BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN - Four years ago today I set out on a global storytelling project called the Out of Eden Walk. I am now overwintering in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, waiting for the mountain snows to melt enough to resume walking east, into western China.
This photo gallery highlights the sweep of human dramas I’ve encountered so far—across two continents, 1,460 days, and more than 10 million footsteps—as I follow our species’ ancestral trail of Stone Age migrations from Africa to the tip of South America.
2013: A GLORIOUS BONEYARD
January 10, 2013, Herto Bouri, Ethiopia. I woke up in a village courtyard in the Rift Valley of Africa, and after yanking on hiking boots and kissing my wife goodbye, I struck out on foot toward the Gulf of Aden roughly 250 miles away—and onward across the plane.
Tiny groups of Homo sapiens had been taking similar strolls from this very spot for at least a hundred thousand years. Why? Climate change? Overhunting? Famines? Population pressures? Curiosity? Nobody knows for sure. But for early peoples, this first discovery of the Earth would be a key test of human survival, ingenuity, and problem-solving.
I felt the vulnerability of those ancient pioneers as I trekked away from the field camp of paleoanthropologist Tim White on the Middle Awash River—one of the grandest hominid fossil sites in the world—with a camel caravan that included a large piece of airport-type rolling luggage. (I’d forgotten my duffel bags.)
2014: YEAR OF FORCED MIGRATIONS
In the second year of the walk, I reached Jerusalem after traversing the Middle East, a long desert passage linking our biological cradle with one of the spiritual cradles of humanity. From the fading pilgrims’ roads of the Hejaz in Saudi Arabia—the birthplace of Islam—I stumbled through the minefields of competing faiths in the West Bank and Israel. At night I sheltered in the homes of Palestinians and Israeli settlers. I navigated walls. I was shot at.
But my travails paled when compared to the fate of 12 million refugees stampeded by civil war in Syria. For months in Jordan and later in Turkey I trekked through the largest forced migration the world has seen in 70 years: a tide of miserable human beings who shared everything they had—a cup of watery tea, patch of shade under canvas, a song, a story.
In the third year of my journey, the route was blocked by the imaginary glacial walls of the 21st century—by political borders. Iran denied my visa request. I plodded northward around it into the Caucasus, through a mosaic of dazzling mountain cultures, into a maze-like legacy of invasions, conquests, displacements. I rolled down a snowy peak into Georgia. I learned of the charms of honey and wine. I witnessed the ferocious love of a mother for her dying child. And I touched the wounds of a century-old trauma: the Armenian genocide. This tragedy represented yet another closed border—an immense gulf of loneliness.
2016: NEW SILK ROADS
During the past year I walked 1,400 miles across the steppes of Central Asia. I was following a delicate moth cocoon fiber that once bound East to West. The vanished caravan routes of the Silk Road were an early experiment in globalisation. Today its camels trails have morphed into pipelines: The 21st-century silk is gas and oil.
It was sobering to walk this ancient nexus of trade at a time when many of the losers in the free market system seem to be rejecting the promises of globalism. At its trade-route peak in the early Middle Ages, Central Asia was a flourishing center of world culture and innovation. But centuries of war, religious fundamentalism, and isolationism pushed the region to the margins. Walking through today’s headlines teaches me this: When it comes to tales of Silk Roads or Silicon Valley, history is a circle. To find necessary exit ramps it helps to slow down. And winners or losers, we walk together.
Header image: Paul Salopek and his guide Ahmed Elema walking into the desert, continuing the Out of Eden walk in northeastern Ethiopia. Paul's feet connect him to the earliest travelers who left Ethiopia’s Afar desert some 60,000 years ago. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN STANMEYER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC