The Current

Why Paul Salopek is walking the modern-day Silk Road to pursue 'slow journalism'

A journey of 8,000 kilometres begins with a single step. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek is walking the modern-day Silk Road, talking to people in the pursuit of what he calls "slow journalism."
      1 of 0

      Read story transcript

      Paul Salopek reached a unique milestone in early December: 10 million footsteps on a journey that has taken him from Ethiopia to Djibouti, up the Arabian Peninsula, through the Middle East to Cyprus, across Turkey, the Caucasus to Central Asia. That's more than 8,000 kilometres travelled on foot. 

      Map of Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk. ( Ryan Morris/National Geographic)

      For the past year Salopek has been trekking through three of the 'Stans: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan, in particular, was daunting because of the terrain.

      "Uzbekistan, especially in the West, is an enormous wild plateau, hundreds of kilometres across that nobody in their right mind crosses on foot anymore," Salopek explains to The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

      So he was surprised by what his walking partner and guide was wearing when they met at Uzbekistan's western border with Kazakhstan. 
      Guide Aziz Khalmuradov rehydrates the natural way on the trail in Uzbekistan. (Paul Salopek/National Geographic)

      "He's wearing Bermuda shorts and wrap-around sunglasses and top-sider sneakers and I'm saying 'Does this guy realize we're walking across a chunk of territory that's the size of some countries, and it's all grasslands?'"

      But Salopek says the guide quickly grew into the trek. And by the end, 2,200 kilometres later, he didn't want his portion of the walk to end.

      "It's not my walk," Salopek says. "I watch in wonder as this idea grabs people and they make it their own."

      Salopek is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and fellow with National Geographic who is retracing our ancestors' ancient migration out of Africa. His end goal is the southern tip of South America. But he is quick to explain that the end is not the goal — it's just an excuse to get him out walking with and talking to people in the pursuit of what he calls "slow journalism."

      Walking is addictive, in a positive sense ... It forces you to engage with people. You can't ignore them. You have to say hello.- Paul Salopek

      It has been a welcome departure for the former war correspondent who once made his living jetting in and out of conflict zones, staying only long enough to get a story — never long enough to tell it fully. 

      Now he moves slower. Much slower. 

      In eastern Turkey, Paul Salopek leads his mule past the Karakuş royal tomb, built in the first century B.C. by one of the area’s many ruling states. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. (John Stanmeyer/National Geographic)
      I'm way behind schedule and thankful for it ... I'm having the time of my life.- Paul Salopek

      For the past year, Salopek has been following the ancient Silk Road trade routes that once connected China to Mediterranean. Merchants used to move precious cloths and spices. Now they move precious oil and gas. Globalization has made it possible to extract the region's abundant natural resources, which has brought prosperity to a small but growing middle class in the region. However, that prosperity has also created resentment. Many locals are being left behind. 

      "That's happening in North America too, of course," he tells Chattopadhyay. "That's what's driving some of these movements against globalization."

      Salopek is currently wintering in Bishkek, Kyrgyrzstan, before setting out again in the spring. By foot, of course. 

      "Walking is addictive, in a positive sense ... It forces you to engage with people. You can't ignore them. You have to say hello."

      Salopek says he's spoken to thousands of people in the first four years of his journey so far. When he started, he thought the whole journey would take him seven years. 

      "That's proven to be laughably optimistic, but in a good way," he says.

      "I'm way behind schedule and thankful for it ... I'm having the time of my life."

      Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post.

      This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman. 

      now