East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Silk Road from the wrong end

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41PXW22MFDLThe joys of the internet era.
back in the days before Youtube it took me forever to get my hands on the NHK/CCTV documentary series, The Silk Road.
Now, I find the first series, twelve episodes, on Youtube, and I’m pretty sure the second series should be somewhere at hand.

According to the legend, it took 7 years to the Japanese NHK to plan and film the series – a travel along the Silk Road starting from Chang’an and ending in the Pamirs.
The project was developed further during the following decade, finally taking a staggering 17 years to reach completion.

According to official NHK data

On average, The Silk Road was watched by about 20% of the viewing audience. 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. The series was broadcast in 38 countries in Asia and Europe.
Eighteen books published on the making of The Silk Road sold 3 million copies. A 10-volume photo series sold 660,000 copies, and 380,000 videos, too, were sold. Seven million records and CDs of the soundtrack have been sold in Japan and abroad.

Kitaro-Silk-Road-Vol-1--495646I found out about the series when I was in high-school, because of the soundtrack, composed by Japanese progressive/new age1 master Kitaro.
So, Kitaro had done a series of LPs about the Silk Road.
There was a series of films going with the music2 – now that was even cooler.

I started looking, and found… nothing.

The documentaries were apparently broadcast by some Italian network.
Late at night, probably.
Nobody knew anything.
I had to wait a decade, and order the first set of VCDs from Hong Kong, to finally take a good look at this marvel – in original Japanese, with Chinese and English subtitles.

And it is really very good, and for a number of reasons.
First, because it tackles the Silk Road from the wrong end – or at least, from what, to us in the West is the wrong end… from X’ian.Xian_Lage
And maybe it’s just me, and I’m biased, but this description of the Silk Road as the route to the Mysterious, Exotic West is something that tickles my fancy.
The series also points out how many elements in Japanese culture were influenced by the Silk Road – once again, an inverted perspective (we usually talk of how the Silk Road influenced the Italian Renaissance, for instance). And this different perspective is something we often miss.

Secondly, this documentary was shot at the end of the 1970s.
It is a documentary about another era – the age of the great medieval and renaissance commercial travels – shot in another era.
It was shot on film, edited in analog.
It shows us places that are no longer like that – if they are still there at all.
It’s the Silk Road before mass tourism and before the latest wars.
This is a travel in a lost world.

And the cooperation of the Chinese CCTV means we get a glimpse of a lot of stuff that’s not usually accessible to Western crews.

And if the Kitaro soundtrack, thirty-five years on, can get on my nerves halfway through a binge-viewing of this masterpiece, yes, the production values and the technical and artistic level of all those involved makes this series a benchmark work in the field of on-the-road documentaries.

Silk road nhk

I mentioned binge-viewing.
Well, not anymore – of the three boxes of VCDs I ordered from Hong Kong at the end of the ’90s, number two and three are missing.
I found out this soon after the last relocation.
I remember the person I lent the whole series to – this was when I was planning my train-trip to the East, that never happened. The person in question evidently returned the first box after viewing, then disappeared from my life altogether – I have had no news in the last 15 years.

Anyway, I still have my cherished – and lonely – Box 1.
The DVD version is extravagantly priced, so I won’t be getting back my missing documentaries anytime soon.
I might go for the Korean box set, should I make a kill with my next novel.
Meanwhile, thank goodness there’s Youtube.

  1. or whatever, I’m not that good at classifying musicians 
  2. well, ok, it was the other way around, but bear with me. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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