What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Trekking across the ‘unknown’ Afghanistan, untouched by war

Paul Salopek is one of the few people to have crossed a roadless, mountainous part of Afghanistan by foot. The journalist had previously reported there during the war. But as part of his Out of Eden walk around the world, he’s encountered a completely different Afghanistan than the one he had come to know. Hari Sreenivasan talks with Salopek about the latest leg of his journey and what’s next.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight- we often, often get lost in frantic daily routines, rush hour, work, school, smartphones buzzing all day long, too much to do with too little time.

    But now and again, we check in on a reporter whose life’s work now is found in walking and taking meaning and telling stories from his years of footsteps.

    Hari Sreenivasan has this update.

  • Paul Salopek:

    You know, the walks kind of turned into my life.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In October 2015, I went for a walk in the Southern Caucasus Mountains with the journalist Paul Salopek. For me, it was a few days. For him, he had been walking nearly three years as part of his Out of Eden Walk, a global journey by foot.

    We spoke with him in Kazakstan last year and when he was in Kyrgyzstan earlier this year.

    And Paul joins me again now.

    Paul, tell me where you’re at. I can hear a river rushing in the background.

  • Paul Salopek:

     Right now, I’m next to the banks of the Kunar River in Northern Pakistan, after having just walked well over 1,000 miles through the mountains of Central Asia, starting in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, a big chunk of Afghanistan, and now, of course, in Pakistan.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You were in Afghanistan years ago during the war. How has it changed?

  • Paul Salopek:

     You know, I have walked through a part of Afghanistan that I have only known marginally before, when I was in the war.

    In the war, I was in a hostile environment, filled with guns, filled with explosions, filled with movements of armed men as a war correspondent.

    The last segment that I have walked through is a completely different Afghanistan. It’s a wild, pristine, almost unknown Afghanistan to the outside world, where people are carrying not guns, but shovels, where men are digging holes not to plant IEDs, but to create traps for snow leopards, and women aren’t wrapping their faces in purdah, except to bake bread in smoky ovens.

    It’s a completely different Afghanistan than the one I used to know.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You’re one of the few people to cross Afghanistan on foot, right?

  • Paul Salopek:

    Yes, at least this segment, that I know of.

    According to my research, the last time any outsiders walked through what is called the Wakhan Corridor, this really wild alpine strip of land between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, was probably 10 years ago, and, before that, maybe generations.

    It’s simply a roadless area. It’s an area that’s inhabited by shepherds. It looks like alpine parts of British Columbia or Switzerland. And it’s safe to walk through.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Sounds like extreme conditions here.

  • Paul Salopek:

    Yes, to get through this region required quite a bit of logistical preparation.

    We had to hire some donkeys. We had to go over 14,000-, 15,000-, 16,000-foot passes. And the last pass, called Irshad Pass, in the wild mountains of the Karakoram between Afghanistan and Pakistan, was particularly extreme.

    It was so cold that even inside of my tent, my clothes froze on my body.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Given where you are now — you said your satellite phone has been confiscated — are you concerned at all for your safety?

  • Paul Salopek:

    Yes, it was an interesting experience coming down out of this extremely wild and high mountain wilderness of the Karakoram into Pakistan.

    I wasn’t aware that I needed a permit for my satellite phone, so my satellite phone was confiscated. But I feel very safe here. The Pakistani authorities have done a great job of collaborating with my project and ensuring that there’s overwatch, that they’re keeping an eye out for me.

    So, other than nature, which you always have to keep your eye on, I feel quite safe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You’re working on a story about the Silk Road for National Geographic.

    Tell us a bit about that.

  • Paul Salopek:

    Yes, in the December issue is a piece that describes the last 2,500 miles of the walk almost.

    It’s a vast area stretching from the Caspian through Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. And that piece talks about how lessons from the Silk Road, which is kind of one of the early experiments in globalization, still echo today, especially in an environment where there’s a backlash against globalization.

    It’s a story about what happens when you open up the walls of society to free trade and free ideas, vs. turning inwards, at which point societies stop growing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This is the same Silk Road you have been walking along for quite some time now.

  • Paul Salopek:

    Yes, it’s been a while. It’s been I think since May of 2015, when I set foot in Kazakstan.

    So it’s a big stretch of the Earth, a big stretch of my global project, crossing open steps, following the fabled Amu Darya, Oxus River, through Central Asia, with all these Silk Road empires along the way, these beautiful old medieval cities, and now this amazing montane wilderness.

    This last segment, through Afghanistan in particular, has been extraordinary, everything from the quality of the light, light like champagne, to vistas of mountain peaks stretching as far as the eye can see, to the edge of the world, to the very edge of visibility, and most of it untrammeled, un-stepped-on.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Paul, so where to next?

  • Paul Salopek:

    Well, from here, I hope to continue down through Northern Pakistan, through the foothill country, through the capital of Islamabad, and then to the old cultural capital of Lahore, the old Moghul cultural center, into Northern India, and then across Northern India, into Bangladesh, and then onward into China.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Journalist Paul Salopek, joining us from the hills of Pakistan tonight, thanks so much.

  • Paul Salopek:

    It’s always great to reconnect with you, Hari. Maybe I will see you on the pilgrim trails in India.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The definition of tough. His clothes froze on him.

Listen to this Segment

Latest News