On a cold winter night in the Caucasus mountains, Paul Salopek finds himself breaking into a long-abandoned shepherd’s hut. Aided by his interlocutors (a Turkish, and a French photographer), he pulls apart the furniture to light a fire. “It was almost -20 Celsius. The moment you stepped out your hair froze,” says Paul, describing his time in that region in 2014.
In January 2013, the two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow set out on a mission to retrace the journey our ancestors took, on foot. He started walking in Ethiopia, Africa, and will end in South America’s Tierra del Fuego in 2023. “Ethiopia is the cradle of human civilisation. Nobody knows how our ancestors conquered the world. The general routing is based on the best archaeological and genetic evidence of the first human migration across the planet. They left Africa, they were hunters pushing into different territories. This project is meant to honour the first walk. It was a walk to becoming human,” says Paul, who made a quick stop in Chennai, which was en route, where he conducted two Nat Geo workshops (one on slow journalism and the other a photo camp) at the Asian College of Journalism.
The 56-year-old calls this the Out of Eden walk. The aim is also to make a case for slow journalism, “a fancy term for immersive journalism”. He says, while working for the Chicago Tribune, there wasn’t a single a-ha moment. He was their Africa correspondent, and also covered the Balkan wars and conflict in Afghanistan. Prior to that, he was a freelance journalist. “In 2012, I was looking for something else to do. I felt like I had learnt what I could and was getting tired of the acceleration of the news cycle, where the demands of the business were to go faster and shallower. Basically, jelly bean journalism, where editors were following metrics, not stories,” says Paul, adding, “Even as a traditional foreign correspondent, I would go to Angola or Iraq and find stories nobody else could see. I would dig up investigative stories. Many journalists just go for a few hours and leave because editors have a gun to their head to keep refreshing and pouring more data,” he says.
Paul believes that unless you invest in real storytelling to interpret the way the world is wired today, you are doing readers a disservice by giving them micro stories. “The antidote to that is planting your feet and walking. You become more resourceful. It forces you to be patient, to take time in communities and understand how they tick,” says Paul, who walks through villages spending two to three days staying with families. “Slowing yourself as a journalist lets you get in sync with the pace of real life and you can tell better stories.”
He covers anything from 20 to 60 kilometres everyday. And at the end of the long day — some involve him working with communities, right from helping with farm work to teaching in schools — he still has his duty as a reporter, that of writing stories. That doesn’t bother him, as his career in journalism has accustomed him to “four-five hours of sleep, three days of no sleep and nine days without food while covering wars”.
Eighteen-thousand kilometres have been completed so far. He has 20,000 more to go. He hopped aboard a cargo ship to cross the Red Sea from Djibouti to Saudi Arabia, then Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan. He then crossed the Caspian Sea to trace the Silk Route, comprising Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and made his way to India. After walking 4,000 kilometres across this subcontinent, Paul will exit via Myanmar to China.
Everything is done on foot. Other than the cargo ship to cross the seas, the only two instances where he used vehicles were in Pakistan, where the police forced him to get into a car as that area had dacoits. And in Turkey, there were clashes between the Turks and the Kurds, so Paul had to put his companion mule into a truck till they crossed the combat zone.
“I use animals as partners. I certainly can’t use a donkey walking through Chennai because it will turn into a circus. But I used cargo animals in Rajasthan and Punjab,” he says.
The California-born, Mexico-bred journalist, believes that one is accepted a little more quickly if you walk into a community sweaty and maybe stinky, rather than arriving in a car. “If you go to a Punjabi farmer with your donkey and say, ‘hey mate where can I find a place for this donkey,’ you immediately connect. The irony is slow journalism allows you fast access.”
Most nights are spent in houses of locals, a few in tents. The whole world is hospitable, he says, and it’s amazing how friendly people are to someone who is out on foot. Though there is no hostility, he admits that he sometimes finds the curiosity of urbanites a little overwhelming. “When I am walking around, someone stops a car to take a selfie. But if I tell them to get out of the vehicle and walk with me, zero people do it. I call them car brained. They are encased in this bubble of steel and glass and impose their privilege on those walking outside,” he says, shaking his head.
Paul believes that this walking narrative project is an intellectual journey. But people are more interested in asking him if he falls off cliffs or faces mountain lions? “Maybe yes. But I couldn’t care less about that. This isn’t a reality show. The stars here are the people I meet.”
The Punjab countryside is as mechanised as Iowa.
He always has interlocutors walking with him, who are well-versed in the dialect of the region he is passing through. This could be anyone from pastoral nomads to photojournalists.
He describes Wakhan in Afghanistan as a place where there is incandescent light and it’s like a forgotten-in-time mountain kingdom.
The locals he meets along his journey always have interesting reactions when they hear about his walk. It goes from disbelief, to a look that suggests they’re thinking ‘man you are a lunatic’, to almost wistfulness.
According to him, the most terrifying thing that he discovered is that there are no wild animals left. “We’ve really hammered the earth. The last place where I saw wild animals was in Ethiopia when I started out.”
Everything happens by chance, he says. He went to Tbilisi (Georgia) because he couldn’t get into Iran, Sudan, and Turkmenistan. “By being forced to go around Iran, I got to see the Caucasus.”
He’s picking up a little from different languages as he moves from one country to another. This project has improved his Arabic, he says.
For his phone and gadgets, he depends on his satellite back-up if there is no Internet connectivity.