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. I remember when I was very young, old people told me about the horse caravan traders who traveled that trail for centuries. They hauled jade, tea, ivory, silks, and other goods to markets as far away as India. There was usually a head horse leading the way, typically a strong and experienced one. Often it was decorated with a small round mirror on its harness reflecting the sunlight, and sometimes 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, a minority group. My family has lived in my hometown of Xizhou for many generations. I have to admit that when I first heard that Paul Salopek was going to walk the entire globe on his own two feet without any modern transportation, I was blown away. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't imagine that there could be such an unusual person in the world. So, it was even more surprising when one day last May, I found myself buying a standing-room ticket on a high-speed train from Xizhou 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, migrations, 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 17th-century Chinese explorer Xu Xiake, the Tea Horse Road, and the early 20th-century American botanist and anthropologist Joseph Rock. He also talked of Xuanzang, the traveling monk-scholar of the Tang Dynasty. Paul considered many of them heroes and, in a sense, Chinese pioneers of slow journalism. Slow journalism is an idea of reporting news with depth and mindfulness.

One would cross a thousand oceans and climb a thousand mountains to meet people one is destined to meet, a Chinese saying goes. 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. With its mild climate, rich history, and deep culture, I was convinced he 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. There was nothing sensational or spectacular 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 more or less altered everyone's daily lives around the world, and I was no exception. I was suffering because most nights I was unable to sleep. Walking with Paul, however, turned out to be a relief. A week after joining the walk, I suddenly found myself sleeping well and snoring 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, dragging ourselves 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, decent souls. We were walking with our minds as well as our bodies.

Together, we were dazzled by the different plants and animals in the Gaoligong Mountains. Together, as we walked the old Burma Road, we were stirred by the real friendship forged between China and the United States during World War II.

As I accompanied Paul to walk on ancient paths through majestic mountains, I seemed to hear the distant sound of tinkling horse bells from old caravans lost in time. And I seemed to hear the antique voices of past travelers urging me to be careful on the road.

Paul said I walked extraordinarily fast on our last two miles to reach Xizhou. My wife, Emmy, and two sons were at the central park to welcome us. My sons jumped with joy when they saw their long-awaited father. The younger one, five years old, rushed to ride atop Paul's shoulders and bombarded him with a thousand questions. After the brief reunion with my family, Paul and I continued walking to the north. Then, one day, I suddenly went lame, 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 reshaped my choices. I decided to treat my foot injury in a most ancient way in China. I visited a local folk herbalist I’d admired for a long time but had never met.

When 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 went on to knead 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, and 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 castor leaf. Applied on my ankle, the procedure was done. Cost: about $15.

On that very afternoon, the pain vanished, and 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. There are more than 19,000 species of higher plants in Yunnan, accounting for more than half of China's plant diversity. Traditional Chinese medicine is still little known by the outside world. Many special treatment methods have been passed down in folk traditions over thousands of years. Once identified and understood, I believe they can benefit humankind. I hope to research this.

Looking back on the more than 200 miles I walked with Paul, I came to an unexpected understanding. Walking for its own sake, while healthy and admirable, is only a small part of the benefit of moving with our feet. A deeper reward is rediscovering the world around us, shortening the distance between each other, deepening understanding, and sharing each other's cultures.

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

Paul walked from Ethiopia to my hometown, 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 Yusan village near the Myanmar frontier to a lakeside town in Yunnan called Eryuan—just a warm-up trip into China for Paul. But after only 410,000 paces, I reached a profound 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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