Walking storyteller begins historic trek through China’s heartland

Writing from Yunnan Province in southern China, Paul Salopek resumes his 24,000-mile foot journey across the world after a long pandemic delay.

Published 15 Oct 2021, 13:04 BST
scooter approaching gate
An archway marks the edge of historic Heshun, near Tengchong, in the far southwest of Yunnan Province. Built during the Ming Dynasty, Heshun was an important caravan stop on the southwestern route of the ancient Silk Road.
Photograph by Zhou Na

Writer and National Geographic Society Explorer Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a 24,000-mile storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his first dispatch from China.

My walk restarts at a crossroad.

The crossroad is charred by a subtropical sun. It quarters a village of tiled roofs called Yusan. Yusan means "umbrella" in Mandarin. It is located in Yunnan Province, in far southwest China, close by the Myanmar border. How old is the village? Like many things Chinese this is difficult to know. Yusan once straddled the antique frontier between Ming dynasty China and the outside world—the bazaars of Southeast Asia and India. But roads are older than empires in Yunnan. A hundred generations of long-legged mountaineers have hauled jade, tea, copper, and ivory atop the crooked lanes of Yunnan. Centuries of mule caravans have carved divots into the roads’ grey basalt. Roman emissaries to the Han may have passed through this crossroads. Marco Polo, if you believe him, might have walked here. Majestic 20-foot walls once girded the nearby fortress town of Tengchong. American bombers, targeting Japanese, ground them to dust in World War II.

I am walking the world. Yet I stand hesitating under the white sun of Yusan. (I think: I could use an umbrella.) I squint down, sweating, at my new shoes. I have not walked in 20 months.

For more than eight years, I have trailed the first human beings who roamed out of Africa during the Stone Age. My storytelling journey, called the Out of Eden Walk, has been stalled for more than a year in Myanmar. The novel coronavirus, a life form one thousand times thinner than a human eyelash, has blocked thousands of miles of Asian land borders. For the first time since 2013, I have boarded a plane and hopscotched ahead—into China. How to describe such an experience after spending a sixth of my life at boot level? Drunkenness. Intoxication. Unearned speed has pressed on my chest like the gravity of an alien planet. Drubbed by advertising—the forgotten torments of industrial hucksterism assault my ears and eyes—I tottered through ghostly airports. I aged. The wrinkles on my brow deepened, creased into a crossroad.

Women pick corollas at the village of Yusan. The petals will be rendered into essential oils and medicines.
Photograph by Zhou Na

Farmers are picking flowers today at Yusan.

Wrapped in blue plastic aprons, men and women fill gunny sacks with corollas that blaze yellow at the roadsides like a million small suns. The petals will be rendered into essential oils, into medicines.

“This is just a sideline,” says one melancholic harvester, Jiang Ji Bing. “Business is bad.”

Everything is down because of Covid, Jiang complains. The pandemic has wilted trade. Indeed, the village of Yusan is the closest I can approach the Myanmar border—47 miles away—due to health travel restrictions. I am 251 miles from Mandalay, the Burmese city where I long ago paused my walk at the outbreak of the pandemic. I understand, I tell Jiang.

I heft my canvas rucksack. It is unbelievably heavy. I take a deep breath. I stand blinking under the bleaching sun.

The crop in Yusan is marigolds. Wan shou ju, the local farmers call them, applying a Chinese name: “chrysanthemums of longevity.” An autumn blossom. Flowers that endure when most others fade away.

Lanterns provide a decorative touch in Heshun, a popular tourist destination. The town’s first McDonald’s restaurant has been closed temporarily postponed because of COVID-19.
Photograph by Zhou Na

CHINA IS a crossroad of memory.

I will traverse at least 10 of its provinces. I will inch from the subtropical forests of Myanmar to the subarctic snows of southern Siberia. The route stretches about 3,600 miles, incorporating at least seven million footsteps, and migrates through 5,000 years of recorded lives. I’ll pace off the footsteps of ghosts. The first Yunnan nomads who hunted red deer as early as 14,500 years ago. The conquering grandsons of Genghis Khan. The tireless 17th-century walking geographer Xu Xiake. The early 20th-century explorer Joseph Rock, who travelled with a collapsible Abercrombie & Fitch canvas bathtub. Mao’s army during the Long March.

Yunnan province, my Chinese starting line, is a crossroad within a crossroad.

On one axis: a north-to-south length of 560 miles, or the latitudinal variation between Mediterranean Rome and chilly Frankfurt. On the other axis: Elevations that range drastically between 22,000 and 250 feet above sea level.

On September 28, 2021, the first day of Paul Salopek’s China trek, he passes through Heshun on his way to Tengchong.
Photograph by Zhou Na

The Indian and Asian plates collided in Yunnan. That tectonic energy has knuckled up the easternmost ramparts of the Himalayas. Glaciated peaks alternate with sweltering valleys cut by brown rivers that drain into the jungles of southern Asia. Yunnan contains over 19,000 higher plants. This is more than half the botanical riches of China. The province harbours nearly 2,000 vertebrate animal species. Again, this represents roughly half the higher fauna in China.

