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Story Publication logo May 1, 2016

In the Footsteps of the Old Silk Road Traders


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As Paul Salopek journeys around the world on foot, he will follow the migration pathways of our...

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now an update from a man we first met out on a walk.

Hari recently caught up with him.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Last fall, we took you to the Southern Caucasus Mountains in the country of Georgia to meet Paul Salopek. He is the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent on an epic journey he calls the Out of Eden Walk.

Beginning in the Great Rift Valley in Africa in 2013, Salopek is now three years into a decade-long walk around the world. After our walk with Paul, he crossed Azerbaijan, and then, around Christmas, hopped a freighter across the Caspian Sea, toward Central Asia.

And Paul Salopek joins me again.

Paul, tell our audience where we find you now.

PAUL SALOPEK, National Geographic Fellow: Today I'm in the port city of Aktau, Kazakstan, which is a very remote and isolated sort of starting line for the next Asiatic phase of the walk.

This is kind of where the Silk Road butted up against the Caspian Sea. And you might be able to hear a little bit of surf in the background. And it's a very off-the-map place. I mean, it's about, I don't know, 100,000, 150,000 people, an old uranium mining town under the Soviet era.

And I will be walking due east from here as the sun rises towards China.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How long to get to China?

PAUL SALOPEK: It's going to be an interesting passage, if the weather cooperates. I have some big mountains to go over. Maybe as soon as this coming winter, but more likely springtime.

It's about 3,000 kilometers away.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And these 3,000 kilometers are different geographically and topographically than what you have already covered, right?

PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, they are. They're very different.

As you recall, the last time I reported in, I was in the Caucasus, which is a very, relatively heavy populated corner of the world, very rugged, mountainous, also a crossroads of the world, lots of different cultures, languages, ancient migration, ancient invasions.

What I have before me now is a pretty arid plain, a high plateau of dry, brittle grasses with very little water. So it's going to be more like an expedition this time. Rather than walking from farm to farm, I'm going to actually have to camp out and look for water and go into survival mode on this stretch.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how do you ensure that you have enough food and water?

PAUL SALOPEK: I just last weekend purchased a cargo horse, a Kazakh horse. These are very sturdy little ponies. They can walk very far with very little water. And I will be leading that animal, and it will be carrying part of my water and part of my food.

Also, I had to do something that I have not done since Saudi Arabia. Over the last many weeks, I have had to go out and actually cache water, which is a very strange, a very surreal experience in this gigantic stage of open grass and sky.

Caching water means driving out to certain points along the proposed walking route and digging a hole in the ground and plucking in 10 to 15 liters of bottled water and then covering it up and taking a GPS coordinate. And so going out there and planning a few mouthfuls of water in this gigantic, operatic landscape is very strange. It's kind of like a conceptual art piece.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The storylines have changed from when you left Africa and crossed into the Middle East, how our dependence on our feet shifted to our dependence on motorized transportation.

From a story perspective, what's changing about the world around you as you now head to this next phase?

PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, it's true. I'm not just heading into a new physical environment. I'm heading into a new sort of chapter in human history and in sort of a new and different human relationship with the landscape.

In the Caucasus and in Anatolia in Eastern Turkey, I was walking through landscapes that were haunted often by human conflict, by war, by bloodshed, by massacres. So, that landscape was kind of spooky, to be honest. You would walk through villages with some empty houses, orchards that were no longer tended, and these invisible relationships between ethnic groups that you kind to had to suss out as you're walking through that fractured landscape.

Here, it more a linear storyline. I'm going to be literally following in the footsteps of the old traders who walked the silk roads between China and Europe, moving at a slow rate along camel trails, kind of a ghost myself, moving through a modern landscape that will include gas and oil developments, that will include modern highways on occasion, sporadically coming to towns.

I will be a dusty figure leading a horse and then later, in Uzbekistan, a camel, through the modern motorized landscape of globalization.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is this an opportunity for you to think more deeply about what it is that you are doing, these moments where you are basically alone with your guide and your horse?

PAUL SALOPEK: You're right. It is a much more solitary passage.

I think, for weeks and even months, we will be — my local guides and myself will be the only people visible in the visible world. And that probably will lead to more reflective sorts of narratives, maybe more inward narratives, narratives about nature, narratives about the nature of moving through landscapes alone.

And so I think these long solo passages, these kind of adagio passages, if you look at the journey as music, will hopefully allow me to reflect on where we continue to walk. So, I will be jumping back and forth between the past and the present as I walk across this steppe, these grasslands, looking at human connections in a little bit different way than I was, say, a year ago, coming through the Caucasus.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Paul Salopek, we wish you the best on your journey. Thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL SALOPEK: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

.JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Salopek's work and walk are supported in part by the National Geographic Society and by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which often partners with the NewsHour.



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