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The Amir Chakhmaq Complex, Yazd
The Amir Chakhmaq Complex, Yazd, Iran. Photograph: Christopher Wilton-Steer

You can’t travel, but there’s a new show about 40,000km of the Silk Road

Photographer Christopher Wilton-Steer went from London to Beijing and back again in 2019

Written by
Chris Waywell

Longing to travel? Thirsting to stand in that funny queue and have the man in the box look sceptically at your passport? Cool your boots, wayfarer. God knows when that will happen again (second-homers in Spain excepted, of course). In the meantime, put on your most technical trousers, spray yourself with insect repellent and take a perilous trip to Granary Square in King’s Cross to check out a new outdoor show of brilliant travel photography.

Back in 2019, London-based photographer Christopher Wilton-Steer travelled 40,000km overland by car, bus, train, ferry, horse and camel from London to Beijing, along the path of the Silk Road: the legendary trade route from China and India to the West. It took him four months and he crossed 16 countries. His record of the trip is now an exhibition, ‘The Silk Road: A Living History’. Presented by the Aga Khan Foundation, It comprises more than 160 images, which are as varied and stunning as the countries and regions he visited. There are mist-shrouded Indian temples, whirling dervishes, remote desert dunes and bustling ports. But there are also humbler scenes: craftsmen and women making and decorating household items; camel caravans carrying their cargoes. The Silk Road was an artery that carried goods and wealth between distant but unimaginably powerful cultures. That wealth paid for many of the magnificent building that Wilton-Steer documents, from Agra to Venice, but it was run off the back of ordinary hauliers and workers, just like international trade is today. 

Alem Entertainment Centre, Ashgabat
The largest indoor ferris wheel in the world, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photograph: Christopher Wilton-Steer

‘At a time when we are unable to travel, I hope that this exhibition will provide visitors with an escape from the UK into other worlds far away,’ says Wilton-Steer. His show documents the diversity of cultures found along the Silk Road in the twenty-first century, and investigates how tradition and modernity compete with each other. One of the most startling images is of a giant indoor ferris wheel in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a strange meeting of an ancient aesthetic and a homogenised global idea of ‘fun’. 

Gobi Desert at Dunhuang, Central China
Gobi Desert at Dunhuang, Central China. Photograph: Christopher Wilton-Steer

‘Silk Road: A Living History’ features photos of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, China and more: countries and landscapes that we might be most familiar with from the news. Additional content is promised in the form of videos, music and more, accessed via QR codes. After a year of travel-deprived lockdown, it might all be a bit like a full english and four Kinder eggs after a long and painful diet, but it looks well worth it. 

‘Silk Road: A Living History’ , presented by the Aga Khan Foundation, is at Granary Square, King’s Cross. Apr 8-Jun 16. Free. 

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