Top Gear: Series 16, Episode 2 – Middle East Special

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  • Jeremy, Richard and James re-enact the journey of the three wise men and travel from northern Iraq to Bethlehem.

Episode Guide

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Jeremy, Richard and James are given a challenge to re-enact the journey of the three wise men, by traveling from northern Iraq to a stable in Bethlehem in £3500 convertibles. As Israel will not allow cars registered in its surrounding neighbours to enter its borders, they must buy cars from Georgia before flying to their destination in the back of a Russian cargo plane. Whilst the plane is in flight, Richard introduces us to the car he has purchased, a Fiat Barchetta Riviera Special. Jeremy suggests that Richard has been stupid – and that no Fiat would be reliable enough to complete the journey. Compared to Richard’s brave choice, Jeremy played it safe and brought along a Mazda MX5. He explains “Every time we do one of these trips, every time I get the interesting car, it’s in a cloud of steam. This time, wherever we’re going, this will make it.” Lastly, James shows us his BMW Z3 – on which he went £466 over budget.

Still oblivious to where they are going, the boys strap into their cars to get ready for landing. While on final approach the captain opens the rear cargo doors, leaving Richard screaming as he stared out at the expansive desert in front of him. To make matters worse, the pilot is forced to abort the first landing and circle around for another attempt – all the time with the doors still open. Eventually the plane lands and the boys find out that they’re actually in Iraq. Donning flack jackets and helmets they quickly drive out of the plane and take refuge in a nearby airport hanger. There, they break out a map and decide that it is too dangerous to drive directly to Bethlehem, as it would involve traveling through the heart of Iraq and past the Al-Qaeda stronghold of Mosul. Instead, Jeremy proposes a much longer route that involves traveling east and crossing into Iran and then doubling back into Turkey and down through Syria to avoid Iraq almost entirely.

After setting off the boys get slightly lost and end up going through a series of dusty alley ways which make them feel a bit vulnerable. After getting back to the busy main road, James’ BMW decides to break down. He positions the car over a nearby open sewer to use as a makeshift inspection pit – and tells the others to go away. Jeremy however is reluctant, “I was just thinking, I know we’re not supposed to just wander off, but it’s Iraq – right there. You stand here and there’s a kitchen supplier here, and there’s a school boy there with his tie on, and everything’s normal. But it just takes one person and then it’s not a normal place at all.” James eventually gets the Z3 going again but not for long – he therefore takes it to a workshop where they discover the problem is actually a blown head gasket. The next day, with the BMW fixed, the trio finally leave Erbil and continue through the countryside and the frequent military checkpoints. Soon after it begins to rain and the road becomes incredibly slippery. Jeremy spins his MX5 going down a perfectly straight bit of road. But it wasn’t just the roads which were dangerous – the next section went through a mountain range close to the Iranian border. James describes it as “Bandit country” and the boys proceed with caution.

Whilst stopping for a rest, Jeremy shared a brainwave he had – “I know how to make my car bulletproof. I am going to take the door linings off and fill the doors with sand. Put the door linings back on so you’re driving around with two sand bags on either side of you.” James is very doubtful of this, so Jeremy finds a quiet spot to try it out. He shovels some sand into the door and also stuffs in a few sand filled plastic bags. Top Gear’s armed escort steps in and fires a round through the door to see how well Jeremy’s idea has worked. Upon inspection, the bullet hit the door and then split into multiple pieces, which kept going through the car before exiting through the door on the opposite side making several large holes – a dismal failure. They hit the road again and by nightfall the boys reach the Iranian border, where they discover that due to “political reasons” that the BBC is not permitted to cross into Iran. With no other options, they decide to head back across Iraq and find a route to the Turkish border and hopefully bypass Mosul. The boys drive into the night but eventually stop and stay the night at an Iraqi amusement park. The next morning whilst they sampled some of the rides, they had an epiphany. Jeremy, Richard and James had been in Iraq for 2 days and they hadn’t been shot even once, or blown up, or be-headed on the internet. So they decided to remove their helmets and flack jackets and hit the mountain roads again – this time while actually enjoying it.

