Out of Eden Walk: Walking Across Anatolia

National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek tells host Carolyn Beeler what it was like to walk 700 miles across the plains of eastern Turkey, historically called Anatolia, a land that connects Europe with Asia. The war in neighboring Syria and thousands of years of conflict and conquest quietly echo through this peaceful, pastoral land.

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National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek has been tracing the path of our oldest human ancestors. 

He began his trip in East Africa a decade ago and will eventually walk to the southern tip of South America. 

The World’s Carolyn Beeler caught up with Paul to learn about his passage through eastern Turkey.

Walking east along the Roman road. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
Carolyn Beeler: So, Paul, take us back to 2014. You had just sailed from Cyprus to the coast of Turkey, very near Syria. How prepared were you for this next leg of the journey?
Paul Salopek:Well, as you know, I walk with local walking partners, and my Turkish walking partner met me at this port called Mersin. The first words out of his mouth were, “Who is the genius that scheduled a walk across Anatolia in August?” It was blistering, and I said, “You’re looking at him.” So, it was actually very hot. But also, if you recall, it was also a time of great turmoil because Syria was pumping out refugees.
I was just about to ask you about that. Of course, there was a war going on in Syria. You wrote really compellingly at the time of a big group of Syrians that had crossed into a border town in Turkey, where you were. Can you describe what that town was like when that happened?
It was one of these apocalyptic scenes. There was a city across the border within sight, visible in Syria, called Kobani, and ISIS was assaulting it. And ultimately, I think more than 100,000 people stampeded over this barbed wire fence into Turkey for safety. And that was happening as if through a magic veil where these barbed wire lines were being held down by soldiers for women and men and children to cross over. It was stunning.
You wrote, I think, something like, “Folks appeared potentially embarrassed to be in this weakened state.” That was striking to me.
You know, we, who don’t have to suffer through the experience of losing your home — often with the fist of violence threatening you — kind of project weakness and disempoweredness on people. And, of course, that’s true. They’re victims of mass violence. They’ve lost everything they have. But what I try to remind my readers is that refugees are also some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. They are the kind of icons of having just the courage to go on. It’s often very humbling to spend time with refugees.
Thousands of men, women, and children from the town of Kobani flood the Turkish town of Dikmetas on Saturday, Sept 20. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. John Stanmeyer/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
The eastern part of Turkey, the Asian part, is known as Anatolia. How much of its deep historical past could you feel as you walked across this land? 
So, I’ve walked through 20 countries. I’ve walked about 25,000 kilometers, 15,000 miles out of Africa, through the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and now China. That part of the world, outside of Africa, is the other place that I’ve found where time just kind of bubbles up through my boot soles. The dust in Anatolia has been plowed for so long, more than 8,000 years. It’s been fought over by empires. It’s been disputed by ideologies, religions, Alexander the Great, long before him, others ever since the Ottoman Empire, that it’s like walking through a time machine. I’ll never forget walking one day along a beach, along the Mediterranean on the Anatolian coast, and out of the side of the sand dune two stories high was Roman pottery, just pouring out, eroding into the sea and washing away. There was no archeological site there. Nobody is there trying to save it because it is just everywhere. It’s an amazing place.
A mountain mule’s first bath in the Euphrates River, with guide Mustafa Filiz. Near Siverek, Turkey. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Murat Yazar/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
As you entered Turkey, you acquired a pack animal. Tell us about the mule that you acquired and grew rather attached to.
It was a mule called Kirkatir, which means a kind of silver or gray mule. My walking partner had bought it before I got there. And the trouble with that was that my walking partner was a city guy. He knew motorcycles. He did not know mules. And so a wily farmer had sold him this mule, claiming that it was young and robust when, in fact, it was almost 20 years old. It was like a redwood tree of mules. And it moved almost as fast. I mean, nobody told Kirkatir how fast to go. So, the good part is that we got to see Anatolia even more slowly than usual. She was an amazing and, you know, heart-filling beast. Yeah.
Exit: Rerouted by realities of war. Eastern Turkey. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
You wrote what is quite a big statement, that some people around the world might fight you on, which is that the rural Anatolians are the most hospitable people on Earth. Why did you make that claim?
Is that in dispute? Really? Walking through Anatolia in the summertime. It was August. The asphalt roads were actually melting. Your boots would sink through the road. In that kind of heat, everybody was sleeping on the roof of their villages. And I don’t know if you’ve seen this before, but it happens a lot in warm climates. But it became a wonderful walk between these oases of having your own elevated tower. So, the family would be sleeping up on the roof. They’d be cooking up on the roof. They’d be playing games and drinking chai up on the roof. And you’d be up there with them under the stars. And the hospitality was just extraordinary. It has something to do with Anatolian cooking, right? The great yogurts and the fresh vegetables. Yeah. It was like heaven.
Down the to the oldest plowed fields in the world—the Cilician Plain of southeastern Turkey. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Deniz Kilic/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
As you neared the end of your time in Turkey, you were walking toward Georgia. You learned that you could not enter that country with your beloved mule, whom you had walked with for five months by that time. You wrote a lovely little ode to her as one of your dispatches. I imagine it was hard to say goodbye.
You know, I did everything in my power to get Kirkatir over that border. But those darn quarantine laws, you know, are universal. I was crossing from Turkey into Georgia. I even called the Georgian ambassador to the United States and said, “Can you help me get my mule over the border?” And he said, “Paul, I have taken many kinds of calls in my life as a diplomat. This is the first time I’ve had somebody asking for diplomatic leverage to get a mule over a border.” And alas, he could not. So, I donated Kirkatir to a very kindly farmer on the Turkish side of the border.
Suspicion: Villagers—including members of the local militia—watch as the mule is about to be loaded onto a pickup truck. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
But you had to ask around for a while before finding someone who wanted the mule, right?
I did, yeah. It’s a sad statement that, you know, we’re becoming a mechanized civilization now, and mules aren’t in as much demand as they were before. So hopefully, Kirkatir is still with us. I don’t know, it’s like a superhuman old mule at this point, but hopefully, she’s out there, you know, chewing her oats in some pasture in the Caucasus Mountains.

Parts of this interview have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Writer and National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek has embarked on a 24,000-mile storytelling trek across the world called the “Out of Eden Walk.” The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Salopek and the project since 2013. Explore the project here. Follow the journey on X at @PaulSalopek, @outofedenwalk and also at @InsideNatGeo.

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