In the first instalment Merton samples fried donkey’s penis (‘Well, I can tell he wasn’t Jewish’), then hijacks a karaoke party held at a faux 17th-century French chateau by singing Unchained Melody in his dressing gown. Beneath the daft facade, however, Merton has clearly done his homework.
In this episode, Paul tries his hand at kung fu, visits a Tibetan monastery, and takes in two of the most populous cities in China. In search of some spiritual relaxation, Paul heads for the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, famed as the birthplace of Zen Buddhism. Sitting on the temple’s steps, Paul reflects on his interest in Buddhism and the afterlife: “I’ve had my spiritual moments,” he says. “I have meditated in the past.” The Shaolin Temple is also a centre of kung fu training, and when Paul checks in for some meditation classes, he ends up on a kung fu course instead. A 5km dawn run is followed by arduous exercises, and Paul finds that the boot camp mentality goes against all his instincts: “I’ve never felt less like an individual in my life!” he says. When he watches a fellow trainee receive a sharp jab in the stomach, he calls a premature end to his kung fu career. Fortunately, a “showbiz” version of kung fu is happening nearby, and Paul gets to play a cameo role in a TV movie. With a little help from his stunt double, he trounces a gang of thugs.
In this episode, Paul sees a Chinese opera, travels down the Li River through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and heads to Guangzhou, where he meets some Chinese Christians. The journey resumes with Paul still in Chengdu, where he is having an “off day”. His Chinese translator Emma takes him to an opera to cheer him up. Things start promisingly, with a remarkable performance of ‘face-changing’, whereby the actors’ masks change colour with the flick of a fan. But Paul is less impressed with the singing. As the epic performance proceeds, he and several other audience members nod off, before he can take no more and walks out. “I don’t want to be rude about somebody else’s culture,” Paul says, “but it’s horrendous.”
In this episode, Paul heads to futuristic Shanghai, where he plays golf, meets match-making parents, dines with socialites and visits a bizarre recreation of an English town. The last leg of Paul’s journey sees him enjoying some new experiences – the first of which is a trip on the fastest train in the world: the $1.2 billion rail link from Shanghai’s airport. The train reaches 270mph during its eight-minute journey, and Paul is astonished by the quiet, smooth ride: “It’s wonderful – exhilarating,” he says.