An Odyssey Renewed: Paul Salopek’s Epic Walk Through History

Sometime soon – perhaps right now, as you read this – journalist Paul Salopek will be lacing up his walking boots, throwing a small backpack onto his shoulders, and setting out on a really long walk. 

It’s the first time he’s been able to do this in 18 months, due to the pandemic, and he’s departing from Myanmar (formerly Burma), with plans to make his way east. 

A long way east. As in: all the way to Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of Chile. 

Tierra del Fuego, Chile
Tierra del Fuego, Chile

This may sound like a daunting prospect, but Salopek isn’t worried. After all, he got to Myanmar by walking an 8,000 mile route from Ethiopia, crossing Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the West Bank, Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. In terms of mileage, this is just more of the same – while of course being wholly different in every other way.

He’s a little behind schedule, and not just because of the pandemic. When he first set off, he estimated he might be finished this year (2021) or the next. Now, after 7 years of walking and an 18-month pause, he’s still not even halfway. 

But racing to catch up would defeat the true purpose of this incredible 24,000-mile journey. Salopek isn’t ticking off countries as fast as he can, or attempting anything like the helicopter foreign reporting (drop in, get the story, off you go again) that left him disillusioned enough to seek out an entirely new approach to his writing. He’s fully and completely committed to doing this properly, and if it takes him another decade, well, that’s how long it’ll take.

The real reason he’s here is to chart the oldest story in human history. This walk is tracing one of the routes that humanity’s ancestors took as they walked out of Africa, collecting stories of the people who live enroute today, documenting their experiences firsthand and giving them a voice in a world news landscape that so often drowns them out in favour of a big, distancing headline.  

In Salopek’s words, speaking to the BBC:

“I was a conventional foreign correspondent for years, zipping between breaking stories by plane or car. The advent of the Information Revolution has only sped up that whole process. Our stories today move at the speed of light. So, the Out of Eden Walk is a bit of pushback against all that. It aims to gather knowledge in a slower way, at a more humane pace, at the rate that these Stone Age brains that we’re still carrying around were designed to process – at 5km/h.

By slowing down my reporting process, my work is hopefully infused with richer, deeper insights into the landscapes and lives of the people I encounter. Walking bakes in the added element of time. It connects one story to another in a primal way. It encourages you to think before writing. I call it “slow journalism”, but it’s just our oldest form of discovery.

What keeps me going? The stories I encounter. They’re never-ending and no two are alike. Each one raises a new question.”

Walking - the oldest way to travel
Walking – the oldest way to travel

In one sense, he’s certainly not doing this alone. The project, officially called the Out Of Eden Walk, is part-funded by National Geographic Magazine, the Knight Foundation and the Abundance Foundation – but it also depends on a yearly public fundraiser, to make up the difference and even be marked as a sponsor of part of the route (thanks to the Digital Donor Map, I can see I’m now the proud sponsor of a single mile of Salopek’s course through the upper Hindu Kush).  

But in another sense, he’s doing this in the simplest, most grounded way possible. As Camille Bromley notes in her interview with him at Believer Mag:

“Salopek does walk. He seeks shelter in villages. He eats whatever local fare is offered to him. At night, he writes on a MacBook Air. But he is not alone: he is always joined by at least one local walking partner, who might serve as interpreter, guide, and/or contributing journalist.

And he is not unplugged: apart from writing, he emails his editor; he has conference calls with National Geographic; he responds to requests from the nonprofit’s partners; he is on Twitter; he is doing press for GQ India or PBS; he is fund-raising; he is preparing grants; he is planning the route ahead; he is trying to secure a visa to China.

In other words, Paul Salopek is not a solitary guru wandering the wilderness. He is a working journalist doing a media job, firmly planted in the turmoil of the present. And yet he has managed to maintain a clarity of purpose on his journey. He wants to write about the world he sees, and the Out of Eden Walk, with all of its hidden bureaucracy and back-end infrastructure, is a means to this end.”

And what writing it is. Salopek has won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his reporting – once in 1998 (Explanatory Reporting) and again in 2001 (International Reporting). His dispatches for the walk, hosted by National Geographic, include some of the best modern travel writing you’ll find being published on the Web today, displayed in a threaded narrative multimedia format that’s a true joy to work through.

Landscapes in Northern Myanmar
Landscapes in Northern Myanmar

Now it’s time for him to begin again. The next part of his journey will take him 3,600 miles from the Myanmar border through ten provinces in China and reaching its border with Russia around 18 months from now. And beyond that? His revised timetable marks 2027 as the year he’ll reach his goal, 14 years after he first left Ethiopia – but really, who knows? If it gets pushed back again for all the right reasons, all well and good: the stories are setting the pace, and Salopek is firm about his priorities here:

“I think walking teaches about the world in an ideal way. The horizons are earned. You live within your body’s limitations – marking progress by the length of your stride. It keeps you grounded, humble. Like a lot of things that are good in life – love, friendship, food, conversation – the slowness of it is essential.

There is a sort of sacrament of days. You wake up, have a cup of tea, pack your rucksack and move on. At sunset you carry out this process in reverse, savouring it. Walking reacquaints you with the forgotten ceremonies of arrivals and departures. These are daily rituals that motorised transport, speed, schedules, have obliterated. And you wake up to every sky not knowing where you will sleep next, yet with a steadying directionality to your life: east.”

If you like the idea of slow travel at (quite literally) your own pace, Wheel & Anchor is walking the final stretch of Spain’s Camino de Santiago in 2023. Find more details here

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