I was walking the global trail of our ancestors. Then pandemic struck

While self-isolating in Myanmar, storyteller Paul Salopek reflects on past pandemics and ponders the implications of this newest global scourge.

Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Paul Salopek walks through Afghanistan's remote Wakhan Corridor, part of his route through Central Asia.

Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Nat Geo Image Collection
Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. He is now in Myanmar.

The collapse of the Mongol empire. The decline of feudal Europe. The dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. These pivots in history may all be linked, via the hop of a flea, to a remote alpine lake in Central Asia called Issyk Kul.

Pooled like a giant blue eye at the base of the snowcapped Tien Shan range in Kyrgyzstan, Issyk Kul’s shores are dotted today with drab Soviet-era resorts. But seven centuries ago, the 113-mile-long lake was a buzzy entrepot on the Silk Road—and a contender for the earliest outbreak of the Black Death pandemic that scythed across the Old World in the 14th century. Plague-carrying fleas on marmots infected passing caravans, historians say, spreading the deadly bacillus that depopulated kingdoms, gutted economies, and, ultimately, propelled secular thinking in a medieval world staggered by loss and disillusioned with faith.

I visited Issyk Kul while walking west to east across Central Asia.

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Issyk Kul is an alpine lake in Kyrgyzstan where some historians say the Black Death originated during the 14th century.

Since 2013 I’ve been following the pathways of the first hunter-gatherers who ranged from Africa to South America during the Stone Age. My global walk is a storytelling project. Deep history is its map. To date, along a route that so far has spanned more than 11,000 miles, I’ve stumbled almost daily across waypoints marking the endless advances and retreats of our species’ long journey. These range from new cellphone towers poking above hominin fossil beds in Ethiopia to colossal Iron Age hunting traps forgotten on the now antelope-less steppes of Kazakhstan. Lately, however, my mind keeps returning to the rocky shores of Issyk Kul—an obscure hinge in history—as I pause my trek in Myanmar to wait out COVID-19.

What is it like to walk the Earth during a pandemic?

I can’t say.

When the novel coronavirus roared out of northern China in December, I was already parked at trailside, toiling on a book under a writer’s self-quarantine.

Still, to confirm the obvious: If you pace off continents, you’ll dance with a lively array of pathogens.

Hiking into the teeming Levant from the bacteriologically sterile deserts of Saudi Arabia, I was jackknifed almost immediately by a brutal strain of pneumonia. (“Time to flag down a bus,” my Palestinian guide declared, yanking me, reeling, down a rainy road in the West Bank.) Dysentery landed crippling gut-punches in Lahore, Pakistan, halting my progress for weeks. And nameless fevers in India fluttered through my body like burning sequins, leaving me serially lightheaded. Some people build Instagram portfolios from their travels. I collect diseases. Antibodies are far more useful.

It’s always been this way on our nomadic rambles.

Hominin remains dug up in Turkey prove that highly contagious tuberculosis has been hitching a ride in our lungs for an incredible 500,000 years. Microbial DNA isolated from European burial sites, meanwhile, show that the bubonic plague has raked the continent more than once: A Stone Age pandemic all but wiped out the resident population 4,800 years ago, likely opening land to pastoralists migrating in from the steppes of modern Ukraine.

And this was when walking was a lonely occupation.

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Petroglyphs mark an ancient migration route through Central Asia: the Wakhan Corridor.

Today, with 7.7 billion fellow primates contesting the Earth’s surface, walking from horizon to horizon is an act of sustained intimacy. At the end of day, my journey depends on people. I’ve dipped my hands into communal platters of mansaf—lamb baked in yoghurt—in Jordan. In Afghanistan, I bathed with (male) crowds in public hot springs. Walking to sunsets for the past seven years, I’ve slept in hundreds of family beds, sometimes alongside multiple hosts, from Africa to Southeast Asia. I’m on foot through the Anthropocene. Social distancing is impossible.

And this is what worries me about COVID-19: The virus may throttle a vital human and humane connectivity. The trust of the open road may wither.

“The idea that COVID-19 will somehow shut down the world, that walls and borders are going up everywhere, is the counter-factual view of a Western minority,” Parag Khanna, an international affairs expert, reassures me. “I see the pandemic actually reinforcing existing trends towards globalization.”

A virus one-thousandth the width of a human hair that has killed at least 330,000 people, infected five million more, and knocked scores of millions of healthy workers into joblessness is merely cementing a new international order, Khanna predicts. Asia, with a plurality of the world’s people and wealth, will become the new powerhouse.

I glimpsed that vigor in Mandalay, Myanmar, where I sheltered in place during my winter of COVID-19. Local shopkeepers networked by phone to feed the abandoned homeless. “Poor New York!” exclaimed Ko Win Aung, a volunteer relief worker, driving me around the city. “Can’t let that happen here.”

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In Mandalay, a hub in northern Myanmar, Salopek reports on the pandemic.

This wasn’t post-9/11 style empathy. It was more like pity for an enfeebled uncle. Myanmar, with a population of 54 million and admittedly little testing, reports just 199 infections and six COVID-19 deaths. The United States accounts for almost a third of the world’s viral caseload.

History accelerates. My global walk is on hold. The rich countries of the Global North reopen, gingerly, for business.

After self-isolating for three weeks, I have settled into an isolated farm town in the rumpled foothills of the Himalaya to be nearer a reliable food supply. Electric currents come and go. Monsoons will soon flood the roads. But these matters are trivial. The ancient humans I follow hunkered for 10,000 years on the vanished land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, waiting for glaciers to melt. If nothing else, long walks teach patience. And that destinations are always uncertain.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.
Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.