Out of Eden Walk: Walking through unknown Pakistan

The feudal principalities of far northern Pakistan, home to walled villages, yak herders, glacial rivers, golden poplar forests, and snow leopards, held off—or played off—would-be conquerors ranging from Alexander the Great to imperial Great Britain. Host Carolyn Beeler speaks with National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek, whose globe-spanning journey on foot brought him through this remote region on the cusp of change.

The World

National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek is walking 24,000 miles from the Horn of Africa across Asia to the southern tip of South America. This is the same path our human ancestors took when they first settled the globe. 

During his trek, Salopek has been writing about the people, history and land he encounters as a part of a project known as Out of Eden Walk.

“We’re standing in a fortress along the Silk Road called Ganish, which is more than a thousand years old and which controlled the major artery of trade north-south between western China, going all the way down to India,” Salopek documented in a video during his time in northern Pakistan in 2017.

He discussed his journey through Pakistan with The World’s Carolyn Beeler.

Carolyn Beeler: Talk to me about the route you took across this very mountainous region of northern Pakistan. The peaks are stunning. They look totally impassable. How did you decide where to walk? 
Paul Salopek: Yeah, well, I had no choice. I was coming down through Afghanistan, and there was only one way to get over into India, which is through this truly, truly extraordinary corner of the world, northern Pakistan, called Gilgit-Baltistan. And imagine Nepal … but very few people from the outside know about it. It has the highest concentration of 25,000-foot mountains anywhere in the world, including K2. Low valleys. And it was the only kind of bottleneck for me to squeeze through. I came down over a, I think it was like a 16,000-foot mountain pass from Afghanistan to reach the capital, Islamabad. 
Clawing the thin mountain air, the peaks of Cathedral Ridge, near the village of Passu, are a tourist magnet. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
So, this area is in northern Pakistan, near the border with China, and you write in your dispatches that it’s held off would-be conquerors ranging from Alexander the Great to the 19th-century Sikhs. For 900 years, part of the area was the independent Kingdom of Hunza. Tell me about that kingdom. 
It was kind of a statelet, a mountain statelet, and kind of a medieval, feudal kingdom. And it was both a redoubt, a place that held off invaders, but also, paradoxically, a crossroads. So, it is part of the Silk Road, and it exploited that. They’re kind of the middlemen. It’s where you changed your mule caravans, carrying silks and porcelain and whatnot, going one direction or another. And they got rich off of this. And that attracted the attention of imperial powers, whether it was China or the British, more recently. And they held out until 1974. 
So, while you were walking in this area, you posted some amazing pictures of footbridges crossing rivers that cut through the mountains. They look like a lot of fun and a little terrifying to walk across. Tell me about the people who use them every day and who live in this region. 
Yeah, this is definitely not a place for [someone with] agoraphobia. If you have trouble with heights, you might end up walking through this whole region looking up, not down. These footbridges span hundreds of yards across these chasms with roaring glacial rivers. And the people who use them are local pastoralists. They are still pushing yaks around over these snowfields. I’ve met people who are carrying enormous loads of hay. 
One of Gilgit-Baltistan’s many suspension bridges sways over the Passu River. The remote alpine region in Pakistan is seeing a new tourist boom. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
You filmed one couple you met lifting these heavy loads of hay you’re talking about. So what you could see if you were looking at this video is a man and a woman struggling to lift these huge bundles of wild hay that look like they’re about twice the size of their bodies onto their backs. They’re laying down on the bundles and then rocking forward to stand up in a movement that looks like they’ve done it thousands of times. Tell me about this particular couple. 
They were in their 70s. These bundles, as you describe, are about the size of industrial refrigerators. And I tried to lift them. It’s not in the video, but I said, “Hey, you know, I have just been walking out of Africa, you know, like, I’ve got lots of experience. Let me try switching my backpack for what you’re carrying.” I could not even get off the ground. It takes a certain kind of acrobatic balance to rock yourself forward and back to lift these things off the ground. And this elderly woman, just again, she put me in the shade.
A Wakhi farmer in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan totes nearly a hundred pounds of hay about two miles to his house. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
One of the things that really struck me about what you wrote about this area is the local butter and how people store it for decades for later use. Tell me how they do that. 
Yes. You’re talking about maltash. The famous maltash. There’s no refrigeration historically in this region. So, people learn to bury their dairy products in the ground. And in this case, they bury it under the central square of this little village. Every family had a flagstone, and underneath each flagstone, in the central kind of square, was a hole about two feet deep, in which there was a birch bark-wrapped lump of butter that had been there anywhere from 10 years up to 50 years. And it was the way they preserved it. And the older the butter got, it was like wine, the more flavorful it got. I tasted some. It basically tasted a bit like sour candles to me.
So, did every family have several packets of butter, and they unearthed one just whenever they needed more butter? 
Exactly. It’s like a communal refrigerator that you walk on top of. And, you know, I said, “How can you tell which is your flagstone?” Because they’re unmarked. Just imagine these gray flagstones with their odd shapes, rhomboid. And they look at me crazy, like, “How would you not know your own refrigerator?”
A lump of aged butter wrapped in birch bark. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
So, we’ve been talking about how some of these communities are still quite isolated, but I understand that the Karakoram Highway connects western China with Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. It’s bringing more tourists to this area, including those ancient villages the road runs through. What has the impact been on people who live there? 
Yeah, this highway has been there a while, but it’s been expanded and widened by the Chinese. This highway project from western China was one of the pioneering steps of China’s Belt and Road project. You may recall that China, about a decade ago launched this massive, nearly global project to build communications and trade corridors from China to other corners of the world. Well, it was sort of inaugurated in northern Pakistan. And what’s happened along with building, you know, improving some dams, laying optic fiber cables and whatnot, improving a port … was the Karakoram Highway. And what used to take a long time to drive, now you can get up within a day of the capital, which has opened up this quite isolated corner of the Himalayas to more than a million and a half tourists every year. These communities are living in a golden age of tourism. But it’s also putting enormous strain on the local ecosystem, in terms of trash and the trampling of very delicate, high-altitude alpine wetlands. So, I met one local administrator who’s like, at night, Googling Nepal to try to figure out Nepal’s problems and see how they can solve some similar ones with over-tourism in this region of northern Pakistan. 

Parts of the interview have been 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.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.