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On the road with… Joanna Lumley

Creative renaissance: Lumley’s favourite city, Georgia capital Tbilisi
PICTURE: SHUTTERSTOCK

■ The actress, activist and presenter talks about Georgia’s creative capital and trouble in South Sudan

What is your favourite on-the-road moment?

JENNIFER SAUNDERS and I were filming a scene for Absolutely Fabulous in Ealing featuring the pair of us as Eddy and Patsy aged 102, which had taken four-and-a-half hours in make-up — we had everything from prosthetics and bald heads to gizzards and saggy tits put on us. We were crying with laughter so much we could barely climb on to the bus but when I looked out of the window and waved with my scabby, veiny hand to a passer-by, I clearly lip-read them saying: ‘Oh look, there’s Joanna Lumley.’

What’s your favourite city?

I’ve got a new one: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It’s a spa town that’s built on mountains with great tall trees, masses of green space and crumbling town houses, which I want to buy and live in. The whole place is undergoing a sort of creative renaissance — they hold an annual International Festival of Literature in May and a new Tbilisi Art Fair launched this year (tbilisiartfair.art). Georgian wine is also some of the best in the world and there’s plenty of nightlife, so you can have a really good time.

What keeps you sane on the road?

I love poetry and always try to learn a new section of a poem on every trip I go on. My favourite poet is James Elroy Flecker because he wrote a lot about the Middle East and Samarkand, which are parts of the world that have always intrigued me.

When have you been most frightened while travelling?

We were filming in Juba, the largest city in South Sudan, in what was called the ‘window of peace opportunity’: three weeks during which the country ceased fighting. We were travelling upriver along the Nile with a barge-load of provisions for villagers who were so cut off by war that they were starving but a group of other villagers were very militant against their neighbouring village and told us that if we travelled on, they’d kill us. There were trigger-happy teenage boys armed with Kalashnikovs and assegai spears lining the banks. We kept smiling and walked calmly back to the boat but we were definitely in danger.

Life-changing: Lumley on the island of Tsarabanjina

Have you ever taken anything from a hotel room?

When I was travelling in India my driver told me that so many poor women would give anything for their own toiletries so now I shovel them in and give them to those people that truly appreciate them. I keep the shower caps, though.

What has been your most life-changing experience while travelling?

Being cast away on a tiny desert island called Tsarabanjina off the north-west coast of Madagascar for a TV show called Girl Friday in 1994. There was nothing on it except me for nine days with a couple of knives, a pound of rice, a flint, a couple of candles and the clothes I stood up in. I really did live like an animal but I am still astounded at how quickly one can adapt to extreme situations. I began to recognise when the tide was going to turn by sound alone and could smell when the wind was changing. I lived in a cave and learned how to double the light emitted by a candle flame by placing a white shell behind it. That trip helped me face up to what I think coming to the end of life will be like. We all die alone but I’m not afraid.

Off the rails: The guards on the Trans-Siberian train weren’t impressed with Lumley’s team filming the journey

What’s the worst meal you’ve had abroad?

It was in Japan, a nation whose food is universally considered to be delicious — and it was entirely my fault. I was filming on the bullet train and had chosen myself a local snack from an adorable pastry shop. It turned out to be a thistle dumpling. It puffed out into my mouth, pulling every bit of moisture from my body, leaving me instantly aged by at least 50 years and unable to talk for 20 minutes.

Where’s the strangest place you’ve spent the night?

In Sarawak in Malaysia under a wall of shrunken heads. Back in the day, to become a man the 15-year-old male members of a village had to take a head, preferably from a warrior, which they then had to spend three days alone with before hanging it up. I ended up bedding down under a wall of them, which was pretty eerie.

Dry run: Joanna’s first taste of thistle dumplings was not a success

Have you ever come close to being arrested?

We weren’t aware we couldn’t film on the Trans-Siberian Railway coming from Mongolia into Russia and the guards were absolutely livid. They confiscated everything we owned but we pleaded ignorance and were eventually spared weeks in a cell.

Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure starts on Wednesday at 9pm on ITV