As archaeologists gingerly opened a boat-shaped coffin wrapped tightly with an ox hide, a smiling face of a young woman welcomed the dumbfounded discoverers.
"She's so beautiful!" gushed Idelisi Abuduresule, head of the Xinjiang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, who led the excavation deep inside the Lop Nur Desert in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in 2003.
It was truly a wonder because the smile came from 3,800 years ago. Wearing a pointed red woollen hat, the mummy of the young woman was so well preserved, her eyelashes were long and upright. It seemed she had just fallen asleep.
Archaeologists named her "Princess Xiaohe." Xiaohe (Small River) was where Swedish scholar Folke Bergman (1902-46) first encountered the mysterious mummies in a sand dune 175 kilometres away from the ruins of the ancient Loulan Kingdom in the summer of 1934.
But nobody could find the site until some 70 years later. After their excavation, Chinese scholars found "Princess Xiaohe" and her fellow kinsmen to be descendants of ancient people who originated from the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
This rediscovery was listed as one of the nation's top 10 archaeological findings in 2003.
The story of "Princess Xiaohe" was the focus of the first instalment of "The New Silk Road" a 10-part documentary, which debuted on prime time at Channel-1 of China Central Television (CCTV) on March 10.
The show comes as a fruit of another cooperation between CCTV and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) since their unprecedented expedition into the Silk Road 26 years ago.
In 1980, the Sino-Japanese exploration resulted in a documentary called "The Silk Road." It was the first time that the mysterious western parts of the country were brought to the common audience by cameras. The documentary made a big stir in and outside China.
The two organizations came together again in 2003 to make an updated version. Although the two teams covered roughly the same routes, the two finished versions are quite different. NHK already aired its documentary this January.
"We are different in our perspectives," said Wei Dajun, general director of the CCTV team. "The Japanese team focused more on the new look of the Silk Road, the lives of the common people and the cultural aspects, while the Chinese team paid more attention to the history and culture of the Silk Road, digging behind the ruins."
When filming the Dunhuang Grottoes in Northwest China's Gansu Province, for example, the Chinese team cared more about the preservation of the precious frescoes, while the Japanese team went to the local market and asked about the price of vegetables.
It took the 350 people in the Chinese and Japanese teams two years to prepare and finish shooting at 10 sites along the Silk Road such as Dunhuang and Loulan.
According to Wei, the total investment for their joint project exceeded 30 million yuan (US$3.7 million). CCTV and NHK provided 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) each, with the rest from advertisers.
Weeks before the CCTV documentary was aired, many media reports had hailed it as setting a new standard of making documentaries in the country in terms of both techniques and concepts.
Technologically speaking, this is a fair claim.
The series combines several shooting methods to create an overwhelming sense of realism cutting-edge aerial shooting, low-flying shooting from a motor paraglider to capture a vast expanse of desert, and filming of cultural assets using a state-of-the-art high-quality camera.
By employing various directing methods using the latest digital imaging technology and historical re-enactments, the series brings back the history of the rise and fall of the ancient route, and the cultural fusion buried in the desert.
"Princess Xiaohe" was reenacted by a beautiful young woman walking amid a golden wheat field.
A small grass-made basket containing wheat seeds was found beside every mummy at the Xiaohe cemetery. Archaeologists believe the people who created the cemetery must have lived on planting wheat and raising sheep.
The Bezeklik Grottoes of the Turpan Basin in Xinjiang thrived in the 11th century but was looted by several foreign archaeological teams in the early 1900s. Its splendid frescoes are now treasured in a number of museums across the world.
The documentary team went to those museums and filmed the remnants of the cultural relics. But what is more satisfying for the audience is the digitalized reconstruction of the frescoes at their original places.
With the help of modern technology, people could see the intricate details of the dresses, expressions and colours of Sakyamuni Buddha and his disciples, which couldn't be pieced back again in reality.
But this documentary could have been better in many ways.
The directors seem to assume that everyone watching their show ought to have a thorough understanding of the various ethnic cultures, which once thrived and disappeared around the Silk Road.
The route of the Silk Road, for example, has been roughly rendered on a miniature model dotted with tiny names. The model used repeatedly in the show, however, still doesn't help the baffled audience find out the exact location of the subject in question.
The documentary is like a banquet with too many courses. Both the audience and the directors need a lot more time to digest the complex information embodied by this unique link between cultures through time and space.
(China Daily March 16, 2006)