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The Places In Between Paperback – 1 Apr 2005
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This is traveling at its hardest and travel-writing at its best (David Gilmour)
His encounters with Afghans are tragic, touching and terrifying (Daily Telegraph)
[Stewart] must have balls of steel, but he writes like and angel all the same (Giles Foden)
This evocative book feels like a long lost relic of the great age of exploration (Guardian)
An astonishing achievement: a unique journey of great courage (Colin Thubron)
Wise, funny and marvelously humane (Michael Ignatieff)
THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER: A brilliant account of a death defying walk through AfghanistanSee all Product description
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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).
This book works on so many levels, not least because Stewart's writing style is so straightforward. It is a travelogue, a diary of thoughts and a wide-ranging document for historians.
Afghanistan is a country which has been cast as 'the enemy' since the era of the Great Game, but this is the first account I've read which dispassionately looks at its problems from the inside out. Walking solo, from Herat to Kabul, through northern central Afghanistan in the winter of 2002, Stewart tramped through thigh-high snow, seeking shelter at night from village headmen and sleeping in guest houses. What jumps out at the reader is RS's in-depth knowledge of the region and his grasp of tribal loyalties and divisions, and how poverty is often allied with geography and history.
It was no easy trip. Illness was pretty well constant, and food and warmth were not always available, plus there was, and still is, an understandable suspicion of westerners. Bureaucracy and gun-toting companions apart, the thread that runs through the whole journey is Stewart's acute observations on both past and future. Although there is little or no direct comment on political issues, the narrative speaks for itself.
On the loss of the archaeology of the Minaret of Jam, high in the Afghan mountains, Stewart writes:
"It rose 200 feet, 61 metres, in a slim column of intricately carved terracotta set with a line of turquoise tiles. There was nothing else. The mountain walls formed a tight circle around it and at its base two rivers, descending from snowy passes, ran through the ravines into wilderness. [...] Although the people that lived in the area had never talked of the tower and none of the 19th-century travellers had known of its existence, a foreigner did reach it in 1957. André Maricq's careful study confirmed that this had been the tallest minaret in the world at the time of its construction."
By the time Stewart came upon the tower, much of Afghanistan's cultural heritage had been removed or destroyed, the Kabul museum looted and the Bamiyan Buddhas dynamited by the Taliban.
The episode is a reminder of how much has been lost ~ not just in Afghanistan but in all the wars of recent years.
But RS's relationship with a dog serves as a counterpoint to doom and gloom. Named after the Mughal Babur, whose writings run like a 'leitmotif' through the narrative, Babur the canine companion heroically made it through the snow and ice to Kabul, his dogged spirit reflecting that of Rory Stewart himself.
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