Walking the Earth for 9 years plays tricks on your mind

Downshifting to three miles an hour accordions the days, Paul Salopek writes. You wander into what might be called sacramental time—an eternal present.

Published 17 Jan 2022, 12:50 GMT
Girl in Pamir Mountains
Year five of Paul Salopek’s global storytelling trek saw him into Afghanistan’s mountainous Wakhan Corridor. On the other side: Pakistan.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, National Geographic

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 forebears. He sends this dispatch from Sichuan Province, in China.

Take a step.

Call it your very first step on a 24,000-mile walk across the world. You take this inaugural stride in Ethiopia, in the Great Rift Valley of Africa, the paradise of thorns where humankind was born.

The sand is yellow as old bones. The sky is a molten white dome. Two cargo camels bob ahead across the bleached pane of desert, their saintly footfalls closing a gap to the Gulf of Aden. In your rucksack there is a key. This key opens the front door of a house on another continent. It is your house. A perfectly satisfactory abode with a fine view of another, faraway desert—the desert of your birth. Your aim in carrying this key is well-intentioned: a talisman, a reminder, a promise. But something happens over the course of months, seasons, years spent on foot: The nature of time itself changes.

Downshifting your life to three miles an hour accordions your days: New Year’s anniversaries, sunsets, summers, your ephemeral body’s unmistakable signs of ageing—all the usual calendars dissolve. They begin to seem arbitrary. They lose meaning.

At the start of the Out of Eden Walk, in January 2013, Salopek and cargo camels follow guide Ahmed Elema across the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia.

Instead, you wander deeper and deeper into what might be called sacramental time: an eternal present, where the past and even the future can comfortably coexist. You inch by swarming megacities. You see them rise. You glance again and imagine them fall. Call it a state of profound equanimity. Call it madness. You end up mailing the house key back. Walking continents does this.

Nine years pass. You are still walking, reporting what you spot along the trail. By now, about 20 million paces later, you have reached western China, where atop windy Himalayan passes faded prayer flags snap with the sound of index fingers slapping briskly into palms. You peer down at your swinging boots. You notice, not for the first time, that you are, in fact, standing still. It is the Earth itself that is revolving slowly underfoot. The ultimate in clockwork. A giant cog.

You listen carefully through the wind’s howl: The world creaks, heaving yet another horizon into view. 

Take a step.

You’re in Pakistan—four years into pacing off time zones.

You cross the Hindu Kush in a blizzard. You cartwheel down to sudden, green, peopled valleys. Time accelerates like gathering snowmelt. You meet a roadworker whose leg is ripped off at the shin by a rockslide. Drizzling blood, he is carried past you. He smiles and waves goodbye. In Islamabad, women friends invite you to a typical Pakistani wedding. Thousands of guests attend. The friends insist you must wear a shalwar kameez, Pakistan’s traditional male garb. You are the only man present at the ceremony, among a sea of pressed Western suits, so folklorically attired. Onward you walk to the Grand Trunk Road.

Friends invite Salopek to a wedding in Islamabad, Pakistan, on condition that he wear a shalwar kameez, the traditional male garb. 
Photograph by Paul Salopek

Every day spent trekking along one of the world’s busiest, noisiest, most chaotic trade arteries ages you at least a month.

This debilitation isn’t just the result of accelerated motion, the hurry, bustle, the glut of traffic and raw speed. It’s the inhuman fury of modern time. Chopped by machines (cars, computers, fibre optics) into smaller and smaller units—minutes, seconds, milliseconds, nanoseconds, zeptoseconds—time becomes atomised, diluted, dispersed. It spills from you as from some metaphysical wound. You lay stricken at night amid the honking and the exhaust, put up at quaking roadside inns, truck stops, farmhouses, at a police cell offered for your convenience. Hyperventilating, bewildered, you gasp as if having run a marathon. Yet you do not run.

You are emptied of moments. You are drained of time.

It took Salopek 17 months to walk across northern India. Poverty drives many Indians to move around in search of work—these young people from Madhya Pradesh took jobs as farm laborers in Punjab. 
His 2,400-mile trek felt “like a stroll around a village.” Here, village barber Ragavendra cuts Gulag Singh’s hair at his makeshift stand.

Take a step.

This time in India. You have been walking by now for five years.

Here, something strange happens. The seventh-largest country in the world, India is a colossus. It takes you 17 months to hike across its northern sprawl. Yet India nonetheless seems small. Intimate. Manageable. Your nearly 2,400-mile traverse of the nation feels like a stroll around a village. Granted, daily life in the immense panorama of 664,369 Indian villages is indeed compacted, human-scaled. But it is more than that: It is due to the sheer density of Indian time.

By some standards, India may seem a poor country. This often translates into a human-built environment that is antique, handmade. You sip your milky tea from a bhar, one of the millions of disposable clay cups that, once used, you toss over your shoulder: Each of these tiny vessels is moulded by an artisan’s fingers. You sleep on a charpoy, a string bed woven by hand. The rural houses? Few can claim a single true right angle: They are erected with hand tools and rented muscle. Your breakfast chapatis are hand-patted by a hand-built fire. This slower, manual world is somehow profoundly familiar—and mysteriously comforting.

Why?

Because, for better or worse, bringing the billions of elements of this cosmos into being collectively requires incomprehensible hours, days, weeks, millennia of extended human attention. You absorb this investment.

You stagger out of India as if from the core of a star: infused with compressed time.

Take a step.

In the sixth year of your continuous foot journey across the world, you amble into Myanmar.

In Yangon, the commercial capital, a coup d'état is happening. The police are shooting children in the head.

“Slow down where it hurts,” a writer friend advises you. He is talking about the work. But as it happens, such counsel proves gratuitous.

Because in Myanmar time stops altogether. Or rather, it loops. And a part of you is still there, forever perambulating the streets of the Tamwe neighbourhood, where a man feeds pigeons with grain that scatters across bloodstains.

In Yunnan, women toil 10 hours a day harvesting marigolds. The flowers will be processed to make traditional medicine.

Take a step.

In the second year of a global pandemic, you walk into Yunnan Province, in China.

For more than 3,200 days, you have been a human pendulum. Nine years. You can still knock out 20-mile days in flat country. But you long ago stopped counting. You are headed toward Russia and ultimately the tip of South America. Yet these destinations, like the mileages, are also mere abstractions.

It is the reaping season in Yunnan. Farmers in ball caps and limpet hats are out picking pears, beans, strawberries, walnuts, pomegranates, peaches, plums, persimmons, apples, and melons. The farmers—virtually every single one of them—offer you their fruit. You cannot hope to carry a fraction of it.

You carry time. Or maybe time carries you. Anymore, it’s gotten hard to tell.

All you know is that you are moving forward at the rhythm of your heartbeat through tableaus and rituals so old that your alien passage doesn’t cause the least ripple. You may as well have never passed through. You might as well be a ghost. An eternal sun falls in polished bronze sheets down on humankind’s ten-thousandth annual harvest. The Yunnanese wave at you from their fields and orchard ladders. And you wave back, happy.

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.

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