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Checking In With Paul Salopek, Who's Walking Around The World


Somewhere in Central Asia, not long ago, the journalist Paul Salopek came to the phone.

PAUL SALOPEK: All is good. How are you doing?

INSKEEP: I'm doing OK. I'm enjoying myself. There's plenty of news here.

SALOPEK: Yeah, this is what I gather.

INSKEEP: Maybe you follow the little bit of it out there. I don't really know.

SALOPEK: I do when I can. And it's kind of simplified. But it sounds it sounds like it's a simplified discussion going on.

INSKEEP: Paul Salopek is trying to look at today's news in a very different way. He's spending years walking the earliest routes of human migration, thousands of miles starting in Africa and then through the heart of Asia. He's been writing for National Geographic.

He's also talking with us as he works his way around Syria's civil war, across icy mountains and goes beyond. When we reached him this time, he was following the Silk Road, a collective name for many ancient routes leading eastward to China. Salopek had just boarded a ship crossing the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.

SALOPEK: It's kind of an old-fashioned journey out of time on an old Soviet-era cargo ship. The machinery on this ship, I noted, was made in East Germany. And it was carrying almost 30 tractor-trailer rigs driven by Turkish truckers headed into Central Asia.

So as it turned out, I was already on the Silk Road. I was just on the floating one. And this was a modern marine link. And the ship was delayed before finally docking here in Central Asia.

INSKEEP: Well, now I'm curious. You said it was an old-world experience. But weren't you going from one oil-rich nation to another oil-rich nation?

SALOPEK: (Laughter) That's right. Silk is no longer the main product traded along this route. It is energy - right - gas and petroleum. And that's something I've been thinking about too is, you know, is moving along a modern route that is kind of the height of globalization. But it was kind of the prototype for globalization more than a thousand years ago.

I mean, what was spun off of the silk road changed the lives of tens of millions of people far, far away. It connected people the way today's international economy does. And that's of course, part of this project, is to use deep history as a mirror for current events.

INSKEEP: How old is the Silk Road?

SALOPEK: You can have scholars say different dates, but basically almost 2,000 years. I mean, the Romans were debating about whether to shut off the silk trade because it was bankrupting the empire, and they lost. So the forces of globalization won back then. So maybe that's a deep lesson about what we face going forward.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should note that on top of everything else, you are now walking through a country that was once part of the Soviet Union.

SALOPEK: That's correct and using as my base, in fact, a 1980s Soviet-era little, cubicle apartment. This town used to be an uranium mining town that was restricted to outsiders. And then it experienced a revival under the oil boom of the early 2000s. And since the drop in oil prices, it's kind of emptied out a bit even over the last year.

I've bought a cargo horse, a Kazakh horse. And when I walk eastward, I'll be walking across this amazing landscape of scarps, windblown peaks and crags, and vast sea of grass that looks part of the time like Utah and part of the time like the great Midwest must have looked like a century ago. And I'll be walking about maybe 400 miles to the next border, Uzbekistan.

INSKEEP: Paul Salopek, it's always a pleasure talking with you.

SALOPEK: It's a great pleasure to check in, Steve.

INSKEEP: Journalist Paul Salopek is on a multi-year trek walking many routes of early human migration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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