A Historic Journey Proceeds Across the Roof of the World

As he retraces our ancestors’ global migration on foot, the author sees Afghanistan's peaceful villages—and reminders that tensions persist.

Contending with snow, cold, and a tired donkey, Paul Salopek takes his last steps in Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor as he and photographer Matthieu Paley navigate the Irshad Pass into Pakistan. The ascent was supposed to take three hours, but it ended up taking nine. At the top of the pass, the clouds cleared as the sun set. “I was struck, despite exhaustion, by the light,” Salopek says. “It was the sort of light you associate with birth—light you are born into."

Her hair was dyed purple. She wore spandex. She was dancing alone, the young foreigner, swaying barefoot on the roof of a car parked at an utterly remote frontier in the rocky core of Asia, hard beside the Panj River that saws Tajikistan from Afghanistan—a notorious opium smugglers’ paradise at the southern edge of the Pamir mountains. The car had EU plates. But who was she? A belated pilgrim on the old hippie trail? A mystic? An addict? A tourist? An adventurer? It was impossible to know.

I raised my sweat-pickled hat in greeting as I shuffled past, chivying a tired cargo donkey, wind-chapped, and hollow-bellied from camping more than a month among the crags of Central Asia. I am walking across the world. For five years I have been pacing off the Earth as part of a project called the Out of Eden Walk, a storytelling pilgrimage along the pathways of the first ancestors who explored the planet during the Stone Age. To walk in this way—continuously, day after river, month after continent, over a route that eventually will span 21,000 miles—is to inhabit a state of daily wonderment. So the wilderness dancer was not really a surprise. Nor did I startle her. She didn’t see me. Lost in the techno beats punching out of her car’s stereo, she never even opened her eyes.

“She makes me feel old,” complained photographer Matthieu Paley after we had trudged by on the dirt road built by the Soviets.

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