There’s a famous bit in Blade Runner when the android, Roy, dies and says: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” I like to think that’s something I could say about my Silk Road journey. I was on parts of the Earth that felt like the moon.
The Silk Road was the first international trade route. Travellers exchanged ideas on scientific invention, religion, culture, music – everything, really. Globalisation has been the wellspring of most ideas.
There’s an old Georgian saying that wine should be good enough to make a pheasant cry. Wine is meant to have begun there. In Sighnaghi there’s a vineyard called Pheasant’s Tears, where we had a traditional feast of about 27 courses, with a speech between each one, and drank an incredible amount.
We had to track down these enormous, human-sized dogs. Silk Road traders bred them for catching bears. They still exist in Georgia, but they’re really hard to find. We drove out into the mountains and eventually we found a farm that had one. It was terrifying.
I had to run away from dogs in China, too. We were trying to find the old Great Wall – what we think of as the Great Wall was rebuilt by Mao. The old one is very hard to find because it has fallen into disuse and was made of mud. We thought we’d found a bit of it but it was surrounded by wild dogs. There’s footage of me running away.
In Xi’an, I was grabbed by a middle-aged woman and pulled into her noodle shop.I thought I was being arrested, but she’d just thought, OK, he’s on TV somewhere so I’ll advertise my noodles. I had one of the best meals I’ve ever had. There are thousands of these places in Xi’an market.
Kyrgyzstan is the only democracy in central Asia. Everywhere else around there is still very Soviet. Bishkek, the capital city, is still very poor but it’s becoming a hip, exciting city. There are lots of really fabulous cafes.
In Uzbekistan, the whole crew apart from me fell really ill. Me and the fixer just kept filming. We dined with the one Jewish family left in Uzbekistan and they insisted on me drinking vodka. It was 50C, I was filming with a guy who had never done it before – and I was completely drunk. Then I had to go and wrestle in the main square of Bukhara…
Turns out I really like camel’s milk – who knew? The food in central Asia is not so great: it tends to be horse. Rabbit stew at an eagle hunter’s house in Kyrgyzstan was really nice, though. At first I felt bad because this thing was hopping around the desert one minute, then killed by an eagle. The hunter skinned it in front of me … But then his wife cooked it and it was delicious.
In Turkey, I had to harvest pigeon poo to try and make gunpowder. The eventual collapse of the Silk Road happened because the Ottoman took gunpowder from the Chinese and found this way of making it. It led, indirectly, to the fall of Constantinople.
There’s a shade of blue invented by the Chinese that you can see in Buddhist caves in western China. As you move west along the Silk Road, you see how it appeared on church walls. It’s amazing how you can trace the process. We were trying to find places where things that are very widespread in the world began.
I don’t think comedians are better travellers but they are communicators and storytellers. I think it was Victoria Wood who said: “I’m over 50 and that means I’m not legally allowed to do a comedy show any more. I have to do a travel show.” There is some truth in that, but I don’t care: I really enjoy it.