Tales from
the Silk Road:
A Producer’s Journey

Five years and seven regions later,
Pearl Forss, producer of CNA’s award-
winning documentary, shares a
personal account of her adventures
reporting along China’s New Silk Road.

I’m Pearl Forss, a producer at CNA.
Five years ago, I embarked on a journey
to uncover the untold stories of
China’s New Silk Road.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will impact over 70 countries and more than two thirds of the world’s population. 

But more than spectacular trade and
investment figures, my five-year expedition uncovered stories of human and environmental cost, alongside stories of growth and optimism.

Unearthing ancient roots:
Dunhuang, China. This is where Chinese Silk traders departed from 2,500 years ago. They journeyed across the sand dunes to reach markets in the Middle East and Europe.

Many did not survive the trek.

Forging new paths:
The New Silk Road is less treacherous. Thousands are employed to build what the Kazakh government has termed “the construction of the century.”

What seemed like a road to nowhere,
will soon be a major artery of global trade.

This 8,445 km-long
Western Europe-Western China highway
is estimated to double landlocked
Kazakhstan’s transport capacity by 2020
and boost it tenfold by 2050.

Watch the TV documentary

Winning hearts and minds:
The BRI is not just about infrastructure. It is also an avalanche of factories, oil pipelines, Chinese schools, special economic zones, mines, and friendship associations drawing a country closer to China in bilateral relations.

This Chinese school at the Myanmar-China border provides free education to locals.

The school song sums up the situation.

This is one of hundreds of Chinese factories that have opened up across the world, from Asia to the Middle East to Africa.

Resource extraction is another major purpose of the BRI. In Kyrgyzstan, the Zuoan gold mine has 10 million tons worth of gold, which is being extracted and sent to China on the New Silk Road.

This is the China National Petroleum Corporation’s oil project at North Azadegan. This is a controversial project as Iran currently faces sanctions.

It is tough work out here in the North Azadegan Iranian oil field. The nearest town is more than three hours away.

CNPC flies in a Chinese chef to help
workers deal with being homesick.

Journey to production:
It is not always easy to feature Chinese projects on the BRI. To gain access to these locations in Iran, I spent more than six months negotiating with the Iranian government.

In some parts of China,
access is also extremely controlled.

Xinjiang is a critical link on the BRI. But the region is mired in controversy. China says it is battling extremism here.

Watch the full episode

But UN experts and activists say that at least one million ethnic Uygurs and other Muslims are held in the detention centres here.

When we were there, we saw police everywhere, and government minders followed the production crew every step of the way.

The weather was another volatile factor in the production of this series. The BRI cuts through some of the most remote places in the world.

Here at the South Gobi, on the way to a major mining project, we got stuck in a snowstorm.

Watch the full episode

With no GPS, no paved roads, and only five metres of visibility, there was some fear of being buried in that snowstorm.

There was also the danger of stormy seas.

We were in Malaysia in the open seas, examining the South China Sea conflict, which is a flashpoint in China-US-Asean relations.

Frederick Lee - a fisherman told us that Chinese fishing boats were armed.

Another production challenge
was traffic.

The BRI is about improving trade links,
and this is a snapshot of trade between Mongolia and China.

Here, truck drivers endure a 15-day traffic jam, to send coal from Tavan Tolgoi to the Chinese border. This coal is used to make steel, and then exported all along the Silk Road.

Impact on people and places:
The BRI has boosted some economies and left others questioning its impact.

In some places, like Uzbekistan,
it has brought money, tourism and growth.

Watch the full episode

In other places, like Malaysia,
the BRI has been more controversial. 

In Kuantan, an industrial park project meant to boost employment has been associated with major pollution problems.

Watch the full episode

At another port - Piraeus in Greece - Chinese investment has completely
turned the business around.

Under COSCO management, the port will handle five times as much cargo volume as it did in 2010. Piraeus is on track to be the busiest port in the Mediterranean by 2019.

At the end of my five-year journey, there is no doubt in my mind, that the New Silk Road will cement China’s position as a superpower. But whether that dominance brings with it responsible, sustainable global development remains to be seen.

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