This final episode sees Joanna Lumley travel across the post-Soviet, Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the heartland of the Silk Road. Almost never seen on television, this little-known corner of the world is blessed with hyperbole-defying scenery – mighty mountains and glittering cities – that have played host to centuries of war, trade, guts, glory and espionage.
Joanna’s journey begins in north-west Uzbekistan’s Kyzl-Kum desert, where she meets some Bactrian camels and visits a windswept 2500-year-old Silk Road fortress called Ayaz Kala.
Following in the footsteps of old trading caravans, she travels to Khiva, an ancient desert citadel ringed by formidable adobe walls. Here Joanna meets Shokir, a man whose family have made Khiva’s distinctive sheepskin chugirma hats for centuries, and witnesses a special chugirma dance.
Whilst walking through the town’s dusty streets, she tells the story of how Khiva was famous as a slaving town well into the 19th century. She quotes a 19th century British officer, Captain James Abbott, who described the inhabitants of Khiva as ‘sellers of human flesh’.
From Khiva, Joanna travels by plane to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, the most populous city in Central Asia. She takes a ride on the city’s splendid Soviet-built Metro system and goes to a glamorous society wedding with Rayhon Ganieva, Uzbekistan’s most famous pop star. Uzbeks are big spenders when it comes to weddings, and it’s not uncommon for stars like Rayhon to be paid to perform.
Joanna now takes ‘the Golden Road to Samarkand’ aboard a Spanish-built high speed train. Perhaps the Silk Road’s most iconic city, the Samarkand of today was built by the 14th century Turko-Mongol warlord and ‘destroyer of worlds’ Amir Timur, known in The West as Tamerlane.
Joanna is awed by the vast turquoise domes of the Registan, Shakhi Zindar and Bibi Khanum, and joins throngs of Uzbek worshippers at the gilded tomb of Timur himself. At the Afrasiab museum, she shows us a seventh century Sogdian fresco, and tells the story of how these powerful traders were long the beating heart of the Silk Road. Before she leaves the city, she goes in search of Samarkand’s legendary lepyoshka bread, a dense flatbread said to last for months.
Joanna says: “Here in Samarkand bread has almost magical properties. It’s said to be able to stay fresh for absolutely ages. Not only that, it’s apparently impossible to recreate anywhere else. People debate whether it’s the air, the altitude, or the water. It smells like paradise. I can’t tell you how good it is.”
Next stop is the country of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan’s mountainous eastern neighbour. In its capital, Bishkek, Joanna finds herself in the midst of a K-Pop flash mob, then talks to DJ Marina Kim about what life is like here, and how things have changed since the 2010 revolution.
Leaving the city by car, Joanna heads east into the mountains, stopping on the southern shores of the beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul. She shows us around the yurt she’s sleeping in, then takes a rather unusual sauna in an old Soviet-era truck.
In the mountains beside the lake, Joanna is introduced to the ancient Kyrgyz tradition of eagle hunting. Over the centuries meat from animals caught by the eagles helped keep many people alive. Local father and daughter duo Katerden and Aruuke and their magnificent Golden Eagle Sergak ride horses up to a mountaintop, and put Sergak’s astonishing eyesight and hunting skills to the test using a rope, to replicate the movement of a fox.
As Joanna holds the eagle, she says: “It’s such a great privilege to hold this bird. Extraordinary claws hanging onto the leather glove. I’ve got such a sense of holding onto power.”
Leaving Lake Issyk-kul, Joanna drives south towards the Chinese border, through a dramatic landscape of snow-streaked peaks and hills grazed by herds of horses and yaks. In the village of At-Bashi, she stops to meet yak herders Narynbek and Myskal, and hear about the importance of their woolly charges.
Joanna’s final stop is the 15th century caravanserai of Tash Rabat, a huge stone complex tucked into the mountains near the Chinese border. After exploring the place, she reflects on all the amazing places she’s seen in the series.
Produced by Burning Bright for ITV.
Airdate: Wednesday 3 October 2018 from 9.00pm on ITV.
Episode 4 (of 4)