After Xi’an, we went to Turpan, Dunhuang, and then to Kashgar, where I spent a lot of time with the Uyghurs. It was extraordinary, because it was obvious something terrible was happening. It was questionable whether I was able to speak to them freely: I was aware all the time that there were Chinese military, secret police and government people around us, and the local fixers, who were working for our crew, were very frightened about what might be said. At one point, we were taken to what I can only describe as a Uyghur “show ghetto”, where the government said how nice it was and how happy they were. It was forced, and you could see the imposition of Han Chinese culture on an ethnic community. But I was proud that I was able to speak properly to lots of Uyghurs in a way that completely reflects their humanity and culture.
From China, I went to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They’re all unique, but Kyrgyzstan is the only flourishing democracy in central Asia. It was totally brilliant, and this is where it really turned into a trip of a lifetime. The capital, Bishkek, is beautiful in a post-Soviet way, and it’s a really happening place with lots of great cafés. I was travelling off-grid through the countryside by motorbike and people were just staring at me because they hadn’t really seen a Westerner before. There was a real sense of joy and excitement – and then it all got a bit surreal when I was asked to referee a game of the medieval sport ulak tartysh, which is essentially people on horseback throwing around a sheep carcass.
From there I went to Bukhara in Uzbekistan, where it was 50C and I had dinner with literally the last Jewish family in the country, who plied me with vodka. I got drunk and ended up wrestling with locals in the main square. Apparently the wrestling is a regular occurrence, and I thought it would be a good idea to give it a go. I didn’t do too badly, but I think they went easy on me.