The Silk Road

Tracking down ancient civilizations all along the historical Silk Road

Since the first century to 1650, a whole network of trade routes crossed the Eurasian continent, from China to the shores of the Mediterranean, which was the main caravan route between East and West.

The Silk Road documentary series seeks to uncover the ancient civilizations all along these roads and lands.

Camels plodding across the desert, and a sense of timelessness evoked by Kitaro’s theme music.

NHK devoted 17 years to the planning, shooting and production of The Silk Road, which unearthed trade routes linking long-lost civilizations of East and West.

The NHK Tokushu and China’s CCTV documentary series The Silk Road began on April 7, 1980. The program started with the memorable scene of a camel caravan crossing the desert against the setting sun, with Kitaro’s music and a sense of timelessness. It was the start of an epic televisual poem.

Seventeen years after the series was conceived, the project was completed.

The Silk Road series was an important co-production between NHK and CCTV (the Japanese and Chinese state broadcasters, respectively). The series was widely seen around the world. The 12 episode series started in Xian, China, and ended on the border with Pakistan.

The Silk Road II series from 1983-4 continued the journey westwards over 18 more episodes, ending in Istanbul.

Episode 1: Glories of Ancient Chang-An

The first journey described in the series began in Chang’an (now Xi’an), at the eastern end of the ancient route. On 450,000 feet of film, the NHK crew recorded the path westward to the Pamir Heights at the Pakistan border and this material was edited to make 12 monthly broadcasts. In response to viewers’ requests that the series be extended to cover the Silk Road all the way to Rome, sequels were made over the next 10 years.

Episode 2: A Thousand Kilometers Beyond the Yellow River

At the foot of the Qilian Mountains, various Chinese dynasties fought wars against the foreign nomadic tribes. They left behind a rich history, including sculptures and rock-carved Buddhas. There’s also the mighty Yellow River.

Episode 3: The Art Gallery in the Desert

The ancient cave sites in the Dunhuang area in Western China are like a treasure house of Buddhist culture and art. Beautiful images, statues and murals in what is almost an art gallery of Silk Road Culture.

Episode 4: The Dark Castle

An expedition to the ruins of the visionary city of Khara-Khoto, which once lied in the middle of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia. It was the northern outpost of the Han period that was once taken by the legendary Genghis Khan.

Episode 5: In Search of the Kingdom of Lou-Lan

The expedition of Chinese scholars to an ancient kingdom Loulan and to the “wandering lake” of Lop Nor, now largely dried-up salt lake in China. These are the mysteries along the Silk Road, in the heart of Asia.

Episode 6: Across the Taklamakan Desert

Oasis cities of the southern route are now buried in the sand, but many discoveries prove the wealth of East-West cultural exchange.

Episode 7: Khotan: Oasis of Silk and Jade

This episode takes a look at the most sought after Silk Road trade goods, silk and Hetian gems.

Episode 8: A Heat Wave Called Turfan

The oasis cities of Hami and Turfan suffered attacks by Huns, but also enjoyed the peaceful co-living of diverse ethnic groups.

Episode 9: Through the Tian Shan Mountains by Rail

Chinese modernity and the past meet the Silk Road, where the most difficult part of the course can be traveled by rail.

Episode 10: Journey Into Music: South Through the Tian Shan Mountains

Music and dance have always been popular in south of the Chinese Tian Shan mountains area, and they have left their mark also on the Japanese music.

Episode 11: Where Horses Fly Like the Wind

This episode explores how the nomads lived at the Silk Road’s northern branch and the “flying horses” homeland, valley of the Ili river.

Episode 12: Two Roads to the Pamirs

A long journey across China ends Tashkurghan, which is accessible by two routes, the ancient and the new.

The Silk Road
  • Info
  • Release date1980
  • Full runtime
  • Director(s)Hajime Suzuki, Tetsuya Kawamoto
  • Production companyNHK