There are some people you hear about and all you can think is, "Are you nuts?" Take Rory Stewart for example. Stewart spent 16 months walking 6,000 miles across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. He decided that to make his journey complete, he must go back and walk 600 miles across Afghanistan. But he's going to do it alone. In January. Along the most hazardous winter route — a straight line through the central mountains. Roughly a month after the fall of the Taliban. Just two weeks after a new interim government is in place, at least on paper.
If that makes you wonder about Stewart's judgment, you also must question anyone who might think of calling The Places in Between, Stewart's tale of the Afghanistan trip, just a travelogue. Granted, it fits the definition of travelogue but it is so much more. This is a story about the effects of years of war on a country and its people. This is a story about the lives of real people. This is a story about almost primitive village life in a modern age. This is a story, largely non-ideological, about politics and policy.
Stewart's book, first published in Britain in 2004 and recently released in trade paperback in the US, takes us on that journey from start to finish. Upon learning what he's doing, virtually every Afghan makes the same point: it's impossible this time of year. Or, more bluntly: "You will die." While those dire predictions did not come true, the 36-day journey was no cakewalk. As Stewart notes in the preface,
[T]here was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. Villages combined medieval etiquette with new political ideologies. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov, and the only global brand was Islam.
Stewart followed a route used nearly 500 years before by Babur, the first emperor of the Mughal Empire. Excerpts from Babur's diary of his journey are both a companion and a resource for Stewart on his trip.
Stewart has other companions, the first unwanted. As Stewart seeks to set off from Herat in western Afghanistan, the new government insists he go only as far as a provincial capital about halfway between Herat and Kabul. He also must be accompanied by two armed agents of the Afghan Security Service. Against his wishes, Stewart sets off with the two (soon to be three) men.