Photograph by JOHN STANMEYER
Photograph by JOHN STANMEYER

The evil spirits that play tricks along the old Silk Road

On his four-month walk across Uzbekistan, Paul Salopek encountered superstitions—and suspicious police.

This story appears in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The deserts of Uzbekistan are said to be haunted by devious spirits who send travelers off course and pinch their supplies.

While tracing the ancient Silk Road through Central Asia on foot, National Geographic writer Paul Salopek was regaled with tales of these jinn. One night, under clear skies in the sprawling Qizilqum desert, Salopek and his guides discovered they were not immune to the spirits’ mischief: A cache of water drums buried in advance of their arrival had been emptied.

“Fortunately, with modern technology like satellite phones, I knew my parched Uzbek walking partners and I wouldn’t suffer the same fate as so many earlier Silk Road travelers who tried to cross the Qizilqum and didn’t make it,” Salopek says. “As for jinn, I think we carry such spirits—called impulses, good and bad—within all of us.”

Salopek is following the footsteps of human migration from Africa to South America on a journey called Out of Eden. In 2016 he spent four and a half months walking across Uzbekistan, where he encountered the Silk Road’s modern incarnation: a multi-trillion-dollar Chinese-led effort called the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a web of infrastructure connecting Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.


Why walk across the planet for seven years? Journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is retracing the migratory path of humankind, from its origins in Ethiopia to the tip of South America. Just as early humans did, he’s making this epic journey on foot.

To go FURTHER along the old Silk Road, read Paul Salopek’s feature article in the December issue of National Geographic.