on 21 June 2004
When I read in early 2002 that Stewart was setting off from Herat to walk across the empty centre of Afghanistan in mid-winter I wrote him off as a dead man. I was wrong, and this is the account which explains what happened on that walk. Ismail Khan, no less, shared my profound doubts, as Stewart explains in his opening chapter.
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.
"Someone in Kabul told me a crazy Scotsman walked from Herat to Kabul right after the fall of the Taliban"
Thanks for the book. For it was indeed a journey of great spirit and determination. Mr. Stewart was well prepared for this trip with vitamins and various medications he knew would be necessary to successfully complete this challenge; ibuprofen, antibiotics, just name it and he had it; sharing with the villagers he met on his way when they saw what he had and begged him.
Well written, well told. I was truly impressed with how hospitable the people of Afghanistan were; those whom he encountered and offered him rest and meals and at times water to wash with, at their various humble abodes where he was invited to stay for the night. Even through they understood little English, Mr. Stewart was able to communicate to them by speaking Persian. I love reading about anything in the Eastern and Asian side of the world, so I was with him all the way. I felt like I was alongside him as he climbed those steep slopes and when he walked on the flat valleys. I drank tea with Mr. Stewart from glass cups, ate stale bread with him and soup, and enjoyed the rest at the end of the day, sleeping on a carpet or just on the floor.
The attention given to him was enormous as he persevered onwards. My main concern was just before he got to Kabul when he had to travel through the deep powdery snow which was known to cause frostbite, making it necessary to amputate limbs for some in the past. I held my breath as he and his dog companion Babur made it out of the snow covered mountains, and alas into another bright day. God bless you Rory Stewart. I will soon be starting Prince of the Marshes, which sounds like another winner; but to those of you out there looking for a Christmas gift or other, buy The Places In Between first, for you won't be disappointed. An excellent gift, especially for travellers!!!
Reviewed by Heather Marshall Negahdar (SUGAR-CANE 25/11/06)
on 5 March 2005
This is a very intelligent book - funny, moving and surprising -It is very understated so it takes time to realise how many different kinds of book it actually is. It is, for example:
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.
on 11 December 2010
How to review such a book for a general audience, not least because I am not expert on Afghanistan and so a member of that general audience.
I like to walk and was therefore interested in the story of a man who crossed Afghanistan on foot from East to West by the mountain route in winter. I know when I am outclassed and I felt it by page 2; but I enjoyed the book none the less. I didn't, for instance, think it an odd thing to do make that walk. I found it quite comprehensible.
The more I learned about Rory Stewart, the less - on principle - I liked him. Primarily, he is a Conservative and that makes him deeply suspect to me. Secondly he warms to soldiers and their jolly humour.
After I had read it, I mentioned the book to one who does know a lot about Afghanistan; and he seemed dismissive but in an odd way. After a few exchanges, he said "He's MI6" Really? "Of course, he is"
I had not thought of that.
I can't see any evidence in the text and I can't see a slant; but maybe I am being stupid.
Of the book itself, I cannot speak too highly. I have already spoken of it to a group who meet intermittently to discuss books they have read.
I learned a great deal. I would have learned it more permanently and a lot better if the maps had been up to it. They are good maps but inappropriately presented; and now I really have little sense of the journey in map terms, to use a lumbering phrase. I coped; but I could have been helped.
A substantial part of the book concerns his relationship with the dog Babur; and that was done well. It could have been sentimentalised; but Stewart reaches out in his writing to this animal with something approaching empathy and certainly with respect yet without sentimentalising.
Technically, his writing is very good. It's clear. It'e elegant. It's quite understated and it might be possible to miss his tone sometimes if one were rushing through the text. He's observant. He's critical. He seems emotionally honest though tough. He's quietly funny.
The MI6 remark stays in my head; as does an awareness that such things are often not clear cut. If the security services are going in for writing travel books, this one would be evidence that they are potentially good at it; and that they are becoming less dangerous to us -- I don't think many would be tempted to follow Stewart. It's quite clear how risky his journey was and how fitted he was for it, physically, temperamentally and linguistically. Dartmoore and Bodmin are enough for me.
The inductive conclusion he reaches about the significance of the splendidly titled Citadel of Jam (and you'll have to read the book to learn that significance) triggered the archaeologist manque in me and I still grieve for the lost data as Afghans destroy their history without, apparently, having any concept of what history in our sense is: I do not propose any cultural relativism to alleviate my judgment on the vandalism of separating artefacts from their contexts in order to sell them. On the other hand, I have not experienced the poverty so many of them experience every day.
And I recall that within my lifetime a farmer ploughed up a good part of a Romano-British village in West Cornwall to use the land, having calculated the statutory fine against the use value of the land. I doubt that he has any idea of history either. It's not about Afghans; it's about ignorance there and idiots here.
It's a book I can imagine returning to. It's certainly a book I recommend, more - in my case - for what it tells you both of the country and of human nature - than for the adventure. I haven't spoken of what one learns of human nature from this book; but there is much. Stewart is shrewd in what he sees and in what he passes on.
He is judgmental; but he is not condemnatory; and I find it worth my while now and then to wonder if my slight dislike, or perhaps it is mistrust, reflects more about my lack of broad experience and a narrowness of tolerance in me than any flaw in him.
That questioning, too, is attributable to this book. It has that level of intellectual energy. It will make you think. Don't read it unless you want to think.
