The Silk Road Video Series

Here are viewing notes, some of them cryptic, which will give a reasonably thorough idea of the content of most films. Some critical comments are interspersed. It has not always been possible to provide a normalized rendering of proper names; in some cases what is used here is an approximation of the way they are pronounced in the films. For a general characterization of the series, go back to the main video resource page.

Film 1. Glories of Ancient Chang'an. Focus on the city that is now called Xi'an, which was the capital of China under the Han, when the Silk Road first began, and the Tang (i.e., between about the 2nd century BCE and 9th century CE). Gives good background for rest of series; has interesting footage of the famous sculptured army of terra cotta warriors unearthed in modern times and the tombs of the various rulers. In this film as in others, a good mixture of a focus on the historical with a sense of the modern life in the region.

Film 2. A Thousand Kilometers Beyond the Yellow River. Has some stunning sequences of the irrigation system drawing water through giant water wheels; travel on rafts floated by inflated goat skins, and the Yu-gu pastoral nomads in the mountains.

Film 3. The Art Gallery in the Desert. Focuses on the famous Mogao caves at Dunhuang, which are indeed an art gallery of Buddhist art spanning centuries. Excellent closeups and sufficient analysis in a clear fashion to give some appreciation for the imagery and the changes in artistic style, reflecting the cultural exchange that took place on the Silk Road. It would have been valuable to have had more information on the treasure trove of manuscripts that the famous explorer Aurel Stein acquired at Dunhuang early in this century and took off to the British Library, although in several places the series shows photographs of what he discovered and items from other museum collections. [Note that the British Library is now putting all the Dunhuang materials up on the Web; our comments on that project, which has material that would be useful to supplement class texts, will be posted elsewhere.]

Film 4. The Dark Castle. Includes a good sequence illustrating facets of travel via camel caravan along the Silk Road. Focus is on the ruins of the fortress-city of Karakhoto (one of the centers of the Xixia or Tangut state that flourished in the region just prior to the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century), where the modern archaeological/film crew finds various artifacts including pieces of silk and written texts. This film would be quite appealing for younger students because it includes some dramatization of the semi-legendary events surrounding the conquest and destruction of Karakhoto by the armies of Chingis Khan.

Film 5. In Search of the Kingdom of Lou-Lan. Introduces the region just east of the Taklamakan Desert--with striking shots of the terrain. Has an interesting segment on the way in which Lake Lop Nor has "moved" historically and the explanations why. Various archaeological objects--coins, Roman beads, written texts--showing the international connections of the kingdom that flourished here nearly 2000 years ago. One of most interesting segments shows the excavation of some tombs, with the uncovering of mummified bodies. [Additional information on the mummies can be found in materials posted on the Silk Road Foundation's web site; for a review of the NOVA program video on the Mummies, return to our main video page.]

Film 6. Across the Taklamakan Desert. Again a good sense of the varied geography, both physical and human, including a tour of a provincial oasis town and its market. Information on the main population of the area, the Uighurs, with interesting filming of such things as the making of the characteristic flat bread that is a staple of their diet. Then follows along the route of the famous explorer Stein to visit the ruins of Miran and Niya, now well out in desert, but at one time located on rivers and centers of sophisticated administration, economic and religious life. One sees, among other things, the wooden beams of a large "palace." Some of pictures taken from the artifacts removed to museums by Stein and others, including the mummified bodies of a couple, the silk robe that one of them was wrapped in, and the various objects of daily life that had been buried with them. [On these mummies, see the March 1996 National Geographic.] Clear evidence of the international ties of the Silk Road cities, with both western and Chinese artistic influences.

Film 7. Khotan: Oasis of Silk and Jade. A camel caravan brings big chunks of jade down from the Kun-Lun Mountains south of the Taklamakan Desert. Comments on religious significance of jade in China; picture of spectacular suit of jade armor from a tomb. People searching for jade in a river; then the jade market in town. The silk industry--weaving and spinning. The famous tale of the "Silk Princess" who smuggled silkworms out of China and is depicted in one of paintings discovered by the archaeologist Aurel Stein. Expedition searches for that site in the desert (Dandan Oilik) but fails to locate it. Scenes of typical Uighur market day in Khotan, but Japanese film crew play the foolish tourists. A silk dance, with the female dancers carrying plates of cocoons. Visit to the local ice house in the heat of mid-summer. Some rather silly dialogue (When did you get the ice? In January? Oh, you mean in winter!) and a remarkable assertion that Uighurs have little furniture in their houses today because once (hundreds of years ago!) they were nomads. Other somewhat demeaning comments on Uighurs. Mosque scene with some 5000 worshippers on Friday--China as a bastion of freedom of religion today. A little about history of Khotan as a Buddhist center before the arrival of Islam in tenth century. Visits there by Xuanzang, the 7th century pilgrim, and by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century.

