Last Sunday’s initial episode set the pace for a trans-cultural sensory assault that leaves the viewer with a semi-formed “Wow” on the lips, pointing at fleeting wonders whilst trying to hang on through another visual culture shock or revelatory nugget delivered in Joanna’s velvet tones. The perfect auditory accompaniment for a glide through a cascade of overlapping histories, cultures, lives, landscapes and more. She’s guiding you in with a magician’s consummate ease, and before you realise; your feet have left the floor, you are through the looking-glass and away.
Vistas unfold; from Hong Kong’s glazed, sky-scraping waterside to the living sci-fi contradiction of Beijing‘s future/past collision and its living ghost of Chairman Mao. Then, witness the serenity and awe of a stolen sunrise on the Great Wall of China, belying the conflict behind its inception. Ultimately: the dusk of Mongolian hillside awaits, a camp-fire’s company of strangers and a shaman channelling ancestors who know you. The ancestors know everything. Was it a dream? How did you arrive here? By train, principally, and then by whatever conveyance is appropriate to deposit you in the dark of a strange land to talk to ghosts.
At times Joanna herself seems bemused by the matter-of-fact juxtaposition of the outwardly absurd. The way that Tibet is billboarded as a quaint holiday show annexe of China obviously inflames her activist ire, betrayed by a restrained grimace and a controlled shake of the head. Beijing’s “Chariman Mao and Chips” themed restaurant fares little better. The spectacle is surreal. It’s Monty Python without the laughs as red-pennant waving communist avatars enact a musical of Mao’s glory days to a backdrop of pizza and coke. The silenced cries of millions have long since been buried in the dirt, now only a theatre of cheery tunes, streamers and flags remain. It’s time to leave.
The transition of China stands centre-stage in this initial episode and how its ancient, modern and future-facing elements sit uneasily side by side. Hong Kong, briefly Joanna’s childhood home, is revealed to have morphed beyond recognition since her time there, devouring her old streets and claiming land from the sea in a waterside explosion of glass towers. “It’s terribly beautiful”, she remarks “and I don’t remember any of it!”. It’s run as a separate state today; even after the famous handover in 1997 it’s still not Communist China, proper.
Exchanging her Hong Kong dollars for Chinese Yuan, Joanna cryptically informs us: “One country, two systems”. The minutiae of such a socio-political mechanism is left for us to speculate upon. Moments later she has crossed the border and the lingering past is left behind.
It’s Beijing and the subsequent stop-off: Datong which really highlights the collision of contrasting elements. Communist Red China is a bizarre backdrop to the current, unchecked pursuit of personal wealth and status – all at the altars of Rolls-Royce, Prada and other unlikely Western interlopers. The sure-fire poster girl for these uneasy bedfellows is the selfie-obsessed ‘Roller’ driving billionairess who gives Joanna a white knuckle ride through Beijing’s congested road system. Her main concern seemingly that the glamour of the vehicle might outshine her own, in the eyes of others. No hidden shame of wealth here, it’s something to aspire to, rejoice in and display to the world through blatant symbols of status.
Exploring the wealth and status of a former time; Joanna then visits the incredible Forbidden City to discover the gilded cage of the concubines and gain insight into the hidden lives of the Emperor’s chosen consorts. A witness to that era is also found: Madame Marr, now frail and living in the relative poverty of a crowded Hutong where the last favoured concubine fell to Earth once the imperial era was over.
Datong is something of a revelation, with its 51,000 Buddhas of varying sizes carved into the nearby mountains. It’s also the home of Joanna’s guide; Jason, a youthful anachronism who sees through the facile nature of modern materialism but is powerless to divert the prevailing tide. With 33 million more men than women in China, his chances of finding a partner are slim, especially so because by his own admission, he has no money – tragically the key ingredient in forming a modern relationship. “No money; no honey”, he reveals. All he can offer is his wisdom, poetry, decency and love. Small change in his modern, prestige-hungry culture.
If you haven’t seen this first episode of the Trans-Siberian trilogy, all is not lost. At the time of writing it still has 3 weeks to run on ITVPlayer. It is really worth viewing and features more than can fit into this article. The next episode (Sunday 19th July, 9 pm) includes a visit to the stunning Genghis Khan monument. Now, that alone makes it a must-see. No excuses.