TV review: The Silk Road brings the wonders of Asia into our living rooms

Dr Sam Willis in Iran for the making of The Silk Road. BBC - Photographer: Alastair McCormick
Billy Foley

THE Silk Road, BBC 4, Sunday at 9pm

There’s something about Asia that fires the imagination.

It’s undoubtedly the most diverse continent, with a multitude of languages, culture, peoples and religions, despite the best efforts of the Russians and Chinese to homogenise.

For all its natural wonders the Americas can’t compete.

The invaders were so successful in their conquest that for the most part from Alaska to Santiago the languages, culture and religions are European.

Australasia was also completely dominated by the arriving Europeans with only pockets of the original culture remaining.

This is not to criticise these countries; it’s simply a recognition that for a traveller the colour and diversity of Asia is unbeatable.

Thus Sam Willis’s travelogue of the ancient Silk Road, from the one time capital of China, Xi’an, to the merchant cities of Europe was a joy.

There’s no shortage of travel shows on television - on Wednesday alone BBC 2 had three of them; Coast Australia, Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve and Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome - and plenty of guides to go with them.

On this trip our companion was Sam Willis, who knew his stuff, was good company and possessed the most flamboyant handwriting I’ve ever seen.

He began the journey in Venice, one of the principal market places for the Oriental goods arriving on the Silk Road. There he argues that the ideas, innovations and products of the east sparked, in part, the Renaissance.

We then travelled 5,000 miles to the start of the route at Xi’an where Willis tells us the tale of one of the “most significant trade deals in human history”.

An emperor, desperate to defeat an army to the north had heard tales from one of his envoys of ‘heavenly horses’ to the west.

In China at the time, the only horses were miniature. The emperor wanted war horses so he traded his most precious product for them, silk.

Thus what we know call the Silk Road was born and dominated world trade from 200 BC to 1,400 AD.

Episode one took us from Xi’an to Dunhuang, around the Taklamakan desert, to the oasis city of Turpan and onto the borders of China at Khotan.

In episode two on Sunday, Willis will take us into what is now the central Asian republics (once part of the Soviet Union) and into the wonders of Persia.

There he will visit one of the most significant cities on the route - Isfahan - now in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Based on the trailer, we’re going to get a guided tour of the Isfahan mosque, one of the most stunningly beautiful buildings on Earth.


Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur, Sky Sports 1, Monday at 8pm

In the end there was a slight anti-climax.

One of the greatest sporting upsets came upon us without the victors present.

Leicester - the 5,000 to 1 outsiders - were Premier League champions, but they were at home watching on television.

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard had won it for them with the equalising score against their nearest challengers.

Every sports romantic wanted Leicester to win, to stick it to the billionaires who used football clubs as their playthings and collected trophies as a hobby.

But wouldn’t it have been even better if Leicester had won it the Manchester City way - a goal in the dying minutes when the dream looked lost.

Sky will milk today’s trophy presentation for all their worth when Leicester celebrate with a dead rubber game against Everton, but it shows again that while sport is the greatest drama on television sometimes the best moments are hidden from it.


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