A brilliant account of a death defying walk through Afghanistan
Another reviewer has suggested that Stewart's account of his difficult, dangerous and fascinating journey still pales in comparison to that classic, Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana (who drove the route). I would argue that this is a great modern travel book, however, for three reasons. First, its honesty. Stewart makes clear how far he walked and when. There is no attempt to disguise a couple of weeks' experience as a great journey (viz Jason Elliott's An Unexpected Light, which I none the less enjoyed). He freely admits the times when he is wrong, stupid or unlucky. He does not pretend to speak the language fluently (though his self-admittedly patchy Farsi reveals endless insights). Secondly, its humour. Where Byron set up the 'natives' in set-pieces of condescendingly picaresque farce, Stewart allows the spirit and character of Afghans to speak for itself. So while it made me laugh out loud again and again, I never felt that he was milking the episodes or laughing at the characters. Thirdly, its literary quality. The account is highly focussed on the politics, local history and personalities as encountered place by place on the walk. This could have made for a rather dry, plodding account but the neat serialisation of events in bite sized chapters maintains the pace and style. The walk's Winterreise feel (much crunching of snow underfoot and chancing on hearty hospitality in remote villages after a hard day's walk) could easily have been over romanticised, but Stewart's style is too well crafted and succinct for that.
If I have a bone to pick with the book it is that Stewart only passed through the area over 36 days. It is clear when he really engages with a place that he does so very deeply, with a relentless interest in the everyday lives of his subjects. While I would not blame him for wanting to get on (dysentery, hostile locals, -40 degree temperatures, the danger of snowfall blocking the passes, locals interested in his wallet etc), I did wish he had stayed in one one place for longer.
This is first class travel writing. I was left feeling I understood a whole lot more about Afghanistan, having enjoyed a deeply engrossing read.
An adventure story - describing the incredible dangers of walking across Afghanistan in a war at winter, finding lost cities and dodging Taliban with his companion and friend, Babur the dog.
Exploration: there is no record of any foreigner walking the length of Afghanistan since Babur in 1506 - and no-one before Stewart is known to have done it alone and unsupported.
Literature: his clean, uncluttered prose is moving and beautiful.
But also a work of scholarship: anyone who knows the interior of Afghanistan can confirm that Stewart's understanding of Afghan culture is exceptional - he speaks farsi and has really covered the ground. He is informed and careful and there are no cheap stereotypes. It is simultaneously:
anthropology (he stayed in over five hundred village houses on the walk),
archaeology (the finding of the lost city);
political science (his analysis as a diplomat of nation-building in Afghanistan)
and history (he follows and examines the diaries of the Emperor Babur and his solo crossing in winter calls into questions a number of historical assumptions about Afghanistan and its inaccessibility).
The Places in Between is a unique form of travel-writing: in which the journey, the prose, the erudition and the honesty of the writer are equally admirable. Buy it.
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