“Any wild animals left here?” I shout into the ear of an 88-year-old Yunnanese muleteer near the Lancang River, better known outside China as the Mekong.

The old man’s watery eyes soften. But his answer is muddled. A local translator translates the old man’s words for yet another Mandarin-speaking translator: Yunnan’s diversity extends to Homo sapiens. A rumpled puzzle-board of more than 50 ethnic groups, many speaking their own dialects, inhabit the province.

TIME ITSELF is a crossroad. We walk through it backwards.

“It was Homer,” writes the poet Anne Carson, “who suggested we stand in time with our backs to the future, face to the past.”

Yet we try to turn around. To squint over our shoulders. To see the trail ahead.

On my global walk, I follow the pathways of unknown people who are so forgotten and unloved they hardly seem human anymore: The hunters and gatherers who mapped the planet with their feet in the Pleistocene, between 60,000 and 120,000 years ago. In Kazakhstan, I hiked clay steppes with modern walking partners who had memorised, as a matter of course, the names of seven generations of their forebears: a nomad tradition called zheti ata. Of my own dead I recall virtually nothing. I do not know the names of my great-grandparents. Their stories are erased for me by mass migrations. Their existence is devalued by a Western outlook that peers relentlessly toward the future.

Without a past, blind to what is coming, I am orphaned in time. In the rootedness of China I am an alien.

I land in Shanghai a caveman.

Burmese coins weigh uselessly in my pockets. I carry an anachronism called cash. The bills might as well be cowry shells, trade beads. I am not yet integrated into China’s colossal, self-contained e-commerce system. I have no electronic wallet. No bar code that identifies existence. A friend in a Chinese city 500 miles away must use her online shopping app to buy me a cup of tea from my own quarantine hotel. An attendant delivers it to my door in a space suit.

In Shanghai, Kong Zhong unscrolls his family genealogy. He's the 78th direct descendant of Confucius.
Photograph by Paul Salopek

Later I visit the house of Kong Zhong.

Kong is a retired pharmaceutical and investment entrepreneur. He is married to the Hong Kong movie star and healer Anya Wu. In his Shanghai living room, Kong displays his family’s genealogical record. It is inked on a silk-paper scroll more than 20 feet long.

He runs an index finger down a carefully mapped cascade of names. The list is 2,500 years long. He stops at a certain century.

“I will tell you a family secret here,” Kong says, winking. “But you must promise not to share it.”

Kong is a direct descendant of Confucius, 78 orderly generations removed.

Summer’s green throb gives way to the yellow ochers of drying corn and lipstick reds of drying chilies. Near the frontier town of Tengchong, families thresh rice. They thump the ripe racemes against wooden bins. This beat is the slowing heart of October.

Walking partners Yang Wendou (right) and Li Bing take their first steps along a Ming Dynasty trading road near the Myanmar border in Yunnan.
Photograph by Paul Salopek

Li Bing, a local mountain guide and one of my Yunnanese walking partners, tells me he lives in Tengchong because it teeters at the threshold of another Chinese crossroad. It is called the Hu Line.

The Hu Line was invented by a Chinese demographer named Hu Huanyong in 1935, and it slashes diagonally across mainland China from southwest to northeast. It is a famous tangent that illuminates the enduring, lopsided distribution of people within China’s territory. To the west: the majority of the nation’s land surface, yet just 6 percent of its population. To the east: 94 percent of the population living on roughly a third of China’s more urbanised lands. For the next 18 months, I will walk northward along the Hu Line.

“I like living along it,” Li says. “On one side, people in the west of China think about Buddha and Allah. On the other side, the people in the east of China think about money, money. Here I attain balance.”

Children play in Yubi, a village that straddles the old southwestern Silk Road in Yunnan province, China. Mule caravans once plied local stone-paved trails carrying jade, ivory, and other goods between Southeast Asia and China. Salopek and his walking partners hiked these ancient trading routes, now often overgrown and little used.
Photograph by Zhou Na

ALL THE WORLD is a crossroad. But so is the heart.

I will plod through China at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions. The whole planet walks backward into an uncertain future—a new century jagged with economic competition, mass migrations, climate crises, ideological friction, with fears that throw sparks.

What to do?

I slump under the white sun of the Yusan crossroad. I cinch on a straw limpet hat. I think of the miles that unspool behind the heels of my new shoes.

In 2013, in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, one of the oldest boneyards of our flawed species, I launched my insane journey in the company of Afar camel herders who often tipped their glistening faces upward to bellow at the molten midday skies. They taunted the African heat that corkscrewed into our heads, almost killing us. Howls of pure defiance. Of to-hell-with-it recklessness. Of doomed and incandescent life.

And so I take my first step at the Yusan crossroad. Then another. And in the days ahead, when the Indian Ocean hurls tons of water down onto the heads of my Chinese walking partners—such rains that turn trails into frothing rivers—I will hear those exact same lonesome, exhilarated, skyward cries once again in green hills of Yunnan. It sounds something like joy.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Paul Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk project since 2013. Explore the project here.

Paul Salopek took the first steps on his global walk from Herto Bouri, an early human site in Ethiopia, in January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.

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