11th December 2010
on 23 June 2005
Rory Stewart walked across Northern Afghanistan in the January after the Taliban fell following the route of the famous Moghul emperor Babur. The outcome is this amazing book which combines a straightforward narrative of the journey with erudition and insight into a country that has been at war with itself and many hostile outsiders for hundreds of years. Stewart never judges his hosts, many of whom live lives of extreme hardship. he listens [as he understands their language,Dari]and shares in their simple lives with great humility. He also writes the most beautiful poetic prose. It is a joy to read.
on 21 June 2004
This is 'l'étranger' on the march, the estranged young man on a fierce road. Relentless courage and determination lurk on every page. In a style as sparse and hard as the extraordinary remoteness of the spaces travelled and written, his text leaves us to imagine much more. He brings us a vivid picture of the people, their battles with one another, their compelling warmth and hospitality, backed with a running commentary on Emperor Babur's journey from Herat to Kabul in an equally impassable winter in 1507; also, his war-dog companion, and an inherent, pointed critique of generalised solutions for Afghanistan. A must-read, and not for the meek.
on 8 September 2006
Rory Stewart appears to be a very impressive man; not only has he survived strolling along one of the most treacherous paths conceivable, but has, at the end of it, written a rather fine book.
The Places in Between gives insight without being invasive and the reader is treated with the same respect as those Stewart meets on his travels. The prose is crisp and clean as freshly fallen snow on a mountain pass, yet its subject lends the writing an air of lyricism and beauty. Never labouring a description or point, Stewart is as quick to move on in his telling of the story as he is from every host that welcomes him into their home, setting a determined but agreeable pace. There is a clear narrative with a goal in sight from the beginning, separating this book from so much travel-writing and giving all the plot satisfaction of a novel.
To those who enjoyed books such as Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light, I heartily commend this book - it is, although perhaps not really comparable, much better.
I look forward to reading Stewart's new book, Occupational Hazards, and hope that his new project, The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, inspires him to write further.
on 4 June 2013
To be honest, I'd been put off reading this as Rory Stewart - since his travels - has become a Tory MP (for Penrith and the Border) and I, wrongly, imagined that this book might be condescending and aloof.
So much for political prejudices... it's a brilliant read, with fresh writing and a sense of both empathy and sympathy for the Afghan regions through which he rambles - incredibly bravely facing up to questioning by members of the Taleban along the way, soon after 9/11.
With a stick, a grasp of local languages, stamina, a sense of curiosity and an admission that he's not really sure why he's doing it (which is the mystery of much travel), he sets off. His analysis of the tribes he meets and the juxtaposition of his own journey with that of Babur - the first emperor of Mughal India - brings depth to his antics, exploits and near misses: he is shot at once and dices with death on many occasions. Land mines by the side of the track... throat-cutters after his cash... white out snow storms on vertiginous peaks.
He is given a dog - whom he names Babur and who joins him (reminding me a little of Travels with a Donkey). This adds great colour and, often, comedy.
Stewart's simple but important point is well made: that most foreign policymakers haven't a clue what actually happens on the ground in the countries in which they interfere and seem to care even less for local culture than did 19th century colonialists. If only they'd bother to take a look around (but they're too 'important' for that).
on 30 August 2010
This is an extraordinary account of a journey undertaken by Rory Stewart.
I would recommend this book to readers for two main reasons.
The first is that it is an incredibly detailed account of life in the far flung places in Afghanistan. Reporting of events in Afghanistan usually focuses on where there are casualties, and what the politicians are working on. We can focus on the rights of women but how realistic is it to apply that successfully in the small villages where tradition goes back hundreds of years, and where people's priority is how to maintain their daily supply of food? Give people the right to vote but can western style democracy be achieved in the whole country just by legislation?
The other aspect of the book that is fascinating is the insight into past history. The links to the Moghul Emperor Babur's rule are fascinating. The wrecking of a lot of other cultural and historical heritage due to wars is a reminder to us of what politicians are destroying for us when they start wars for reasons of power, economic resources, or purely diverse philosophies. Rory Stewart's account also reminds us of how the world organisations can be bogged own in bureaucracy.
Better maps would have helped the reader follow Stewart's journeys much better. The style of writing could have been improved. The lengthy footnotes were important but broke into the flow of the reading. Similarly, while extracts from Babur's diaries were very interesting, they affected the flow of the narrative.
It was a major achievement on the part of Rory Stewart, but as some reviewers have pointed out, there must have been a political dimension to his journey because it is inconceivable that he could have survived for so long on his own when there were clearly very dangerous areas. If he did have more support, one wonders why he has not referred to it in his narrative.
So from different viewpoints it is book that should be read.
I have never been to Afghanistan. I have read half a dozen books about it but this is the only one which has given me much of a feel for what the people are like.
Stewart walks from Herat to Kabul a few weeks after the Americans and British 'defeated' the Taliban in the winter of 2001-2. He walks on a route that no-one uses for long distance travel, even in a car or truck, a route which is direct as the crow flies, through many mountainous villages.
The book gives some indication of the different races, languages, and political affiliations, affiliations between regional overlords, those who fought for and against the Russians, for and against the Taliban. Almost everyone lives in bone-numbing poverty, at least by European standards.
Unless I missed something Stewart met precisely three women during this journey, and only talked to one of them. There were probably more but if there were, he doesn't mention them. Afghanistan is evidently a country in which women stay out of sight. Whether or not the Taliban are in power only makes a difference of degree. This is not a matter of much apparent interest to Stewart, but his conversations and interactions with the men he meets are unputdownable. Almost everyone he meets is carrying a Kalashnikov.
It starts slowly but develops a head of steam. Great reading.