Song of a Scorching Badland

A Central Asian furnace greets a global walker at Milestone 38, the first hundred-mile marker in Uzbekistan.
Near Karakalpakia, Uzbekistan, 44°30'11" N, 56°78'19" E

We were following the old Soviet-built rail line across Central Asia. The stations held the only reliable water in the mummified landscape of the Ustyurt Plateau. A strangely industrial stretch of the walk: following a modern Silk Road of railroad ties, of pipelines, of cables planted on a vast flat badland of space. The steel rails began to click and whine miles before the heavy locomotives heaved into view. The stations were like whitewashed beach bungalows dropped miraculously from the scorching sky. The stations supported the only trees in the visible world. These trees sheltered every bird within eyeshot. We could hear them. Their songs came crackling through ...

Latest Posts

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Footslogging Along One of the World’s Most Desolate Railways

Where stations on the Soviet-built line through Uzbekistan serve as modern caravanserais.
The Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border, 44°52'51" N, 55°59'55" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

The Beyneu-Kungrad railroad linking Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was built by Soviet engineers more than 45 years ago.

Its steel rails are oxidized the color of sunburned skin. They ping and gong in the scorching midday heat of Central Asia. They twang like a slide guitar at the approach of distant trains—the sturdy passenger cars built in East Germany, the freight wagons from Tajikistan, from Russia, from Belorussia. We ...

Composite photograph by Paul Salopek

Walking Alongside a Menagerie Into the Heart of Asia

Ants, tortoises, lizards—and three humans—share the 3,700-mile mark in a global walk.
Near Beyneu, Kazakhstan, 44°59'43" N, 54°41'41" E

We were walking across the belly of Asia. Two ruts unspooled west and east.

It was a shepherds’ track. It cleaved the sun-given world in half: a million miles of grasslands to the right, a million miles of grasslands to the left.

Along its ruts traveled: hissing tortoises, dung beetles rolling their cargoes, sprinting lizards with yellow heads, columns of shiny black ants carrying grass seeds aloft like banners, darkling beetles mating in miles-long orgies. Some of these creatures inched toward China, others crawled in the direction of the Caspian Sea. We three humans tottered, hot and dusty, to the end of Kazakhstan, to the beginning of Uzbekistan, to ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

‘Good’ Wolves, ‘Bad’ Wolves— and Genies—Stalk This Land

Walking the modern Silk Road, trading on loneliness in the remote Central Asian steppes.
Manata, Kazakhstan, 44°6'22" N, 53°12'36" E

“The desert teaches by taking away.”
-- William Langewiesche

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

The Ustyurt Plateau covers 70,000 square miles of Central Asia. Half of this iron-flat tableland lies in western Kazakhstan. The other half sprawls into Uzbekistan. It is an immense land feature largely unknown to the outside world and, because of its extreme isolation, underappreciated even by Kazakhs. The Ustyurt supports herds of gazelles, antelopes, and mountain sheep. ...

Composite photograph by Paul Salopek

God and Evolution Cross Paths in the Wilds of Central Asia

Mecca and a multimillion-year-old shark's tooth feature at mile 3,500 of a global walk.
Near Manata, Kazakhstan, 44°4'29" N, 53°10'10" E

One guide, Talgat Omarov, laid out his camping tarp as a kilim, a prayer rug, and bowed and bowed to Mecca. He hid behind the horse while I photographed the scene—obeying a prohibition of some Islamic scholars against the artificial representation of sentient beings.

The second guide, Daulet Begendikov, hunted fossils. He picked up and threw away a 30-million-year-old shark tooth of exquisite beauty.

Flies buzzed.

We stood at the ragged edge of the vast Ustyurt Plateau. A fiber-optic cable burrowed across the steppe nearby, through the cemetery of a 14th-century Silk Road caravanserai.


View Milestone 36


Milestones are regular multimedia ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

These Barren Plains Hold a Mystery No One Can Crack

Were giant stone balls in western Kazakhstan created by underground lightning?
Mangystau, Kazakhstan, 44°3'15" N, 52°29'17" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

They look like a giant’s discarded playthings: enormous rock spheres, some the size of beach balls, others bigger than cars, strewn atop the desolate plains of western Kazakhstan.

They lie clustered by the dozen—by the hundreds, by the thousands. They are ruddy red, yellow-ochre, tan, black-gray. They feel iron-hard under the fingertips. Many appear to be almost unnaturally perfect: flawlessly round, as if produced by machines.

These strange formations, called ...

Photographs by Paul Salopek

Reclaiming Humanity’s Oldest Tech—One Flint Blade at a Time

An archaeologist in Kazakhstan re-creates exquisite Stone Age tools.
The Ustyurt Plateau, Kazakhstan, 44°28'34" N, 53°30'36" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

Homo sapiens is the ultimate tool-making animal.

The planet has been reshaped by our technology: by the fiber optic cable, by nuclear fission, by the agricultural combine, by the hyperlink, by the plastic bottle, by the predator drone, by the smart phone.

Yet we forget: For about 96 percent of our species’ 200,000-year-long history, only one material provided most of our needs: malleable stone. We rose to primacy above ...

Video frame by Paul Salopek

Watch: An Ancient Prairie Comes Back to Life

For travelers and horse, the past comes alive on a reborn landscape.
Mangystau region, western Kazakhstan, 43°55'46" N, 51°16'17" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

For nearly ten years, drought has strangled the immense steppes of Mangystau, a semiarid region the size of Wisconsin in western Kazakhstan. The cycle of winter snows and spring rains that sustain a local pastoral economy of sheep, horse, and camel herders shriveled away. In some places more than half their stock died off. The already lonesome plains became even emptier: The land is ...

Composite photograph by Paul Salopek

50-Year-Old City, 8,000-Year-Old Campsite

On his epic storytelling walk around the world, journalist Paul Salopek logs his 35th Milestone.
Aktau, Kazakhstan, 43°39'44" N, 51°8'32" E

It was the first Saturday of the month, the day the old Soviet empire set aside for neighbors to clean their parks, their roadsides. Some people were out in their dusty gardens. The town was raw and new, founded in 1958, born yesterday to prospect for oil, for uranium. Beyond its last blocky house lay the steppe of Central Asia. Eight-thousand-year-old campsites speckled with shell beads tinier than sunflower seeds lay slumbering within sight of the town’s glass towers. I was late. I walked fast. Outside the town, at the edge of a sea of grass, a cargo pony was waiting.


View Milestone 35


Photograph by Paul Salopek

Headless, Wild, and Wayward: Life Along the Old Silk Roads

For a global walker in western Kazakhstan, the desert is rife with chance encounters.
Near Zhyngyldy, Kazakhstan, 44°3'17" N, 51°39'28" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

We strike out north along the Caspian, a landlocked sea that pools atop a big crack between Asia and Europe, its verdigris waves breaking on shores 200 feet below sea level. We pass fishermen masked in white balaclavas against the biting wind. We step over car-squashed snakes. We wade through drifts of tiny clamshells that shine like bands of foam in the sun. We pivot eastward across lumpy ...