Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart spent almost two years walking across Asia, but was unable to spend any time in Afghanistan until the fall of the Taliban. So in January of 2002, he made his way to Herat, there to begin his walk to Kabul, and thus finish his journey. This book is an account of the five weeks that he spends on foot across the snow-covered mountain passes of Afghanistan.
Stewart writes with a great sense of history, and he has a greater depth of understanding of the various cultures that have interacted to make this part of Afghanistan what it is than most people. This history and culture make their way into his tale, as he describes the background of both the people and the land as he travels through. Throughout the book Stewart also includes quotes from another traveler, the Mughal Emperor Babur, who traveled the same route in the 1500's. It is a fascinating juxtaposition.
I enjoyed this book, especially once Stewart found himself the owner of an unwanted dog, a mastiff with no ears, no tail, and very few teeth, who he names Babur. Experiencing the way that Stewart is treated at each village is engrossing - the hospitality he expects is often not forth-coming, but other times the people are overwhelming in their generosity. Perhaps it is because of the constant war, or because he is Scottish, but many villagers are unwilling to interact with him at all. He travels through snow and minus twenty degree weather, living mainly on bread, unless the villagers have a little more to offer him. The journey definitley does not sound enjoyable in any way. With the addition of Babur, Stewart becomes a more sympathetic character to the reader, yet becomes even more unwelcome in the towns he passes through. We know that he does not get killed in these circumstances, since he did write a book about it, but sometimes you're left wondering how he got away.
With the violence, poverty, and unfriendliness he found in Afghanistan, I wonder what Stewart thought of the rest of his travels. He brings them up sporadically throughout the book - stories of traveling through Iran, India, Nepal. I would love to read about those travels, and I find it strange that Stewart chose to write only about his trip across Afghanistan, at least for this book. The book does give the reader a varied and deeper picture of the tribal regions of Afghanistan, more than any other book I have read about the area. For that reason alone it is worth reading.

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