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The Story of One Man's Walk Across Afghanistan
“[T]he Hazara I met were delighted the Taliban had gone, and they did not resent the Americans for expelling them. Nowhere in Afghanistan did the cruelty of the Taliban seem so comprehensive or have such an ethnic focus. In a three-day walk from Yakawlang, where the Taliban had executed four hundred, to Shaidan, where eighty shop fronts had been reduced to blackened shells, every Hazara village I saw had been burned. In each settlement, people had been murdered, the flocks driven off, and the orchards razed. Most of the villages were still abandoned.”
- Rory Stewart, in The Places in Between
Such was the situation in Afghanistan when Scotsman Rory Stewart walked across the country in the winter of 2002. Making his journey just months removed from the events of September 11th, Stewart braved 10-foot snows, sub-zero temperatures, and the understandable distrust of many people he encountered. That he is alive today is a testament to his determination, wits, knowledge of the region's cultures and languages, and - without a doubt - a little luck. He also owes much to the country's people.
The Places in Between is Stewart's account of his harrowing walk across a country plagued by poverty and war. Afghanistan was just one leg in a longer journey across Central Asia. His previous visa revoked by Iranian officials, Stewart backtracked from Nepal when he received word of the Taliban's fall. Who needs a visa now? he reasoned. Whatever government does exist has greater concerns than me. And so he made the trip to Herat, in Western Afghanistan, where he arranged to set out for Kabul on foot. Rather than taking the flatter route through Kandahar, which was largely controlled by Taliban forces at the time, he chose a shorter but far more dangerous path through the mountains.
Stewart himself is loath to identify a motive behind his journey. He follows in the footsteps of Babur, Mughal India's first emperor, who traversed the route during roughly the same months 500 years prior. But as Stewart admits, his awareness of Babur came only after his plans were made. He passes himself off as a historian along the way, but this seems more a means of gaining trust among the locals than underlying motivation. Perhaps he did it for adventure. Yet given the inherent risks, one hopes there were deeper aims than the experience of a novel thrill. My hunch is Stewart knew there would be much to share if he survived the journey. Given Afghanistan's sudden emergence as a country of international attention, he may have foreseen how it would be portrayed (and perhaps misunderstood) in the West.
Whatever his initial motivations, the story that results from Stewart's adventure provides a fascinating glimpse of Afghanistan and its culture. The complexity of the land is made apparent. One moment Stewart is being fed by strangers; the next, he's dodging rocks (or worse). Islamic tradition protects him because he's a traveler but threatens him for being an infidel. Staying in homes where often "the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov, and the only global brand was Islam," his survival depends upon the openness and kindness of strangers. His adoption of a fighting mastiff - and the companionship that slowly develops between man and dog - adds an element of warmth to an otherwise savage tale.
I've highlighted The Places in Between for its first-hand depiction of Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban's fall. I do wonder about the author's motivation and wish the book had included more of the emotions he encountered while on his journey. Still, the experiences themselves are worth exploring, as are the people he meets along the way. Given the insanity of the endeavor - and similarities between the experiences of Stewart and Babur before him - one wonders what will have changed when the next bold soul attempts a winter trek across Afghanistan.
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