Fantastic Invasions

An old Soviet front line becomes a bird sanctuary in Georgia.
Near the Georgia-Turkey border, 41°13'58" N, 43°15'31" E

“The high stillness confronted these two figures with its ominous patience, awaiting for the passing away of a fantastic invasion.” — Joseph Conrad

We stand atop a tall guard tower under a metallic grey sky—a sky the color of polished lead.

A quarter of a century ago, Red Army soldiers gazed into enemy territory from this spot. It was a no-man’s-land, a tense front line between two competing global empires: the frontier between a Soviet ally and an American ally, a no-go zone between the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia and NATO-member Turkey, a political gash dividing East and West. Barbed wire slunk across the hills. There were patrols, flags, ...

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Photograph by Paul Salopek

Republic of Verse

In Georgia, poets—not politicians—are national heroes.
Near Chargali, Georgia, 42°19'27" N, 44°55'33" E

What are you doing, Natia?

“I am staining my lips with walnut juice.”

Walnut juice?

“Yes. When I was a little girl we used it as lipstick.”

Natia Khuluzauri, my guide in the hills of eastern Georgia, rubs the walnut’s sun-yellow hull against her lips. I watch her doing this. I look at her pretty little girl, Nutsa, playing in the grass field with a tethered black mare. I look at the long, woolly string of sheep raising pale dust on a country road—sheep driven by whistling, long-legged shepherds burned by the summer sun, their pack horses in tow. I look at the picnic lunch of bright red tomatoes. At the rumpled ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Pleistocene Pitching

In Georgia, a fossil site yields clues to humankind’s first missiles.
Dmanisi, Georgia, 41°20'15" N, 44°20'40" E

Reid Ferring holds a rock in each hand.

They are the size of hens’ eggs. They are oblong. They are grey. They are categorically ordinary. Aside from numbers inked onto their surfaces for cataloging purposes, they look like a quadrillion other natural stones scattered across the face of the Earth.

“The evidence is circumstantial,” Ferring, an American archaeologist, admits. “But we’ve got some good indications they were thrown.”

He is talking about prehistoric pitching.

Hundreds of such nondescript cobbles have been unearthed near the remains of prey animals at Dmanisi, an important hominin site in the forested hills of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Homo erectus, the first rambler out of ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Stalin’s Cave

Beneath the capital of Georgia, a tyrant’s legacy slumbers.
Tbilisi, Georgia, 41°41'26" N, 44°49'48" E

In a mazy suburb of Tbilisi, Georgia, behind a row of gritty automobile repair garages, slumps a derelict house. Under the house plummets a 40-foot tunnel. Near the bottom of this chilly hole, and through a hidden side passage, sits a 122-year-old German printing press orange with rust. This forgotten underground chamber is a “dark Web” bolt hole from the locomotive era. It is an antique hacker’s den. A young revolutionary known in Georgian by the name იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი, and to the Russians as Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, printed incendiary communist pamphlets, magazines, and newspaper here. We call him by his pen name, Stalin.

Stalin was Georgian. He ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Saints and Wanderers

In Georgia, religion walks.
Bodbe Monastery, Georgia, 41°36'24" N, 45°56'0" E

“I haven't got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don't need any other god.” —In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin

Who is this woman?

Cloaked all in black. Thin. Silent. Her pale brow pressed to cold stone. She stands with her back turned, as if punished, in a corner.

The tiny ninth-century church throbs around her. Nuns chanting atonal hymns. Children squirming among forests of legs. Grown-ups fidgeting, drowsily peeking at phones. (Georgian Orthodox ritual goes on for hours.) I leave and walk outside, into the bright garden around the historic Bodbe Monastery. I return. The woman hasn’t moved. ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Sunken Ark

In Georgia, a fatal flood unleashes zoo animals—and murky eddies of human compassion.
Tbilisi, Georgia, 41°42'46" N, 44°46'37" E

“Be careful out there,” Nodar said. “There’s a lion on the streets.”

This is not a warning one hears often while stepping out the door of a cafe equipped with a wine cooler and an espresso machine.

The last time I worried about large carnivores was more than two years ago in the desolate Rift Valley of Ethiopia. I have walked out of Africa. I plan to ramble on foot to the tip of South America over the course of seven years. I did not expect to ponder being eaten again until Siberia. And yet Nodar, the owner of my thoroughly urban watering hole in Tbilisi, was dead serious, even ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Sidewalk Jungle

Are Georgians the worst pedestrians on Earth?
Tbilisi, Georgia, 41°41'53" N, 44°47'54" E

I am walking across the planet.

For more than two years, I have hopscotched over searing lava fields. I have crabbed sideways through alleys in vast migrant slums. I have traversed sun-hammered deserts and scaled peaks in blinding snow. I have swaggered down fashionable boulevards. What has all this plodding taught me? It has taught me one thing: Georgians are the most inept pedestrians in the world.

This is a painful verdict to accept.

Georgians are wonderful people. Warm. Hospitable. Funny. Cultured. Life-loving. If Earth were ever to dispatch an emissary to another planet in the Milky Way, a planet inhabited by intelligent life forms, I would vote that our species’ ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Golden Fleece

A mother’s quest in the Caucasus
Tbilisi, Georgia, 41°46'22" N, 44°46'33" E

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage.
Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

― Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides

The latest savior hails from Israel.

Liza wants to fly the baby to him tomorrow: a total stranger, a second-hand medical reference, a voice on the phone, a doctor whose first response to her plea for charity surgery is an estimate for his wondrous services: $77,400. (“Quoted prices are valid until 31/05/15.”) I want to murder this man. Liza does not: She is relieved. She is thankful. She clings to his absurd fee as to a ...

Photograph courtesy of Georgia National Museum

Honey, I’m Dead

In the Caucasus, a Bronze Age site hints at embalming with honey.
Tbilisi, Georgia, 41°41'48" N, 44°48'01" E

Three years ago, on the banks of the Alazani River in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the archaeologist Zurab Makharadze cut into a 40-foot-high burial mound that bulged above the surrounding green farmland.

“One of our botanists noticed it first,” Makharadze said of the odor wafting up from some of the unearthed artifacts. “She was in the laboratory, working her microscope. She was analyzing samples. She started smiling.”

The samples, in this case, were wild berries—offerings left for the entombed dead. Their aroma: thick and intensely sweet, but with musky undertones, with hints of molasses. The berries were astonishingly well preserved. They were still red. They were 4,300 ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

A Milestone for the Walk

Thanks to a Knight Foundation grant, the Out of Eden Walk Web sites will be merged.
Near Kars, Turkey, 40°23'58" N, 42°58'35" E

As many readers know, one of the unique storytelling features of the Out of Eden Walk is Milestones: standardized recordings I take every hundred miles across the surface of the globe. Like beads strung on a necklace, these systematic stops along the trail will offer micro-snapshots of life on Earth across four continents.

I have logged 28 such narrative pauses so far. None are pre-planned. They simply occur whenever the distance logged on my GPS—as measured in air miles from my last Milestone—ticks over from 99.99 to 100.00. To date, the walk’s Milestones have cropped up in the middle of empty Saudi Arabian deserts, at dog-eared ...