National Geographic explorer Paul Salopek has just hiked across Erlang Mountain in Southwest China's Sichuan province, tracing the trails of vanished tea porters on the mountain that is 3,437 meters above
For hundreds of years, beifu, or porters, trudged along the wind-scoured mountain, carrying hundreds of pounds of black tea over the eastern Himalayas and into Tibet.
Walking along the almost forgotten passages in the mountains, Salopek has been amazed by nature and human resilience. And this is just a start of his ambitious plan of trekking in China.
Salopek, from the United States, is an explorer and writer for National Geographic, who is well-known for a 38,624 kilometer global trek he undertook, named the "Out of Eden Walk". He began the journey in January 2013, aiming to retrace the steps of humankind's ancestors out of Africa as his way to rediscover the planet. He planned to spend decades crossing four continents before reaching his destination in South America.
As a trekker with global footprints, Salopek is committed to experiencing different cultures all over the world and recording the lives of people he encounters on his journey, in a bid to piece together a mosaic of stories, faces, and sights from all over the world.
China, a large country with diverse natural and human landscapes, is an important stop on Salopek's global trek.
Starting in September 2021, Salopek set off from Yunnan province and planned to walk through many regions, including Sichuan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Beijing, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang and up to the China-Russia border in the north.
The route took him from the rainforests of Yunnan to the ice fields and snow mountains in Sichuan, and he will walk into the dryer uplands of Shaanxi and beyond to Beijing, and finally the tiger-inhabited forests of Northeast China.
Before this walk, Salopek had never been to China. He started with a blank slate. "Everything about China is new to me," he tells China Daily.
When deciding on the route, Salopek drew the shortest line between Myanmar, where he left for China, and coastal Russia. As it happens, that roughly corresponds to the famous Hu Line, an imaginary line drawn by famous population geographer Hu Huanyong in 1935 to mark the eastern and western regions.
Because every step of the way is new to him, Salopek tries to keep an open mind about where memorable things might happen.
"My route is not always to famous tourist or cultural landmarks," says the explorer who likes to visit grassroots areas to find real life. "It could be someone's dinner table, or the sight of an old ethnic Bai woman calling down from the roof where she's drying her chilies.
"It is all about the ordinary people I meet along the trail. And they have been very warm, good-humored and curious," he says.
During his extraordinary trek across China, Salopek is witnessing the country's achievements, particularly in the fields of ecology, wildlife conservation and cultural inheritance.
"I hiked across other continents emptied of their wildlife by human beings. The Gaoligong Mountains represents a chance for solace," Salopek says while hiking across the mountains in Yunnan.
These mountains, in his eyes, are one of the planet's last remaining vaults of biodiversity, that is, a glimpse into a teeming Earth that once was.
Along the way, he has met members of the Naxi, Tibetan, Yi and many other ethnic groups, and people from all walks of life, including farmers, urban hippies, entrepreneurs, wilderness survival experts, and even a man who claims to be the reincarnation of the fabled poet Li Bai.
"Each encounter with a fellow human being is a milestone — an opportunity to share, learn, and grow," he says.
Salopek's journey in China is being recorded by a film crew from Shanghai Media Group's Documentary Center for a 10-episode documentary series entitled The Forever Walk: China.
"We are not 'showing' a foreigner traveling around China; rather, we are 'following' him to explore the country," says Wang Xiangtao, director of the series.
Salopek's stories are shared in his columns for National Geographic and across 14 overseas social media accounts. The Forever Walk: China is just another outlet to present China through his eyes.
"Life is full of uncertainties, and the same is even more true in Salopek's journey, as every stranger he encounters may make a difference," says Wang, who adds that their plans could be changed at any moment depending on the actual situation.
For instance, according to Wang, Salopek met a Chinese ranger while walking in Lijiang, Yunnan, who invited him to join in with his work. Taking it as an opportunity to learn about the life of a ranger and explore a new area, Salopek gladly accepted the offer.
The walk, which was supposed to take three hours, ended up lasting more than six. "It is completely unpredictable. We face such challenges when we record in real time," Wang says.
Wang describes Salopek as "one of the most humble Americans I have ever met". His humility is derived from his rich life experience, having traveled to more than 50 countries, and spent the last nine years walking through Eurasia.
He is still currently on the road, walking across China, which will incorporate at least 7 million footsteps. He believes that slowing down is one way to find meaning, and that walking is humankind's original form of both moving and thinking.
"After working in our globalized era's media-saturated environment for years, I decided that the problem isn't that we don't have enough information in our lives — we're drowning in data. What we're missing is meaning," says Salopek.