By midday they reach the Turkish border. After a few hours clearing customs, they discover that they now had an even bigger problem. The producers inform them that the Kurdish insurgency is attempting to reclaim the southern provinces of Turkey and that the region has been declared a war zone. They are given four hours to travel the two hundred miles to a hotel in the safe zone before nightfall. They hit the road, fast. But this didn’t bode well for Jeremy’s MX5. After pushing his car too hard, one of the spark plugs pops out and turns the engine into a 3-cylinder. After gluing it back in they continue on their way and make it to the hotel well after nightfall. That night, to punish Richard for being smug about his car’s reliability – Jeremy and James install a secret stereo in the Fiat and load up a Genesis CD – a band Hammond is known to hate. The original stereo is unplugged, giving him no idea how to turn the sound down. Not a good morning to be playing jokes on Richard however – he reveals he has had “the trots” since 3am in the morning. They finally turn south and cross the Syrian border. Their progress was halted briefly by the security system in James’ Z3 – which had completely immobilised the engine. Once inside, they discover that Top Gear is enormously popular in Syria – which is not great because Israel will not allow them into the country if the authorities know they have been in Syria. Jeremy proposes that the “sneak through” Syria by modifying their cars for desert travel and avoid the main roads. After a night of modifications, Richard unveils his Fiat Bedouin tent. Jeremy paints his car in bright colours to resemble Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat -he also installs an “Axle of Evil” to make his Mazda a six-wheeled vehicle. Meanwhile, James takes inspiration from the Afrika Korps and models his BMW on a desert army unit.

While travelling through the desert, Richard’s Fiat takes a battering and his radiator almost falls through the bottom of the car after its support is damaged. Jeremy gets bitten by an unidentified insect that causes his arm to swell up. Of more concern though is that James gets knocked over while hanging onto a snatch strap, as Richard attempts to pull Jeremy’s MX5 out of a sand trap. His head gets cut on a rock and he seems to suffer from some short term memory loss. James is taken to a nearby hospital leaving Jeremy and Richard to carry on by themselves. The terrain gets even worse but their spirits are buoyed by news that James was recovering and would be back with them soon. Jeremy & Richard eventually find a tarmac road near Palmyra and decide to change their tactics: rather than disguising their cars, they disguise themselves instead. They meet James at the hospital dressed in burqas and head off towards Damascus. However, their efforts are in vain – because word has spread that they are in the country and they find a welcoming party waiting for them at their hotel.

The next day, the boys cross into Jordan and arrive at Jerash, where they invent the sport of “Old Testament NASCAR” – racing their cars around a two thousand year old chariot racing circuit. Soon after, they successfully cross into Israel and make a slight detour to visit the Sea of Galilee. Once they arrive, Jeremy removes James’ head bandage and says “you are healed” – he then removes his own arm bandage and says there is no evidence that there was ever a bite at all. The next morning Jeremy cooks breakfast however there were only 2 pieces of fish. Richard doesn’t like fish which meant Jeremy had enough food to feed everyone, and shortly after he tried to walk on water. Before Jeremy tried to part the waters, they decided to move on. They get closer to Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, they pull up to discuss who had the best car. James went first and declared his hatred of the automatic transmission in his Z3, he explains – “There is a place reserved in hell for the man who put that gearbox in that car. Its the ratios – it’s a case of many are called but few are chosen. And many who are first shall be fourth.. and if third you will actually kick down into second”. James therefore selects Richard’s Fiat as the car he would choose. Jeremy also chooses the Fiat – simply because he did not develop an attachment to his MX5. To him the MX5 was still a machine. Funnily enough, out of the 3 the Fiat also turned out to be the most reliable.

That night they finally make it to Bethlehem, where they arrive at a nativity scene with some gifts they purchased in Syria: James with a gold-relief medallion, Richard with a bottle of hotel shampoo labeled frankincense and Jeremy with a Nintendo DS because he couldn’t find any myrrh. They peel back the covers on the manger to discover that the baby Jesus is actually a baby Stig.

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Rating: 9.0/10 (254 votes cast)

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