Around-The-World Trek Hits Obstacles Both Natural And Man-Made : Parallels Journalist Paul Salopek's long walk recently brought him face to face with the possibility of losing his toes to frostbite — and with one of the largest mass migrations in modern history.
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Around-The-World Trek Hits Obstacles Both Natural And Man-Made

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Around-The-World Trek Hits Obstacles Both Natural And Man-Made

Around-The-World Trek Hits Obstacles Both Natural And Man-Made

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We have a list of this morning's stories up on our computer screens, and this one just grabs you - walking around the world. That's sort of what journalist Paul Salopek has been doing. He's retracing early migration out of Africa for National Geographic. Our colleague Steve Inskeep first spoke to him last year in Ethiopia at the start of his seven-year odyssey. Since then Salopek has walked across the Middle East. War in Syria blocked his way, and he was forced to take a ship to Turkey. Since then he's walked hundreds of miles through Turkey, and he's made it to the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. That's where he was when Steve caught up with him again. Salopek had just experienced a near-death moment as he crossed from eastern Turkey into the Caucasus.

PAUL SALOPEK: We headed up to a high mountain pass. It was about 9,000 feet, and the snow kept getting deeper and deeper. I was traveling at the time with three walking friends. And we were breaking new trail. We ran across a boulder field that had been covered by a crust of snow. And we began falling through it, which is very dangerous. And in fact I did twist a knee. And at that point we kind of retreated down the mountains to a valley. My Turkish guide, Murat, got a campfire started by burning his gloves and thawed our feet. And then we ended the walk of 2014 in a Georgian orthodox monastery, which seems sort of appropriate - a refuge.


Did you actually have that moment, that Jack London to-build-a-fire moment, of thinking maybe I'm going to finish this walk right here?

SALOPEK: I tried to banish Jack London's short story from my mind at that point. Fortunately I have really resourceful colleagues who, unlike the character in Jack London, can light a fire.

INSKEEP: What are conditions like in Georgia where you are - this small country that is surrounded by a lot of big and sometimes dangerous neighbors?

SALOPEK: It's an oasis at the moment because, you know, recently it went through a conflict with Russia not too many years ago, but right now it's calm and peaceful and thriving. It was quite a surreal experience to come out of this walk - this long walk through Turkey over the Caucasus Mountains and to be able to walk into a shop with heating where there was a coffee machine and have a warm coffee. Tbilisi is like "Xanadu" right now to me.

INSKEEP: It's interesting that you've walked through a couple of places that may be refuges for people from elsewhere. You said you walked the length of Turkey, for example, where there are many, many, many thousands of refugees from Syria. In the parts of Turkey you walked, did you have a sense of how close that country is to a devastating war?

SALOPEK: Almost every day. The presence of the Syrian war was always in the background. And I happened to be near the Syrian border when the largest forced dislocations in modern history occurred. About 80,000 to 100,000 Kurdish Syrians came stampeding over the wire in 72 hours. I mean, that is probably the biggest mass movement of people in this part of the world since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was a jaw-dropping and heart-wrenching sight.

INSKEEP: Oh, this was as a response to the siege of a city called Kobani inside Syria that people fled. Is that right?

SALOPEK: That is correct. And it was like reading one of the old Hemingway short stories after World War I about the turmoil in this part of the world. There were thousands and thousands of people crossing a trampled-down wire in fallow melon fields outside of the city of Kobani. One of the thoughts that struck me after having walked out of Africa was that how one of the defining definitions of being a refugee is that you're reduced to being back on foot because these people were forced to park all their vehicles as they were fleeing ISIS, or the Islamic State. At the border, the Turkish military would not let them pass. And so they walked into these new, disempowered lives dusty, sweaty and on foot. And it was a very sobering time.

INSKEEP: When you think about all those movements of people over millennia, what does that make you think about the various borders that you have been crossing in the region in recent months?

SALOPEK: As I move slowly across these imaginary boundaries, their fragility becomes profoundly evident. At the same time, there's a paradox because of course these imaginary lines are stopping me dead cold in my tracks. You know, they both are porous and evanescent, but at the same time they can be as final as a mile high glacier in my path.

INSKEEP: So you've made it through the mountains to the capital of Georgia. Are you staying there for the winter?

SALOPEK: The plan is to hunker down here and do some writing and wait for the spring to come and at that point, make a decision about how to get into Central Asia along the old Silk Roads towards China.

INSKEEP: Are you getting tired of walking?

SALOPEK: No. I think on the contrary. I was just thinking about this today. And maybe it's just the shine of being back in an urban environment where everything seems new, but that's what this walk does. This walk has this uncanny power that I hadn't imagined to make this whole world seem new again.

GREENE: That's journalist Paul Salopek speaking with our colleague Steve Inskeep. Paul Salopek's journey is featured in the December issue of National Geographic magazine. And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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