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Writer Paul Salopek started a global journey 10 years ago. Where is he now?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ten years ago, writer Paul Salopek started a journey.

PAUL SALOPEK: I'm walking through the world in the footsteps of the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens who dispersed out of Africa back in the Stone Age.

MARTIN: Salopek's Out of Eden Walk began in Ethiopia, and he's covered about 15,000 miles so far. He's recording his observations for National Geographic. As you might imagine, his travels are sometimes disrupted by weather, war and other conflicts. The pandemic delayed his entry into China. We've been checking in with Salopek regularly since he began his odyssey. He recently traversed a part of southwestern China that seems frozen in time, untouched by modernization, a region of the country where life is slow. Our co-host Steve Inskeep caught up with Salopek after he reached the capital city of Beijing.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: How did you walk over the mountains into China?

SALOPEK: Yeah, that's an interesting tale. It required four months of basically living in a tent. Walked - well, hit the mountains in Kyrgyzstan. And then I took a right turn, and headed down into Tajikistan, into the Pamir range, and then crossed into northern Afghanistan and walked through the Hindu Kush into northern Pakistan, what's known as Gilgit-Baltistan...

INSKEEP: Right.

SALOPEK: ...And walked down the Karakoram, into the river flatlands of India from there.

INSKEEP: And you've now crossed into what was, until very recently, the world's most populous nation. Was it any trouble crossing the border into China?

SALOPEK: It was the first time that I've had to actually break the walk - because the border was closed - and jump on a plane and then enter that country by aircraft. And that was due to COVID. I was in Myanmar when the COVID pandemic erupted. And I sat in Myanmar for months, waiting for Asian borders to open. And they didn't open, and the clock was ticking. And so when my Chinese visa came through - and I only had a small window in which to use it - I had no other choice. So I flew from Myanmar to Shanghai and then backtracked on a domestic flight back to the Myanmar-China border, where my journey resumed.

INSKEEP: So then what was it like walking through southern China?

SALOPEK: I had never been in China before, and entering Yunnan was an extraordinary surprise for me. I'm not a sinologist. I'm not a China expert. Of course, I'd done some reading, but I've also absorbed a lot of kind of the two-dimensional media coverage of the country, which makes it seem like a giant, you know, factory floor - you know, the workshop of the world, mostly economics. And Yunnan was extraordinary because it's at this crossroads of tectonics - you know, the Indian plate smashing against the Asian plate, you know, big mountains, lots of different communities, different ethnic groups. And it's one of the most biodiverse corners of the world.

INSKEEP: In addition to the image of a factory floor, we have an image of China as very polluted. It sounds like you were in a very beautiful area.

SALOPEK: This was one corner of China where that had yet to be seen. And it - big national parks, kind of rural areas that were basically living kind of an artisanal economy still, which is what the latest article is about. You've probably, in your travels, been to parts of the world where, for complicated reasons - economics or topography - people still plow the earth by hand or using animals. And it has a different look, a different shape than mechanized industrial agriculture. Ditto for built communities, whether they're villages or megacities. And so what I was coming to realize is not just that in the Anthropocene, we've drastically changed the planet to meet our appetites, but we have slowly, almost without being aware of it, are losing touch with the human hand itself, what the human hand can make.

And this realization paradoxically gelled when I stepped over the Myanmar border into China, possibly because I had these conceptions that I'd be walking into the most industrialized country in the world. And I didn't. Instead, because it's the eastern Himalayas, because the topography is rugged, there were villages that were - not only the houses all handmade, but the roads to reach them were conformed to the human foot. People were still moving between them on foot or on bicycles or, on occasions, by pack horses. And even the tools to make this environment, I noticed, were handmade.

INSKEEP: In the human-built environment that you were walking through, were people conscious of that trade-off between money and human scale? And if so, what did they have to say about it?

SALOPEK: You know, I think it's a generational thing that I found in southwestern China. And I think, by and large, ordinary people, most of them, would happily trade that for moving into a machine-built environment - right? - moving into a town where you have electricity that's reliable, where you have running water at the switch of a - you know, of a faucet switch, where things are conveniently placed nearby hospitals, shopping areas. So the generation that has grown up in this - and I would argue that that's 300,000 years of generations - don't know what they're sitting in. And it's human nature, right? And I can't blame them, and I would probably do the same - join the 200 million people who've migrated into cities in China in the last couple generations.

But I think there's a younger generation of Chinese - and I've met them; I've met them in Yunnan - who are coming from big megacenters, whether it's Beijing or Shanghai or wherever, who feel alienated by the modern-built environment, working from 12 hours a day - 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week - and have kind of become unanchored from meaning. And they're trickling back. It's not a huge, you know, rush back to the land, but there's a trickle. It's starting.

INSKEEP: Where are you going next?

SALOPEK: So I'm in Beijing right now - just arrived. And the plan is to kind of pause here and take a bit of a break, do some work and then, in a month or so, start walking through Dongbei, northeastern China - those provinces that are pine forest and mixed hardwood forests that turn this glorious fall colors in the autumn and walk through that area in the autumn towards the Amoy River that divides northeastern China from Siberia. And then after that - question mark, right? I just don't know what's going to happen when I reach the Russian border.

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

SALOPEK: It's always a pleasure to touch base. Thanks a lot, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF OKAMI'S "LUMINOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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