Slow global traveller tells stories of diverse China

(Xinhua) 14:27, July 24, 2023

BEIJING, July 23 (Xinhua) -- Roving pot menders, walnut oil pressers, chili grinders and mule packers -- these are some of the old occupations that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Paul Salopek learned about in southwest China's Yunnan and recorded in his latest story in the National Geographic magazine.

Salopek began to trek across the frontier province of Yunnan in late 2021 on the first stop of his journey in China. The country is the latest destination on his Out of Eden Walk, a now decade-long storytelling odyssey described as an "experiment in slow journalism" on the project's page on the Nat Geo website.

Traveling out of Africa, across the Middle East, Middle Asia and South Asia, Salopek came to China for the first time in his life and was impressed by the "handmade world" he found in Yunnan, which goes against China's stereotype as the world's factory. In his Nat Geo story, Salopek wrote in detail about the fading corner of the world where people use handmade tools and follow a traditional way of life.

"Don't romanticize the pastoral farming way of life," Salopek said at a salon hosted by the China Public Diplomacy Association on Friday, when sharing his slow storytelling experience. Yet he emphasized the value of handmade traditions in today's world, which faces climate and resource problems: "People who live in the handmade world have lessons for all of us about sustainability."

"China has this deep history of farming and its incredibly valuable archive that I hope we all can manage to preserve in some way for future use," he said.

Now on a short stay in Beijing, Salopek has trekked through not only Yunnan but also its neighboring mountainous Sichuan Province and the northwestern Shaanxi Province, which is home to Xi'an, the ancient capital of multiple Chinese dynasties, and the Qinling Mountains, which form a natural boundary between north and south China.

Salopek's route has covered some of China's most historic, biodiverse and ethnically diverse regions, as well as important ancient roads that connected different parts of China and regions of Asia, such as the Tea Horse Road. "One of the great things that opened my eyes here in China was the deep history of travel in China," he said, indicating the moving of people across roads through trade, exchanges and migration throughout history.

Having spent most of his time in China walking in rural areas, Salopek said that some of the wonderful things he encountered were the warmth, hospitality and friendship offered by local people. "Just like a battery charge," he said.

Salopek enjoys communicating with locals he meets while traveling in China at the speed of about 5 kilometers per hour -- a speed not facilitated by modern transportation and slow enough that he does not miss stories of interest.

A projectionist traveling across mountains and rivers to show movies to villagers, a potato-planting village claiming to have some of China's darkest skies and hoping to attract astronomy hobbyists from big cities, an introverted ethnic minority community whose members express their emotions through singing, and other ordinary yet special individuals and groups have been recorded by Salopek in his released stories.

Salopek said time is one key ingredient for the stories. Noting that some of the stories were found by accident, he said walking and patience can dig out hidden stories.

Salopek's stories about trekking in China have received millions of views on the internet and what he described as "overwhelmingly positive" responses. "There's something, if I may say so, magic about the concept of taking a long walk," Salopek said. He believes his slow journey can, to some extent, calm polarization between people, and that stories showing the parts of China that have rarely been seen can help break down stereotypes.

"It's been great for me, as an international storyteller, to illuminate for my readers and viewers across the world how complicated and diverse China really is," he said.

Salopek is a biologist by training without a journalism education background yet has decades of experience as a reporter and traveler. He began his experimental slow storytelling journey in 2013. After trekking thousands of kilometers across Africa and Asia, he will head to the northeast of China to end his route across the continent.

People often ask him how far he travels every day. Salopek said during the salon, "I can say, after walking 3,800 days and nights from Africa to you, the answer is: I don't know. I still don't know. It goes back to the hunter ethos where you stay alert and you stop where there is a good story."

(Web editor: Zhang Kaiwei, Liang Jun)


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