Film 8. A Heat Wave Called Turfan. Mud lake below sea level, excessive heat in summer with people sleeping in open air on roofs. Spectacular ruins of city of Gaochang (Kocho) with a fair amount on history and culture and some pictures of important artifacts including Manichaean and Nestorian paintings. Emphasis on cosmopolitan nature of the town. Impressive T'ang era fortress of Jiaohe (Yarkhoto) on a large plateau, but minimal comment on its history. Importance of grape harvest and raisins to the local economy; shows process of drying the raisins. The important Bezeklik Buddhist caves in nearby mountains, but talks as much about destruction by locals and foreign archaeologists as it does about content of paintings. One painting shows supposedly foreign ambassadors from more than a millenium ago. Interesting footage of the karez underground irrigation system including a walk through the channels. Overall, a lot of useful material in this film.

Film 9. Through the Tian Shan Mountains by Rail. The 470 km. trip from Turfan to Korla, starting in the Gobi region, crossing the eastern Tien Shan and down into the northern Tarim Basin oases. Travel was at time railroad just completed (ca. 1980); much of footage and narrative is a paean to the benefits the railroad would bring to the indigenous peoples. Apart from lots of photos of the steam locomotive passing through sometimes stark landscape, also some good camel shots, since several taken along for the expedition to test how difficult camel travel over the mountain passes would have been for historic Silk Road travelers. Some interesting shots of T'ang era fortifications, especially at Iargo (?). Construction technique not packed earth layering but layering of rounded boulders with reed mats. Brief section on some 2500-year-old burials of nomads, with some elegant gold animal-style artifacts. Notes that even in 400 B.C. area had active E-W exchange. Brief music/dance performance in front of yurt of local Torft (? Oirot?) nomads. Tragedy of their Kalmuck ancestors in 18th century alluded to but not properly explained. At Yanqi (Karashahr) oasis on Kaigdu River, notes population is Hui Muslims, but when Xuanzang passed through in 7th century it had been Buddhist. Brief glimpse of Shi Koshing Buddhist cave complex in ruins; a few of sculpted artifacts.

Film 10. Journey Into Music: South Through the Tian Shan Mountains. From marshy 800 sq. mile lake through what film calls the most formidable pass in the southern Tien-Shan and on to Kucha, some 300 km. west of the pass. Some discussion of how important and cosmopolitan it had been in earlier centuries. Donkey cart "busses." Flourishing market today ("abundance of consumer goods in recent years" with nylon blouses the rage, not silk). Emphasizes fame of Kucha for its fruit and its music. Music theme throughout this film is one of its strengths: Harvest and threshing scenes and their songs, a cradle song, harvest festival with mashrab music and various traditional instruments such as dop, dotar, asatar. A tray dance, a performance of a traditional love song by an elderly woman accompanying herself on the long-necked lute, a wedding scene and its music. Interspersed is effort of Expedition to determine whether any of the instruments today are similar to ones that had come to Japan in earlier centuries via Silk Road and Kucha. Historic artifacts and paintings brought to bear--a painted box showing an "orchestra" which had been excavated in Buddhist ruins of Subashi Castle in 1903; paintings in Qumtura and Kizyl caves. In former find a 4-stringed instrument depicted which is like the Japanese lute (biwa), Tocharian inscriptions and images with Western features. In Kizyl Caves, largest such complex after Mogao in Dunhuang, the "Music Cave" (no. 38) with many images of angels (apsaras) playing instruments. One has a 5-string lute, the unique example of which in Japan being one in the 8th-century collection of the Sho-so-in. It seems to have traveled from India, via the Tarim Basin, and then East. Xuanzang quoted about the superiority of the instrumental music of Kucha. This film has a great deal of interest.

