Tracing Human Migration With A Walk Across The World Steve Inskeep talks to journalist Paul Salopek about his years-long walk around the world. In this installment Salopek discusses his travels through Central Asia.

Tracing Human Migration With A Walk Across The World

Tracing Human Migration With A Walk Across The World

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Steve Inskeep talks to journalist Paul Salopek about his years-long walk around the world. In this installment Salopek discusses his travels through Central Asia.


We got on the line this week with a man on the far side of the world. His name is Paul Salopek of National Geographic, and he's been spending years walking. He is walking the earliest roots of human migration out of Africa, then across the Middle East. Since we last heard from Paul, he walked several thousand miles across the nations of Central Asia.

It's good to talk with you. And so you're in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the name of which of course I've forgotten. What is it?

PAUL SALOPEK: Yeah. It's Bishkek.

INSKEEP: Bishkek, that's right.

SALOPEK: Yeah, Bishkek. And, yeah, I'm - I've arrived here a couple months ago. And, yeah, I'm just making sure, Steve, that I've got my recorder on. Yeah.

INSKEEP: That's cool.

SALOPEK: Hang on one sec. Yep, it's going now.

INSKEEP: Did you watch the Super Bowl, Paul?

SALOPEK: (Laughter) Damn. This is one - I didn't know that was even going on, Steve.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SALOPEK: This is how distanced from reality I am.

INSKEEP: Maybe it's better to say that Paul Salopek has a different perspective on reality. He's walked day after day after day across the Central Asian steppe, desert that blooms, turning radiant green in the spring. Now he's wintering in the Kyrgyz capital in the mountains.

SALOPEK: It's a city of about a million or so people, lots of kind of old Soviet-era buildings - great buildings, but some - a patina of globalization happening here. They've got a few cafes with Wi-Fi, and then a backdrop of snow-clad mountains that would look probably like the highest of the Rockies.

INSKEEP: So Paul Salopek is about as far as you can get from the United States, but his walk gets him thinking about the news here. Salopek's last several thousand miles took him along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route leading from Europe to China, which put an idea in his mind.

SALOPEK: The notion of how strange it is to be walking this 2,000-year-old trade artery in an age when there seems to be a retreat from a globalized ethos.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by that? What's the contrast there between the Silk Road and the retreat from globalization?

SALOPEK: Well, you know, the Silk Road is - was one of the pioneering experiments in globalization. And it wasn't just silk and luxury items that were traded along here, it was ideas, right? You had religions move along these corridors. You had technologies. Art was transferred. Culture was transferred. And often the people who made these transfers were refugees. And consequently, these these oases Empires at one time were the most cosmopolitan, thriving, innovative centers of culture in the world, and largely due to trade.

INSKEEP: So I follow you on Twitter, Paul Salopek. And I noticed that you tweeted from Samarkand, which...


INSKEEP: ...Is a city with a very resonant name, but I bet most people don't know much more than the name. I don't think I did really. What is it?

SALOPEK: It's one of these golden cities along the Silk Road. It's one of these places that just flourished. As goods and ideas went from China to Europe, these empires controlled the crossroads. So Samarkand was the seat of one of these great empires, these - and it turned into a conquering empire. You probably have heard of Tamerlane. That was his capital city.

INSKEEP: What do you see in Samarkand today?

SALOPEK: Today it's a big city, quite large. Hundreds of thousands of people live there on a big plain. And it's now given over to agriculture, and of all things tourism. So it's kind of living off its golden past. You have busloads of German tourists come through to look at these beautiful structures that were built back in the 13th, 14th century.

INSKEEP: What kind of structures, like mosques, palaces?

SALOPEK: Mosques, palaces, madrasas, beautiful tile work, soaring facades that go up into the blue skies, big, big plazas, a place that resonates with wealth and power which you don't associate right now with Uzbekistan today. Again, I think it's this ghostly remnant of trade.

INSKEEP: Is part of what happened that people deliberately choked off that flow of trade and of ideas many, many years ago?

SALOPEK: Well, it's interesting because, you know, it may or may not hold resonances with today. History is circular up to a point, but it's always unique. Wars washed over in this part of the world. You know, here we had an intellectual elite in Central Asia who were doing things like inventing algebra, who were doing things like pioneering hydraulics. And that was due to the wealth, but also the freedom of movement of peoples. But as with Mongol invasions, with competition between empires, that stability broke down. And then what replaced it were fanatical theocracies, very closed societies. And by the time the first Europeans arrived in the 19th century, they were just little remnant city-states.

INSKEEP: And you can still see those remnants today?

SALOPEK: Yeah. Walking into Khiva, for example, another kind of city that resonates like Samarkand. It was an old Silk Road city. And it's surrounded by these amazing walls that about 150 or 160 years ago had spikes with human heads on them because it had kind of devolved into a militarized little city-state. And today, you've got people eating ice cream and drinking cappuccino, coming through on buses.

INSKEEP: There are famous stories from the 1800s of British officers who traveled as you are traveling, just in ones and twos, and they'd end up in a pit somewhere.

SALOPEK: I saw one of those pits. It was during the great game, this big huge political tug of war between Russia and imperial Britain over control of Central Asia. These guys would go out on a pony to go measure and map this wild frontier, and sometimes they got caught and would be thrown in a bug-infested pit, and in a few cases these guys lost their heads.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that the bug-infested pit is not only still there, but it's a tourist attraction? You went and saw them?

SALOPEK: The bug pit is a tourist attraction. You can go stand at the lip of this well that looks to be about, oh, I don't know, 30 or 40 feet deep, where prisoners were held and pulled up by rope. And there even still these kind of channels carved in the rock where they would throw awful from dead - the guts of dead animals down into them. Not so much to feed the prisoners, but to keep the vermin population high. Just a nice touch of kind of sadism there.

INSKEEP: How have you been treated as a foreigner?

SALOPEK: Very well. I think the steppe nomads are no longer mainly steppe nomads. The world has moved on from that. These folks are very urbanized now. And - but their traditions of hospitality remain. I was often greeted again and again, welcomed into huts where maybe the only thing they might have to offer is some yogurt and some bread. And this is another thing that struck me again at this point in time, walking this stretch of the Earth.

As these ideas of walls start to re-emerge in kind of the global consciousness as the idea of kind of trying to restrict migration, I have to count myself very lucky as a single migrant, a very privileged one who was taken in again and again by complete strangers, not just with a belly full of tea and some naan - some bread - but directions, small gifts, good advice. It's been a great, great honor to be walking through this part of the world.

INSKEEP: Well, Paul Salopek, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much.

SALOPEK: Great, Steve. Great to talk with you again. Thanks.


INSKEEP: Paul is walking the world for National Geographic. His next stop - he hopes - is China.

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