It was months after 9/11 when Rory Stewart decided to walk across Afghanistan. The country was in disarray, but despite warnings from the Afghan government, villagers and anyone with a lick of common sense, Stewart insisted on going. One foreign journalist, after hearing his plan, asked Stewart if he’d ever read Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s story of an American dumbass who tried to make it in the Alaskan wilderness without any supplies (I know we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but come on, man). That journalist saw a parallel between that doomed journey and Stewart’s.
On his journey, Stewart takes the reader to places we probably won’t ever be able to see. Following (roughly) the same path as Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, Stewart shows us the Buddhist monasteries in Hazarajat and the Minaret of Jam in Western Afghanistan. On his way, he relies on the kindness of strangers, meets drug dealers and farmers, and gets confused for a Ukrainian doctor. He also gives us a few tips in cases we’re every traveling there: don’t bring detailed maps. Yeah, they’re useful but you’ll look like a spy. If people ask you what kind of Muslim you are, say you’re an Indonesian Muslim. Locals don’t know much about that country. If you’re walking on land that’s totally devoid of animal shit, then it’s probably mined.
Stewart goes out of his way not to make this a political story. I appreciated that-there are enough books about the wisdom of the Afghanistan invasion. Instead, he gives us information about the way the country works, the complexity of tribal politics, and the life of an average villager, and lets us draw our own conclusions.
There’s a lot I appreciated about this book. Stewart’s zest for travel shines though, and he takes me through a history I knew very little about. He doesn’t complain (too much) about the food and accommodations, and he steers clear of romanticizing (or condemning) the locals. Some of the people he met were kind and curious, others were “greedy, idle, stupid, hypocritical, insensitive, mendacious, ignorant and cruel” and the best he could say was that they didn’t try to kidnap or kill him (to be fair, that’s a pretty big deal; they could have gotten a lot of ransom for him).
So the book is well-written and interesting and taught me a lot about a place I didn’t know, but I still can’t bring myself to recommend it. Despite its many virtues, this book never transcends Stewart’s entitlement. I never understood why he decided to undertake this journey. Normally, I wouldn’t care why a person decided to travel…travelling is self-explanatory. But this guy planned his journey around the Afghani tradition of hospitality. Wherever he went, he expected people to share what little they had with him. He complained when people didn’t immediately jump up to make him (and his dog) comfortable. It made his journey seem self-indulgent to “make” Afghanis travel with him to the next part of his destination and then travel back home alone. Just because he felt bulletproof doesn’t mean his hosts did. And while I generally liked his determination to walk his entire journey, his stubbornness could be frustrating. At one point, he agrees to take accept a car ride for a few miles, at the insistence of the men travelling with him. But he can’t get over how he vowed to only walk, so at sunrise, he made one of his companions walk back with him, so he could say he walked his whole journey.
The Places in Between kept my attention the whole time I was reading it. It was decent. But it ought to have been so much better.