Out of Eden Walk: The ethos of Kazakhstan

Not too long after leaving Tbilisi, Georgia, National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek wound up the next leg of his journey: across western Kazakhstan. Salopek met horse wranglers, archeologists working with flint metal, Sufi mystics and musicians all along the ancient Silk Road, crossing into Central Asia. Host Marco Werman talks with Salopek about his experiences.

The World

Kazakhstan may be considered “off the beaten path” in terms of tourism. But it actually has everything a tourist would hope to experience: culture, history — and a lot of horses. 

But when National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek visited Kazakhstan in 2016, he encountered more than historical sites and greenery; he also encountered steadfast traditions, many of which date back to the Silk Road.

Salopek, who is on a 24,000-mile odyssey known as Out of Eden Walk, documenting the globe on foot, joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss what he experienced.

Marco Werman: So, you arrived in Kazakhstan … What did you see? How did the place feel, and how is it different from the Caucasus and Eurasia?
Paul Salopek: The night I arrived, it was Christmas Eve, and it was freezing. I mean, Kazakhstan is a cold place, so there was snow blowing sideways. It was dark. Everybody in the streets was wearing what appeared to be T-shirts, and I was freezing my bucket off, wearing very expensive clothes that I had on. A friend of a friend of a friend arrived at the dock. Imagine this: Crossing the Caspian Sea, getting off a cargo ship, being bleary-eyed, and there’s a Kazakh friend holding a cake saying: “Merry Christmas!” It was great. It was a good harbinger of things to come.
So, tell me more about Central Asia’s significance to the famous Silk Road. This important and ancient trade route stretched from South Asia into Turkey and on into the royal courts of Europe. What role did Central Asia and Kazakhstan play along this trade route? 
It tied together tens and tens of millions of people, from Africa to Europe to the Far East to China, of course, being the source of a lot of the products. Central Asia was kind of the nexus. It was the crossroads. These guys controlled the land routes across the belly of Eurasia. And many of the empires there, that nobody kind of remembers today, were incredibly wealthy because they would tax all the camel caravans, all the folks carrying stuff, say, from Venice to Sian, not just silk, but, you know, porcelain, luxury products, furs, gold and ideas. It also was the Internet 1.0. Because Islam traveled along these routes, Buddhism traveled along these routes, mathematics, philosophy, art …. It was an extraordinary kind of flowering of culture in the Middle Ages.
The team of seamstresses at Kamal Atelier, in Aktau, Kazakhstan, toil on canvas saddle bags.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
Now, one of the first ancient traditions you came across was horse wrangling. What is a horse wrangler in Kazakhstan, exactly? And what role do horse wranglers play in this region? 
Well, I mean, horses traditionally are kind of iconic, right? Because the people of Kazakhstan have been mounted since day one. There’s some of the original riders, there’s some of the people who, you know, maybe whose ancestors helped invent things like the saddle, the things like a stirrup. Those kinds of tech horse technologies came out of these steppes of Central Asia. So, there’s this kind of cowboy mythos, if you will, of the Kazakh cowboys, and it’s still very strong. But I have to say this: This is an irony of our modern world, walking through the world in the 21st century. … When I landed in western Kazakhstan, I had trouble finding Kazakh cowboys because the vast majority of them have resettled into cities, often pressured under the Soviet Union because Kazakhstan is a former Soviet state, to relocate off the steppes. Authoritarian states don’t like nomads because you can’t control them. So, they often forced them into towns. And I had to actually train some guys to deal with the horses that were carrying them because I grew up in a village in Mexico. So, I was using a kind of Central Mexican technique. The irony of me teaching a couple of Kazakh guys was just not lost on me.
Setting out with a new steed along the shores of the Caspian Sea.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
You mentioned that you grew up in a small village in Mexico. Were there any parallels that you did see between that life and what you saw in Kazakhstan?
Absolutely. And I think it’s one reason why, on this whole global journey, when I moved through rural cultures, and about 80% of my foot journey has been rural, is that I have a little bit of an advantage in making connections with local rural people because that’s the environment I grew up in. In Mexico, my neighbors were farmers, shepherds, people who were using their hands. So, I grew up learning how to shoot a mule and how to manage a plow behind a mule. I can rub my fingers on a corn stalk and tell you how healthy it is. And this was invaluable in making connections in a place like Kazakhstan. Yeah, I felt at home.
Archaeologist Andrey Astafyev checks out a centuries-old well in western Kazakhstan. Like many, it was dry.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
If you could leave us with just one of your favorite memories from Kazakhstan, what would it be? 
I think the sensory experience, the body experience of walking across a sea of grass, will stay with me for the rest of my life. I’ve never been in a place, and Marco, I’ve been around the block even before this project. I’ve been to many, many different countries and continents. This swish of seed heads of grass against your legs for hour after hour, mile after mile, day after day, and the horizon just does not approach. You’re just walking into this kind of two-framed painting of green and blue, day after day after day. And, you know, that might sound kind of, you know, boring or even a bit ominous, but it is actually exhilarating because what that little grass was, which I discovered in occasional shrubs, it was a forest. And that grass hid thousands of birds, mammals and reptiles. It was like being a giant, walking across a miniature forest, where my head was way above the top of the canopy, and just listening to all the life in the grass around me. You know, there were birds, the song just joined us as we walked across western Kazakhstan. It was like just being serenaded on top of a giant rainforest. It was amazing.

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

Listen to the full interview by clicking on the blue audio player above. You’ll learn more about Paul’s experiences in Kazakhstan, including time spent with a stone-knapping archaeologist, a dombra player and an encounter with a mystic healer.

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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