A Walking Partner Uses Lessons of the Deep Past to Guide Him Home

A Walking Partner Uses Lessons of the Deep Past to Guide Him Home

Outdoor guide and educator Yang Wendou joins Paul Salopek on a mountain trail in China. After suffering a foot injury on the walk, he highlights the unique treatment methods and benefits of traditional Chinese medicine. Wendou extols the deeper connections and understanding forged through the sharing of cultures.


5 - 12


English Language Arts, Social Studies, Geography, Anthropology, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Yang Wendou


In the Chinese zodiac, my sign is horse. I live in a small town in Yunnan Province, on the historic Tea Horse Road in China. I remember when I was very young, old people told me about the traders who traveled that trail for centuries with strings of horses. They carried jade, tea, ivory, silks, and other goods to markets as far away as India. There was usually a head horse leading the way, a strong and experienced one. Often it was decorated with a small round mirror on its harness reflecting the sunlight. Sometimes it wore a red tassel on its head, as well as a string of bells under its neck. It led the way with bells tinkling and the tassel bobbing, encouraging the other horses to follow along.

I belong to the Bai community. My family has lived in my hometown of Xizhou for many generations. When I first heard that Paul Salopek was going to walk the entire globe without any modern transportation, I was blown away. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't imagine that there could be such a person in the world. So, it was even more surprising when one day last May, I found myself buying a train ticket to Shanghai to meet Paul at a noodle shop.

He told me that he had been on the road for more than eight years. It was his first time in China.

Paul talked to me with great excitement about the history, movements, and discovery in my region of China. He spoke of the Shu-Yandu Dao (the Sichuan to India trading route), the Southern Silk Road, the travels of the Chinese explorer Xu Xiake, and the Tea Horse Road. He also talked about the American scientist Joseph Rock, and the traveling monk-scholar Xuanzang. Paul thought of many of them as heroes and Chinese pioneers of careful, in-depth storytelling.

As a Chinese saying goes, one would cross a thousand oceans and climb a thousand mountains to meet people one is meant to meet. I think destiny brought me Paul.

I finally made my biggest decision of 2021: I would try my best to accompany Paul for hundreds of miles on his walk toward my home of Yunnan. Yunnan has a mild climate, rich history, and deep culture. I was sure Paul would delight in coming here. I started my training after returning from Shanghai. Every day, I walked back and forth between the edge of Erhai Lake, near my home, and the foot of Cangshang Mountain.

On September 28, 2021, we finally set out together. There was nothing too dramatic about our departure near the Myanmar border. Our days were simple: walk, eat, sleep, and repeat. I ate when I was hungry, walked after I ate, and slept when I got tired.

COVID-19 changed everyone’s daily lives around the world, and I was no exception. I had a hard time sleeping. Walking with Paul, however, turned out to be a relief. A week after joining the walk, I suddenly found myself sleeping well. I snored like thunder every night, whether staying in a hotel or sleeping on the streets. We woke up at sunrise, set off in high spirits, and rested at sunset, falling into exhausted sleep. We climbed a lot of mountains, only to reach yet another mountain. We crossed a lot of rivers, only to reach yet another river. We met many people on the road. Some were curious, surrounded us, and watched us. Some gave us directions. Some invited us into their home to take a rest. Some spoke of the charm of their hometown. We met many beautiful souls, simple souls, warm souls, good souls. We were walking with our minds as well as our bodies.

Together, we were amazed by the different plants and animals in the Gaoligong Mountains. As we walked the old Burma Road, our hearts were moved by the real friendship forged between China and the United States during World War II.

As I walked with Paul on ancient paths through beautiful mountains, I seemed to hear the distant sound of old tinkling horse bells lost in time. And I seemed to hear the voices of past travelers urging me to be careful on the road.

Paul said I walked unusually fast on our last two miles to reach my hometown. My wife, Emmy, and two sons were at the central park to welcome us. My sons jumped with joy when they finally saw me. The younger one, five years old, rushed to ride atop Paul's shoulders and asked him a thousand questions. After the brief time with my family, Paul and I continued walking to the north. Then, one day, I suddenly couldn’t walk. I was unable to lift my right foot. I had to leave the trail and took a minibus home for medical treatment. Another walking partner, Zhang Laocong, joined Paul.

The pain of my foot injury was unbearable. But here again, destiny and walking changed what I chose to do. I decided to treat my foot in a most ancient way in China. I visited a local medicine woman I’d admired for a long time but had never met.

The 70-year-old granny asked what was wrong. I pointed to the painful part of my foot. She rubbed it with a little turpentine, and then continued to rub it gently for about 30 seconds. She said my foot bones were slightly misplaced. During the conversation, she suddenly increased the strength of her hand movements. Several times I screeched with pain. Before I even stopped shouting, she let go. My foot had been reset, she told me. Then she covered a piece of white gauze with a steaming hot mixture of herbs and added a fresh leaf. Applied on my ankle, it was done. Cost: about $15.

On that very afternoon, the pain vanished. I started to walk as usual. Indeed, I felt like flying. The unfortunate foot injury turned out to be an opportunity for me to relearn the healing benefits of plants. The Yunnan is home to more than half of the plant species in all of China. Traditional Chinese medicine is still little known by the outside world. Many special healing practices have been passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years. Once carefully studied, I believe they can benefit humankind. I hope to research this.

Looking back on the more than 200 miles I walked with Paul, I had a new thought. Walking is healthy and admirable, but that is only a small part of the benefit of moving with our feet. A deeper reward is rediscovering the world around us. Walking can help us shorten the distance between each other, deepen our understanding of each other, and share each other's cultures.

It doesn’t really help to walk fast. But walking far, for long periods, does reach this deeper meaning.

Paul walked from Ethiopia to my hometown in China, Xizhou. The whole route of Out of Eden Walk is 24,000 miles. It is estimated that Paul will need to take almost 50 million steps to reach his journey’s end in South America. On his planned route in China alone, he will take about 7.2 million steps.

As for me, I walked from a village near the Myanmar border to a lakeside town in Yunnan—just a warm-up trip into China for Paul. But after only 410,000 paces, I reached a deep appreciation for my home.

Yang Wendou is an outdoor guide and educator who has been participating in a cultural project called the China Fieldwork Semester, a collaboration between Sidwell Friends School in the United States and the Linden Center, in Xizhou, Dali, China. Co-founded by sinologist John Flower and his wife, Pamela Leonard, this "walking classroom" is an immersive and innovative educational program that exposes U.S. high school students to traditional cultures in southwestern China.

Media Credits

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Yang Wendou
Oliver Payne
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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