Film 11: Where Horses Fly Like the Wind. On the Kazakhs of the Northern Tien Shan (the narration notwithstanding, not to be confused with the Cossacks). Views of horses and sheep in mountain pastures. The oasis city of Hami, famous from early times for its melons. Interesting scene of salt production. At Hami, the "Silk Road" branches, one route going south of the Tien Shan to Turfan, Korla and Kucha; the other north to Lake Barkol. Han armies pursued Huns as far as Barkol. Interesting views of hospitality in a yurt, including ceremony of serving a sheep's head. Shows milking a mare, and discusses the importance of mare's milk in diet, but does not explain adequately processing of milk products. Interspersed with views of current nomadic life are historical references and quotations regarding the nomads from the early Chinese histories. Even in this region Han-era signal towers, which were manned by thousands of soldiers. Stress on fact that it was here the Han emperor sought the "heavenly horses" for his armies. Script errs in saying Chingis Khan led "Golden Horde" through here (Golden Horde is the common designation for the western part of the Mongol empire which came into being only after his death). Legend of Prince Mu meeting the Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wang Mu) in Tienshi Lake. Interesting footage of Kazakh wedding; several scenes with music. September market at L. Tsaidam when nomads begin to descend from their summer pastures. Stress on new prosperity, availability of manufactured goods, and ethnic diversity ("races"). Ends with problematic assertion that sedentary agriculturalists change, but way of life of nomads never does (=part of the "romance" of the Silk Road). The expedition unable to cross border into USSR near where Ili River enters Kazakhstan.

Film 12: Two Roads to the Pamirs. 3700 km. from Chang-an to Kashgar--in old days a full year's journey. Kashgar's main mosque and celebration of end of Ramadan with thousands in square; music and dancing (for men only)."Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine" (Abakh Khoja Mausoleum), burial place of 17th and 18th century Naqshbandi Sufi rulers; legend of the Kashgari woman Xiangfei, who met tragic fate as emperor's concubine. School for non-Chinese--cute kids identify their ethnic groups in rogues' gallery lineup. Bazaar and craftsmen--lathe run by hand bow; beaten copper pots, making jewelry, musical instruments--continuation of tradition of Kashgar as commercial center. Marco Polo quoted on city. Modern truck caravan trade over Karakorum Highway to Gilgit in Pakistan--barter exchange with silk, ceramics, tea, tools, thermoses from China in exchange for dried fruit, nuts, nylon scarves, medicines. Dancing entertainment. 1300-yr.-old Buddhist caves on outskirts of city, the oldest in Xinjiang (narrator mis-speaks--200-300 BCE), but all despoiled now. Drive toward Pakistan with scenic views, nomadic herders; scene of yak caravan crossing glacier to illustrate difficulty of mountain travel. Old fort at Tashkurgan; Ptolemy cited for report from Greek merchants about "Stone Tower" (the film does not mention it likely was not the one here...). Xuanzang passed through here. Tajiks of region; an interesting Tajik village wedding with dancing. Ends on Khunjerab Pass, 4943 m.

Film 13: Across the Pamirs. Mountain vistas starting on Khunjerab Pass; colorful Pakistani trucks. This the old Silk route to India (not exactly--the route of the Karakorum Highway at pass and in Northern Hunza is different from old route); Buddhism came north along this route. Beauties of Hunza Valley with apricot blossoms in spring. Baltit castle of the rulers of Hunza; old dynasty. Visitors from China in earlier centuries stopped here. Wedding procession with music but not the wedding itself. Visit with oldest man in town, Ali Murad, age 108 (longevity of people here is famous). He recalls going to Tashkurgan and dancing in Kashgar and Khotan 70 years earlier. He dances for camera, accompanied by drums and reed pipes. Dramatic views of road with overhanging rocks, precipices, landslides--comments on difficulty of building it during 1970s--some 3000 workers lost lives. Cross suspension bridge over Gilgit river; large carved Buddha on cliff near Gilgit--5th or 6th century. Xuanzang commented on thousands of Buddhist monks here. Head south along Indus River. The Buddha petroglyphs at Chilas (5th century?). From Khunjerab to end of Karakorum Highway at Darkot, 645 km. On to Gandhara, major center of Buddhism. The Takht-i Bahi monastery on a mountain promontory, built in 2nd century CE. View of plains of Gandhara, large stupa, role of Kushan ruler Kanishka in spread of Buddhism. The "Kanishka Casket" relic box, but explained only to extent image of Kanishka on it discussed. Fusion of Buddhism with Hellenic art from West to create first iconography of the Buddha. A couple of nice Buddha/Bodhisattva statues, but not much analysis.

Film 14. The King's Road Attempt to cross Khyber Pass from Pakistan into Afghanistan but stopped at border. Footage of landscape etc. useful. So they reverse direction and follow in footsteps of Alexander the Great on his way East. Odd use of Renaissance images of Alexander to illustrate him instead of showing contemporary hellenic portrait sculptures. Spend time at important Buddhist center of Taxila, but confusing cutting and splicing of Alexander around this material. Limited discussion of Gandharan art and its Greek influences, including material on early Buddhist imagery. Makes point about fact this early importance of Buddhism did not survive coming of Islam by showing scenes from Peshawar and praying in a mosque in Lahore.

