National Geographic : 2017 Dec
132 For more than three years I have struggled to find it. I am crossing the world on foot. I am retracing the vanished trails of the first human beings who explored the planet in the Stone Age. At my journey’s starting line in Ethiopia, I walked from camel watering hole to muddy salt seep. I have plodded from oasis to oasis in the Hejaz desert of Arabia. In the winter peaks of the Cau- casus, I have grown thirsty surrounded by tons of water—the vital liquid frozen to rock-hard ice. But never before have I encountered this: Some- one has dug up and looted my resupply cache. A shallow pit that once held 15 precious gallons of water. My water. I cannot tear my eyes from the emptied jugs, rocking gently in a scorching wind. Jinn have stolen my water in the Qizilqum. What are jinn? Vagrant spirits—according to steppe nomads— that haunt the incessant horizons of Central Asia, afflicting or aiding travelers in turn. Often called genies in the West, where they are usually depict- ed in cartoonish pop culture as turbaned demons corked inside lamps or bottles, jinn can fly hun- dreds of miles at night, the region’s herders say. Or: They can change themselves into snakes and wolves. Marco Polo, while traversing the Desert of Lop in western China, reported the presence of wily jinn that called out to caravans by name, “and thus shall a traveller oft-times be led astray so that he never finds his party. And in this way many have perished.” And where is the Qizilqum? Stretching from parts of Kazakhstan to south- ern Uzbekistan: an infamous desert the size of Arizona that for centuries has thinned the ranks of passing caravans on the Silk Road, the most famous trade route in history for more than 2,200 years. Even now its vast gantlet of blister- ing light and thorn scrub presents a formidable By Paul Salopek Photographs by John Stanmeyer Water. Clean, fresh, drinkable water.