In 2004, Rory Stewart, author of The Places in Between, trekked 400 Km (250 miles) across Afghanistan between the cities of Chaghcharan and Kabul. HIs mission was to follow in the footsteps of Babur, the first emperor of Mughal, who did the same walk in 1507. Babur also chronicled his travels which Stewart shares, along with other tales about Afghanistan’s ancient history.
Afghanistan’s interior lacks hotels or inns, so the custom is to take travelers who need shelter into your home—often reluctantly. On occasion, hosts comfortably feed and house Stewart, but mostly he bunks in poor villages, many of which have changed little over centuries. Illiteracy is rampant, the mud houses usually have no electricity, running water, sanitation, or more to offer than bread, water, and a bare floor. Transportation across the silent spare rocky landscape is commonly by foot or donkey; one man didn’t know what an airplane was. At times, Stewart trudges through snow up to his chest; once, it was -40 ℉; dysentery was his constant companion. He side-stepped danger from landmines, marauders and Taliban. Many photos and sketches he drew of people, places and animals, including the dog he adopted, are in the book.
Besides sheer gumption, a secret to Stewart’s success is his respect and knowledge of Afghan’s languages, culture, and tribal history. Through he can be assertive when necessary, he comes across as calm, non-judgmental and savvy. While reading this extraordinary book, I wondered if any US military officials had read it and what they’d think. This story could break their hearts and spirits or spur them to keep trying to change this intractable country. Along this line, we should all remember one of Stewart’s takeaways from his journey: “Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived…”