Film 15. Legendary Ladakh. Expedition trying to cross snow-covered passes into "Little Tibet." Once there, they do show a lot of interesting footage of Buddhist services, a funeral, the spring festival. Some nice interior shots of the wonderful murals at the Alchi monastery. Juxtaposes some of the century-old drawings of Leh, the capital, with contemporary appearance of the city. For those familiar with the Sanskrit names for Buddhist figures, the use of the Japanese names here will be confusing. Monks always referred to as bonzes. This film is one of better ones for some decent, coherent cultural footage.

Film 16. Xuanzang's Travels in India. Focus on Buddhism and its emergence in N. India, but little about beliefs. Most is just biography of the Buddha and the key locations on his road to enlightenment. Footage of Ganges, with Hindus bathing. View of temple at Bodh Gaya. There should be better choices of films to introduce Buddhism.

Film 17. The Scorching Sun and the Southern Road of Iran. Iran. Nomads in the SE deserts of Iran. Lake Helmand and island with a Parthian fortress; a holy site of the Zoroastrians. Reed boats. Art of Zoroastrians; their burial mountain. On the road to Persepolis. Quite interesting footage in film, especially early parts, since the region otherwise little known.

Film 18. In Search of Wisdom. Northern Iran after Persepolis. Some interesting views of Meshed; at least some commentary on Shiism and its rituals. Nice shots of architecture of Isfahan. A buildup to the Alamut fortress of the Assassins, but then kind of a let-down once there. At least a good sense of the mountain scenery.

Film 19. Beyond Baghdad. Happy Kurds in Iraq greet Nowruz (the spring festival). Happy marsh Arabs in S. Iraq. While especially the latter footage is interesting (reed houses on reed islands), there is a certain irony here if one knows how both the Kurds and marsh Arabs were the targets of extermination by Saadam Hussein only a few years later. Farmland of Mesopotamia. Mostly modern Baghdad. Interesting footage of ancient city of Hatta in N. Iraq--classical facades etc.--but minimally useful commentary.

Film 20. The Road Vanished into a Lake. Odd geographical leap to Kazakhstan and the Ili River, which was last seen at the end of film ll; comment on its connection across borders from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan. Kazakh camel farm and shearing of camel. Scythian (Saka) burial--spectacular suit of gold armor from 5th century BCE. Then over the mountains to L. Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. Legend of a sunken city there probably blown up out of significance. Underwater exploration of site near Cholpan Ata on north shore of the lake.

Film 21. Across the Steppes. Camels in Kazakh(?) desert. The Battle of Talas (751) in which Arabs defeated T'ang China and from which, according to legend, knowledge of papermaking acquired in Central Asia. Otrar, its destruction by Chingis Khan and the death there of Tamerlane (Timur, pronounced Taymur). Tashkent; prayers in the main mosque. Turkestan City (Yas) and the tomb of Sufi leader Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. However, the building of the tomb explained by Tamerlane's wanting to pacify local tribes and not with any explanation of the importance of the Sufi order. Also, the claim that it was the last major religious building erected under Timur is simply wrong. Rug market. Khorezm excavations and the civilization of that region in early centuries C. E.; some examples of excavated sculpted heads. The Kizyl Kum desert and Syr Darya River.

Film 22. The Sky Horses of Davar (Ferghana). Rather fanciful identifications explaining petroglyphs. Recounts briefly the Han era embassy to Ferghana in search of the heavenly horses; shows the Mogao Cave painting at Dunhuang depicting the embassy. (Remember, the horses the Han wanted also were far to the north in pastures of the Tien Shan--see film 11.) Archeological site of Aktikent. Supposedly 400,000 people lived there; it was destroyed by Chingis Khan. Mountain pastures in Kyrgyzstan; some views of city of Osh at head of Ferghana Valley. The mosque at city of Margilan with 2000 worshippers. Buddhist sites at Kuva and near Termez. Views of ruins and a few of the interesting statues which have been found. Brief comment on spread of Buddhism into Central Asia from Kushan Empire in early centuries C.E.

Film 23. The Soghdian Merchants. A bit too much of this a contrived scenario of finding alive today the direct descendents of the Soghdians. Good, long section on important Soghdian site of Penjikent, with some of paintings and the ongoing excavations supervised by Dr. Boris Marshak of the Hermitage Museum. The crew then locates Soghdians who had lived in the Iagnob area of Tajikistan and interview them. This is hyped as first ever such interview, but it is really lacking in substance--simplistic questions. Visit Soghdian archaeological site 50 km. east of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan; views of ossuaries that are of interest as evidence for Zoroastrianism. Some useful comment along way about importance of Soghdians in Silk Road Trade. Overall, one of the better films in series for historical/cultural material.

