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Walking the Silk Road, where globalization got started

June 27, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
The Silk Road, the ancient trading route that spanned from Asia toward the West, is where we find journalist Paul Salopek these days. Salopek began his "Out of Eden" walk four years ago in Ethiopia. Now Hari Sreenivasan catches up with him for an update.

JUDY WOODRUFF: China is leading a trillion-dollar project to build a 21st century version of the Silk Road, the trading routes that once spanned Asia. And it is on that original Silk Road, in Central Asia, where we again catch up with Paul Salopek.

He is on his Out of Eden walk. It’s an around-the-world reporting project that began four years ago.

Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with him.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since we spoke last time, Paul, you have walked through Kazakstan, Uzbekistan. You’re in Kyrgyzstan now. And you are going to walk into China.

PAUL SALOPEK, Fellow, National Geographic: My deadlines are often seasonal, right?

So, I have been crossing deserts and mountains across Central Asia, and the trick is to cross the deserts in the cold part of the year and the mountains in the warm part of the year. And guess what? I haven’t been able to do that so far. I’m been — it’s reversed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tell me a little bit about that desert crossing. I know you had to plan ahead and plant stashes of water into some of the places along your walk.

But I read one of the places you walked up to, your water was gone.

PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, that’s right.

It’s one of these physical challenges of walking across desolate landscapes. We had to put some water caches out before. And I had to walk to them. And to my great surprise, one of the caches in that middle of the Kyzyl Kum, this big waterless area, this badlands the size of Arizona, had been broken into.

And the water had been taken. And that was a big surprise, because local shepherds would probably never do that. They know how valuable water is. So I don’t know who took it. My walking partners at the time and I had to resort to using the satellite phone to call in for help.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Who lives out in these deserts? Tell me about these nomads. What are these herders like?

PAUL SALOPEK: Well, it’s — this part of the world, Central Asia, is one of the two big hot spots, if you will, left in our current age in the early 21st century for pastoral nomads, for people who still move with animals. The other one, of course, is North Africa.

When the steppe turns green, they go out in the spring and move their flocks and then move with their flocks as their ancestors did.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You have been following the Silk Road that millions of people before you have.

PAUL SALOPEK: The Silk Road was an artery of trade not just of luxury item, not just of commodities, but of ideas, right?

Buddhism moved along the Silk Road routes. Inventions like paper, which conveyed ideas, people, culture, art, music, all of these things moved along these camel caravan roads.

And it’s interesting to be walking them today, Hari, as we’re entering a phase where there’s been a bit of backlash against globalism. And the Silk Road was the first real experiment in globalization about 2,000 years ago.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Most of us would have trouble finding these countries on a map. But how have these former Soviet republics fared? What’s life like there?

PAUL SALOPEK: Kazakstan got lucky. They had tremendous energy reserves.

And one of the great challenges, believe it or not, of walking with a cargo horse across these open steppes in today’s day and age was getting around gas pipelines. They’re everywhere.

So I was kind of bumping into gas pipelines and turning right or left, hoping that I would eventually come to a gate. So, Kazakstan has done well in this lottery of natural resources. Uzbekistan has done less well. Uzbekistan is an ancient part of the world, where they had Silk Road cities that had many, many tens of thousands of people — they had universities, they had temples — that has kind of fallen on harder times. They don’t have the natural resources that Kazakstan does.

And now I’m in Kyrgyzstan, a smaller Central Asian republic that’s very mountainous, that is basically capitalizing on its natural beauty, eco-tourism to kind of make its way ahead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit about the people that you have been walking with.

I imagine that you get to know these people that you’re walking hundreds of miles with.

PAUL SALOPEK: So, I have walked about 6,000 kilometers out of Ethiopia since January of 2013. I have crossed about 13 borders. I have passed through about a dozen countries and territories, many languages within those territories and countries.

And along most of the way, about 95 percent of the way, I have been walking with local people. That’s part of the project. This is a project about humanity. It’s a project about what connects us and what separates us, so I need to have local people.

And it’s truly amazing. In conversations about, is the world becoming more dangerous, is it becoming more turbulent, I have to remind my readers that, at least in my experience, the world is an incredibly hospitable place.

And all of these folks who walk with me, mostly men, but some women, have become like family to me. I literally put my life into their hands. And I’m being passed like a human baton from walking partner to walking partner.

And what does that do? It gives me great heart. It gives me great energy. It proves in a very concrete way, my safety, that most people are good and most people will help you out, even if they’re strangers, even if they’re from another culture, even if they don’t look like you or speak in the same words that you speak.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s been more than four years since you have been walking on this story now. What have you discovered about yourself?

PAUL SALOPEK: As you know, I covered many conflicts for many years as a war journalist, and I saw a lot of the dark side of human nature.

I have run into a few scrapes on this project. You know, I was ambushed twice in Turkey. I got shot at on the West Bank and have had my water cache broken into in Uzbekistan.

But I can remember those items, those incidents because they stood out, because the vast majority of my interactions with people across the world on foot has been fantastically positive.

I think it’s simplified my writing, and I think made it better. And the same applies basically to my daily life.

When your world and your problems and your anxieties are calipered by your legs and by the extent that you can walk in a day, say, 20 miles or 15 miles, it eliminates a lot of unnecessary worry. You don’t expend too much energy worrying about things that are beyond your control.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Paul Salopek, we wish you the best of luck. And we will catch up with you again as soon as we can.

PAUL SALOPEK: Thanks a lot, Hari. Good to talk again.