David Baddiel’s 8,000-mile odyssey takes him through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, and begins at the eastern end of the Silk Road in the city of Xi’an. Along the way, he developed a taste for camel milk and squared up to a champion wrestler in Uzbekistan…
Why the Silk Road?
What appears to be a dry thing – a trade route – turns out to be the wellspring of the modern world. When people first started trading between countries, that led to the trading of ideas, science, culture, music, religion and even things like paint pigments – we didn’t have blue in the West until the Chinese invented it.
Plane, train, car or camel?
I did some walking and I was on a camel for some of it. I don’t recommend camels as a way of travelling. They are quite touchy! But I was also on trains, planes, boats, in cars and on a lot of public transport.
Your camel awaits; David tried out the traditional form of transport when crossing the Taklamakan desert
Did you have to rough it?
Yes, you do for parts of the Silk Road. There’s not much infrastructure in parts of Central Asia and the travelling is quite hard. China had its moments, too. I was trying to get on a train at one point and they were getting the sewage off it with this enormous hose. I literally thought: “Well, I’m not going to be able to get on the train because I’m going to faint.” The smell was unbelievable. That bit isn’t in the show because they were worried about upsetting the Chinese!
Do you usually?
I’m not very intrepid normally – family holidays are usually inside a beautiful villa. But I am whatever the opposite of risk averse is when filming. I’m very unJewish. I’m also keen on saying: let’s just follow this clearly dangerous path because it might lead somewhere interesting and exciting.
In Bukhara in Uzbekistan, the director and soundman got really ill. I decided to carry on anyway so I made the assistant cameraman into the director and the fixer into the soundman and off we went. I was there to meet the only Jewish family left in Bukhara who gave me four shots of vodka at lunch. It’s ridiculously hot, I’m totally drunk and so I think it’s a great idea to try wrestling because that’s the national sport of Uzbekistan. Luckily, the champion wrestler let me win.
Kyrgyzstan. It’s the only democracy and you can really tell. It’s considerably nicer and friendlier and also very beautiful. There’s a more relaxed atmosphere than almost everywhere else in Central Asia, which is post-Soviet and do feel a bit like Leningrad. The Soviets essentially destroyed all the Chinese influence.
In search of nomads on the vast plains of Kyrgyzstan
Where else would you recommend?
Georgia is amazing. Bits of the capital – Tbilisi – are like being in Venice. Georgia is the country that invented wine so we went to a wine-producing village called Sighnaghi. If you had just landed there, you would think you were in a Italian hilltop village because that’s what it looks like but also it’s got unbelievable food and wine. We also visited a place called Kazbegi that is very, very mountainous and just beautiful – although quite lawless!
In China, the food was incredible. We’re slightly arrogant in Britain and we think that we know what Chinese food is. Believe me, it’s better in China, I’m afraid.
Sizing up the wares in Kashgar’s livestock market
In Kashgar in northern China, I met the godfather of the camel market who gave me camel milk, which I turned out to love. He took me into the holding area where there are 200 camels, starts milking one of them and hands me the glass. It’s creamy and supposed to be very good for you, although I didn’t really have much choice because he was a godfather figure so I thought I’d be shot if I didn’t drink it! I have looked into getting it here but it’s £12 a carton because you’ve got to get it imported.
Is there anything you couldn’t stomach?
I eat virtually anything that’s put in front of me. So I also had mare’s milk, horse and donkey. I didn’t eat camel because I felt I shouldn’t if I’m travelling on them.
I played a game like polo but the villagers use a headless goat instead of a ball. At one point I picked it up and tried to score a goal with it, but I couldn’t get to the goal because a headless goat is very, very heavy. They wanted me to eat it afterwards but it was a bit dusty!
So where else is on your bucket list?
I’d love to go to South America. I’d quite like to make a programme about the history of Nazi-hunting in South America. I’m interested in the fact that a lot of Nazis were hidden in South America and I’ve never seen a history of why that happened and how they were then caught.
David Baddiel on the Silk Road begins on Sunday 21st February on Discovery at 9pm