On the Ancient Silk Road, a Walk Shadowed by a Mystery

As his journey around the world continues, writer Paul Salopek encounters the enduring spirits of one of history’s great trade routes.

A traditional sheepskin coat blows in the wind in Turtkul, Uzbekistan, on a highway that follows the ancient Silk Road. It wasn’t a single road but a network of commercial routes that once traversed much of the Eastern Hemisphere.

For more than three years I have struggled to find it. I am crossing the world on foot. I am retracing the vanished trails of the first human beings who explored the planet in the Stone Age. At my journey’s starting line in Ethiopia, I walked from camel watering hole to muddy salt seep. I have plodded from oasis to oasis in the Hejaz desert of Arabia. In the winter peaks of the Caucasus, I have grown thirsty surrounded by tons of water—the vital liquid frozen to rock-hard ice.

But never before have I encountered this: Someone has dug up and looted my resupply cache. A shallow pit that once held 15 precious gallons of water. My water. I cannot tear my eyes from the emptied jugs, rocking gently in a scorching wind.

Jinn have stolen my water in the Qizilqum.

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