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Mangystau, Kazakhstan. Image courtesy of National Geographic. Kazakhstan, 2018.
Mangystau, Kazakhstan. Image courtesy of National Geographic. Kazakhstan, 2018.


Students will be able to…

  • identify how information presented in diverse media changes/expands their understanding of a geographic space
  • integrate diverse media to create a sensorily vivid depiction of a geographic space and their personal perception of it

Introducing the Lesson:

What do you think of when you hear the word "map"?

Today, we are going to explore a map that may be different from any you've seen in the past: an interactive story map of the Silk Road path along which National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek has been traveling. The interactive contains not only traditional maps, but also images, video, audio, and text that give a fuller picture of the geography he has traversed. We will discuss the concept of mental maps and how we construct them, automatically or conscientiously, and the role of subjectivity in that process. Finally, we will explore how maps can be designed to creatively convey information and personal perspectives, resulting in the construction of our own maps inspired by Salopek's "On Foot in the Path of the Silk Road."

Screenshot of Paul Salopek's
Screenshot of Paul Salopek's "On Foot in the Path of the Silk Road." Image courtesy of National Geographic. Tajikistan, 2018.


1. Turn to a classmate and answer: What is a "mental map"? If you haven't heard the term before, make a guess based on the individual words.

2. A mental map is the conception of a space an individual holds in their mind. For example, because of your mental map, you know:

  • how to get from your house to school
  • that California is on the west coast of the United States
  • that the Arctic is cold and characterized by its icy tundra landscape

Your mental map contains information about your local, national, and global environment. It is constantly changing and expanding based on new knowledge you acquire. It is also subjective; for example, do you consider your school near to or far from your house? Would you describe the winters in your state as cold? Would you say Taiwan is an independent country or a part of China? The answer of any two people talking about these same geographic spaces might be different based on their personal perspectives and, as a result, their mental maps are different.

3. What does your mental map of the Silk Road look like? Where are the route's start and end points? What words, images, people, ideas come to mind?

4. Read the following excerpt from Paul Salopek's National Geographic article, "On Foot in the Path of the Silk Road":

The fabled Silk Road that spanned Central Asia wasn't really a road. It was a complex web of trading routes, both terrestrial and marine, that linked far-flung civilizations—and tens of millions of lives—across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa beginning at least 2,000 years ago.

Enriched by a trade in luxury goods, the Silk Road empires that once straddled this region collected, translated, and built upon knowledge from every corner of the Old World. Many Central Asian scholars worked in government-funded libraries and academies, refining algebra and tempered steel. While Europe slumbered through its Dark Age, everything from Greek philosophy to Buddhism and the Arabic language to the mathematical concept of zero spread along the Silk Road's camel trails. In this way Central Asia became an early laboratory of globalization.

Salopek's walking route from the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan; generalized routes of the Silk Road. Image courtesy of Esri/National Geographic. 2018.
Salopek's walking route from the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan; generalized routes of the Silk Road. Image courtesy of Esri/National Geographic. 2018.

5. Geography check: Which countries along the Silk Road has Paul Salopek traveled through so far?

6. Now that you have a brief introduction to the Silk Road and its basic geography, discuss the following as a class:

  • What about your mental map of the Silk Road has changed or expanded?
  • What more do you want to know in order to construct a better, more accurate mental map?
  • What makes a mental map "good"? What makes it "accurate"?
  • What is the value of having a good mental map of another country?

Introducing and Discussing the Resource: "On Foot in the Path of the Silk Road"

1. Explore "On Foot in the Path of the Silk Road" individually, in small groups, or as a class, technology permitting. While scrolling through, keep these questions in mind:

  • How does this story change/expand your mental map of the Silk Road?
  • Whose perspectives are included in the story, and how?
  • What kinds of media does the journalist use to create this story, and how does each contribute uniquely to its impact?

2. Scavenger hunt! In the interactive story, find:

  • The start point, end point, and purpose of Paul Salopek's "Out of Eden Walk"
  • At least three things that were transported along the ancient Silk Road
  • At least three things that made/make it difficult to travel the Silk Road
  • At least one thing that happened as a result of the Silk Road
  • The major thing being transported along the Silk Road today

3. Salopek writes:

The Silk Road thrived for roughly two millennia, changing the course of world history through rich cultural and commercial exchange...The trade route's vast profits—and Central Asia's openness to outside ideas—ignited a Muslim Golden Era that saw the creation of universities, astronomical observatories, and libraries.

What present-day creations/phenomena perform a similar function?

4. Having explored Salopek's interactive story, discuss the following as a class:

  • How has your mental map of the Silk Road changed and expanded?
  • In what ways can this interactive story make us think differently about maps?
  • How does the use of maps contribute to the interactive as a story?
  • How does the use of photos, text, and video contribute to the interactive as a map?
  • How would you classify this piece? As a story? A map? Something else entirely? Explain.

Extension Activities:

Option 1. Reread Paul Salopek's description of the Out of Eden Walk:

The Out of Eden Walk, as my project is called, is a storytelling journey through the world that follows the pathways of the first human migrations out of Africa during the Stone Age. The idea is to retrace the original discovery of the Earth by our ancestors while writing stories and taking photographs and video and audio recordings along the way. The project uses deep history to examine the current events that are shaping our lives in the early 21st century. By slowing down to the pace of my own footsteps, I hope to immerse myself in the lives of the ordinary people I meet along the way, and extract more meaningful stories from the usual headlines of our day.

Salopek's walk is retracing an important journey: that of humans from their origins in Africa to their dispersion across the Earth. Using "On Foot in the Path of the Silk Road" as an inspiration, make a creative map tracing a journey of your own. You can define journey as you wish. Some ideas include:

  • The journey of your ancestors to the United States
  • Your own or your family's move(s) leading to your current home
  • An everyday journey you make (i.e. to the grocery store, your neighborhood park, etc.)

You should use at least one traditional, professional map and at least two other forms of media (photo, text, video, painting, computer graphics, etc.) Your map can be digital, on paper, 3-dimensional, or a combination. Consider: what makes up your mental map of this place? How can you include details that display your personal, subjective perspective and, as a result, change/expand the mental maps of others?

Option 2. Select one image or video from the interactive story that made an impression on you. Write a one-page response that explores the following questions:

  • How does this image/video change and expand your mental map of the Silk Road, Central Asia, and/or the world?
  • What additional questions does this image/video prompt in you?

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