Film 24. The Glory of Samarkand. Some nice aerial views of city and individual monuments. Focus is on Tamerlane/Timur (pronounced Taymur, not Teemur); at end Spanish ambassador Clavijo is quoted for his eyewitness view of Tamerlane's court. Good footage of the central square (Registan) with its mosques and medreses recently restored. Visit to the Gur-i Amir, Tamerlane's tomb, including the crypt; then some interesting still photos of the examination of his bones back in 1941 and an interview with the surviving member of that forensic archaeology team. Archaeological dig at pre-Islamic Samarkand site of Afrasiab and view of one of frescoes found there, but little explanation of anything. Chingis Khan's destruction of Samarkand seems to be of greater interest than what preceded it. Interesting footage of restoration/rebuilding of Bib Khanum mosque and then being hosted at home of one of families involved in that work. No mention whatsoever of Tamerlane's grandson Ulugh Beg and his famous observatory.

Film 25. Across the Karakum Desert. Brief views of Khiva. Then a somewhat silly saga of driving across the desert and messing up by having the expedition water supply flow away when the cap came off the tanker truck spigot. Glimpses of Urgench, but no real explanation as to why it was important. Best part of film is extensive footage of impressive ruins of Merv, but still lacking in any substantial commentary. Erecting a yurt; milking a camel.

Film 26. The Other Silk Road. The Caucasus--rather jumbled and cryptic aerial views of mountains. Tomb apparently in Balkar region where they found a silk dress made with material from different silk-producing regions such as Persia, Central Asia, China. A Chinese "tag" in find, which they claim shows Chinese merchants came all the way to the Caucasus (dubious). No clear sense of exactly what route across the Caucasus is the one being discussed. Views along the Georgian military highway going from Orzhonikidze to Tbilisi in Georgia. In Armenia, Echmiadzin, seat of the Catholicos (head) of the Armenian Church, but only toward end of sequence including interior of cathedral do we learn the name of the place. No really clear explanation of the Armenian Church except to say it is the oldest established Christian Church. Curious hillside graves (exact location not clear) supposedly of the Alans.

Film 27. The Caravans Move West. The Syrian desert. Fairly lengthy camel caravan sequence, showing life with the Bedouins. The desert is quite green. Scenes at a desert well. Bedoin tents. Entertainment in one included singing a song in praise of camels. Nice footage of Palmyra, including lavish detail of some tomb scupltures and some silk found there (Palmyra was a key site in E. Syria along the routes into Iraq). Some of characteristic problems of the series surface in this film. Silk as an object of trade gets undue attention; the trade is generally only long-distance trade, even though in reality the shorter segments of the trade routes were the operative ones. Never much sense of history; what there is is occasionally misleading. The narrator talks of Greek architecture, but only then do we learn that Palmyra was in the Roman world and ultimately destroyed by Rome in 276. The inscriptions where busts once were displayed are in Greek and "Palmyran," but we never learn what the latter is. Probably the makers of the film had no idea of the language situation in the East Roman world.

Film 28. The Horsemen of Turkey. Anatolia. Pass through Erzerum but without much to identify it. Drive past Mt. Ararat; story of Noah's ark coming to rest there. Musical performances. Sufis: Rumi's grave in Konya and whirling (Mevlevi) dervishes, but hardly enough here to inform viewer of who they really are and what they believe.

Film 29. The Silk City at the Edge of Asia. Starts with flyover of the cave monasteries of Cappadocia, but little of substance on this fascinating Christian complex and its wonderful murals (a few of which are shown). Then to Akçilar, a silk-producing village near Bursa. Shows silk cocoons being picked for market, silk worms spinning. In Bursa, a glimpse of tomb of Osman, founder of Ottoman dynasty (is he named?). Then an extended and quite interesting sequence of trading at the Koza Khan, the historic silk market. Another extended sequence of a village wedding with music and dancing.

Film 30. All Roads Lead to Rome. Istanbul. Cathedral of Sancta Sophia, including interior; same for the Blue Mosque. The Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. The historic and impressive walls. As they head west, from Istanbul, they detour to the Syrian coast where a Greek ship being excavated by underwater archaeologists. Contains amphorae of a cargo from before the time of Alexander the Great. This is really a digression; eventually the get to S. Italy (Brindisi), at the end of the Appian Way. They stop at Rome's port (Ostia) and end up parking their expedition jeeps at the Coliseum. All this pretty devoid of substance.

© 2001 Daniel C. Waugh. Last updated December 28, 2001.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.