Trekking across the ‘unknown’ Afghanistan, untouched by war

Trekking across the ‘unknown’ Afghanistan, untouched by war


JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: We often,
often get lost in frantic daily routines, rush hour, work, school, smartphones buzzing
all day long, too much to do with too little time. But now and again, we check in on a reporter
whose life’s work now is found in walking and taking meaning and telling stories from
his years of footsteps. Hari Sreenivasan has this update. PAUL SALOPEK, Journalist/”National Geographic”
Fellow: You know, the walks kind of turned into my life. HARI SREENIVASAN: In October 2015, I went
for a walk in the Southern Caucasus Mountains with the journalist
Paul Salopek. For me, it was a few days. For him, he had been walking nearly three
years as part of his Out of Eden Walk, a global journey by foot. We spoke with him in Kazakstan last year and
when he was in Kyrgyzstan earlier this year. And Paul joins me again now. Paul, tell me where you’re at. I can hear a river rushing in the background. PAUL SALOPEK: Right now, I’m next to the banks
of the Kunar River in Northern Pakistan, after having just walked well over 1,000 miles through
the mountains of Central Asia, starting in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, a big chunk of Afghanistan,
and now, of course, here in Pakistan. HARI SREENIVASAN: You were in Afghanistan
years ago during the war. How has it changed? PAUL SALOPEK: You know, I have walked through
a part of Afghanistan that I have only known marginally before, when I was in the war. In the war, I was in a hostile environment,
filled with guns, filled with explosions, filled with movements of armed men as a war
correspondent. The last segment that I have walked through
is a completely different Afghanistan. It’s a wild, pristine, almost unknown Afghanistan
to the outside world, where people are carrying not guns, but shovels, where men are digging
holes not to plant IEDs, but to create traps for snow leopards, and women aren’t wrapping
their faces in purdah, except to bake bread in smoky ovens. It’s a completely different Afghanistan than
the one I used to know. HARI SREENIVASAN: You’re one of the few people
to cross Afghanistan on foot, right? PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, at least this segment,
that I know of. According to my research, the last time any
outsiders walked through what is called the Wakhan Corridor, this really wild alpine strip
of land between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, was probably 10 years ago, and, before that,
maybe generations. It’s simply a roadless area. It’s an area that’s inhabited by shepherds. It looks like alpine parts of British Columbia
or Switzerland. And it’s safe to walk through. HARI SREENIVASAN: Sounds like extreme conditions
here. PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, to get through this region
required quite a bit of logistical preparation. We had to hire some donkeys. We had to go over 14,000-, 15,000-, 16,000-foot
passes. And the last pass, called Irshad Pass, in
the wild mountains of the Karakoram between Afghanistan and Pakistan, was particularly
extreme. It was so cold that even inside of my tent,
my clothes froze on my body. HARI SREENIVASAN: Given where you are now
— you said your satellite phone has been confiscated — are you concerned at all for
your safety? PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, it was an interesting experience
coming down out of this extremely wild and high mountain wilderness of the Karakoram
into Pakistan. I wasn’t aware that I needed a permit for
my satellite phone, so my satellite phone was confiscated. But I feel very safe here. The Pakistani authorities have done a great
job of collaborating with my project and ensuring that there’s overwatch, that they’re keeping
an eye out for me. So, other than nature, which you always have
to keep your eye on, I feel quite safe. HARI SREENIVASAN: You’re working on a story
about the Silk Road for “National Geographic.” Tell us a bit about that. PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, in the December issue is
a piece that describes the last 2,500 miles of the walk almost. It’s a vast area stretching from the Caspian
through Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. And that piece talks about how lessons from
the Silk Road, which is kind of one of the early experiments in globalization, still
echo today, especially in an environment where there’s a backlash against globalization. It’s a story about what happens when you open
up the walls of society to free trade and free ideas, vs. turning inwards, at which
point societies stop growing. HARI SREENIVASAN: This is the same Silk Road
you have been walking along for quite some time now. PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, it’s been a while. It’s been I think since May of 2015, when
I set foot in Kazakstan. So it’s a big stretch of the Earth, a big
stretch of my global project, crossing open steps, following the fabled Amu Darya, Oxus
River, through Central Asia, with all these Silk Road empires along the way, these beautiful
old medieval cities, and now this amazing montane wilderness. This last segment, through Afghanistan in
particular, has been extraordinary, everything from the quality of the light, light like
champagne, to vistas of mountain peaks stretching as far as the eye can see, to the edge of
the world, to the very edge of visibility, and most of it untrammeled, un-stepped-on. HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Paul, so where
to next? PAUL SALOPEK: Well, from here, I hope to continue
down through Northern Pakistan, through the foothill country, through the capital of Islamabad,
and then to the old cultural capital of Lahore, the old Moghul cultural center, into Northern
India, and then across Northern India, into Bangladesh, and then onward into China. HARI SREENIVASAN: Journalist Paul Salopek,
joining us from the hills of Pakistan tonight, thanks so much. PAUL SALOPEK: It’s always great to reconnect
with you, Hari. Maybe I will see you on the pilgrim trails
in India. JUDY WOODRUFF: The definition of tough. His clothes froze on him.

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