of the country, reminiscent of Dubai. The next day, he has an appointment with ‘Mr Erbil’, a tailor who measures him for a suit which he’ll pick up on his return, before exploring the ancient citadel.

Michael also meets Huda, an Iraqi Kurd, and they discuss how Kurds in Iraq feel more at home than in Turkey. He then heads to the remote town of Akre for Nou Roz, the Kurdish celebration of spring and an important event.

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Chaotic and crowded, there are rumours of a spectacular festival of fire that night, as tens of thousands of people suddenly descend on the mountainous outpost.

As dusk arrives, the throng grab flaming torches to climb tiny, dangerous steps, with Michael among the crowds as the fire-lit march proceeds to the summit. It’s a celebration and a party, with thousands holding burning torches all the way.

At the top, the view and atmosphere are incredible, combining to become one of the most joyous and moving experiences on any of Michael’s travels.