Out of Eden Walk: Trekking through Uzbekistan

The Silk Road in Uzbekistan was a caravan route, a path for explorers and traversed by Soviet-era train tracks. National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek tells host Carolyn Beeler about this Central Asian country that has been a thoroughfare for explorers, traders and conquerors across the centuries. He crossed it on foot as part of his 24,000-mile Out of Eden Walk.

In imperial times, the Great Silk Road was a caravan route from China to the West, made famous by explorers like Marco Polo. In the 20th century, the same route was traversed by Soviet-era train tracks — and it still is.

National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek followed the Great Silk Road and its train tracks on foot through Uzbekistan in 2016. This was part of his 24,000-mile walk tracing the path of humans out of Africa and around the globe, a journey being documented in Out of Eden Walk.

It’s a trek that Salopek isstillwalking, and he caught up with The World’s host Carolyn Beeler to share more about his experiences in Uzbekistan in 2016.

Carolyn Beeler: Paul, let’s start with some background on the Great Silk Road. Remind us of who traveled on it and when and what they carried.
Paul Salopek: Yeah, actually, there are many Silk Roads. There were land-based Silk Roads. There were [maritime] Silk Roads, using ships, but the one I walked was the central branch through Central Asia: Caravan roads were where camel caravans or horse or donkey caravans used to travel. Scientists think it started 2,000 years ago and carried everything from porcelain to gold to writing to music. It carried everything. It was a kind of globalization 1.0.
As you were walking along part of that same route through Uzbekistan, I’m wondering if you saw or felt things that connected you to that historical trade route, if you felt echoes of Marco Polo at all.
Very much so because my Uzbek walking partners and I were traveling the same way he did, which was on foot. It took six months to walk across more than 2,000 km, which is more than 1,200 miles. I traveled it on foot. Some of my walking partners rode donkeys, moving across this vast, very dry steppe, 20 miles a day at the most, walking from (water) well to well, sometimes walking along the railway line.
Following but never converging: Letting the railway be the guide in western Uzbekistan.
So, you were in Uzbekistan when the former Soviet-era leader was still in power, and I understand that the KGB [the old Soviet name that some Uzbeks applied to their country’s state security service] was tagging along for the ride. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah. We really put those poor guys to work. They certainly earned their daily bread, trying to follow us on foot across deserts and whatnot. But it was the last years of a dictator named [Islam] Karimov, who’d been in power for over 20 years. And yeah, it was a bit surreal because we’re out in the middle of nowhere, yet they’re still tracking us. Sadly, some of the local Uzbek people — who are incredibly warm, very hospitable — were afraid to shelter us because they simply didn’t want to get on the radar of the KGB, as they still called them.
The famous historical figure Genghis Khan also traveled along this route and aimed to conquer land along its length. What was his relationship with this land that is now Uzbekistan, where you were?
You know, Genghis Khan is famous for, of course, from the Western perspective and the Asian perspective of the peoples who he conquered, he was kind of a scourge, right? He was a mass murderer. He destroyed cities. He killed thousands, millions. But he also wanted to make money once he conquered an area. So, he actually helped build the Silk Roads. He helped maintain them in order to tax them. So, we would run across these really amazing old ruins out in the middle of nowhere — they’re still standing — which were kind of moon bases. Imagine thousand-year-old moon bases. They were self-sufficient. They had high technology for their age. They had running water, clean water. Where, at the same time, the people of London, for example, were walking ankle-deep in the slops of the alleyways of London. So, the Mongol Empire fostered technology as long as it created revenue.
Modern caravanserai: a tea shop in the Kyzyl KumJohn Stanmeyer/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
Along your route, you visited a papermaking factory that used really old equipment. What was that experience like?
So, this was in the city of Samarkand, where I visited this papermaking mill that was using water the way they did centuries ago. Samarkand is a city that was super rich at the height of the Islamic empires of Central Asia. It had an astronomy observatory, universities and a papermaking industry that was the most advanced in the world. It ranged everything from thick paper that would be used to wrap cargo to super ultra-light paper that you would wrap around a pigeon’s leg to deliver messages. It was like secret papermaking technology, [and] the secret eventually leaked along the Silk Road and spread to Europe. Until then, Europeans were using animal skins to write on. So, this was a huge innovation that came out of Central Asia during its golden age.
That must have been very cool to see.
This was the center of culture a thousand years ago. Global culture. When you hear about the Islamic Golden Age, it was Baghdad and these cities. They were logisticians, hydrologists, people studying optics. What is today seen as kind of a backwater, politically and economically, was at one time the center kind of a global culture. And it faded away.
Totems of a golden age. Ruins of the medieval Beleuli caravanserai stand sentinel over a lonesome Uzbek steppe that once bustled with commerce. Its arched gate (background) toppled this year.
You devoted one of your articles for National Geographic to a Great Silk Road traveler from the 19th century, Árminius Vámbéry. Tell me a little bit about him.
Árminius Vámbéry is one of the great forgotten travelers of the 19th century, and he was a bit of a whacko, to be honest. He admitted that he was kind of a lunatic. He was from what is today Hungary. He was from a poor background. He was not privileged. He was largely self-taught, and he was brilliant. He left Hungary and traveled to what was then Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, to teach himself the Ottoman languages. And there are many. He also taught himself Islam so that he could pass himself off as a traveling dervish, and he basically traveled across Central Asia along part of my route. I was following his ghostly footsteps, and he was writing notes about the environment and people, and cramming these notes into a big overcoat. So, imagine a big overcoat with lots of padding made up of manuscript notes.
Arminius Vámbéry: portrait in the Bukhara museum
We’ve spoken about the people who passed through Uzbekistan over the centuries. What about the people who live there now? Can you tell us more about the culture of Uzbekistan today?
Uzbekistan used to be largely pastoral, right? Pastoral nomads moving animals around semi-arid landscapes. But when the Soviet Empire moved in, the Russians moved in first, and then it turned into the Soviet Empire, and they urbanized these people. You know, centralized governments do not like nomads, as a rule, anywhere because people who move all the time cannot be controlled. It’s happened not just in Central Asia, but it’s happening today, even in northern Africa. People who move animals around generally feel great pressure to settle into towns, right? And that’s what’s happened with Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is really quite urbanized. Many people have concentrated in the cities, and the countryside is probably emptier today than 100 or 150 years ago. So, I largely walked through wilderness and then occasionally would come into a town where I’d resupply, and those people were just as urban as anybody. So yeah, it’s changed. Uzbekistan isn’t what it used to be.

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 wonders 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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