The Places in Between by Scottish author Rory Stewart is one of the most beautiful travel books ever written. He walked across Afghanistan-surviving by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers. By day he passed through mountains covered in nine feet of snow, hamlets burned and emptied by the Taliban, and communities thriving amid the remains of medieval civilizations. By night he slept on villagers’ floors, shared their meals, and listened to their stories of the recent and ancient past. Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion-a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following.
Through these encounters-by turns touching, con-founding, surprising, and funny-Stewart makes tangible the forces of tradition, ideology, and allegiance that shape life in the map’s countless places in between.
As The New York Times observed in its review of The Places In Between: “PITY the contemporary travel writer: routinely viewed as a kind of overstuffed guidebook author, struggling to explain exactly what he or she does. Specialists pounce on the tiniest “mistakes,” and ideologues condemn the whole enterprise as colonialism with a thesaurus. Meanwhile, there’s no single go-to word for what this most curious and searching of writers seeks to produce. Travel narrative? Peripatetic memoir? Adventure yarn? Not that this even matters, since — or so the prevailing wisdom goes — the best journeys have already been made. All that’s left is a specious sort of experiential plagiarism.
“Not quite. Rory Stewart’s first book, The Places in Between, recounts his journey across Afghanistan in January 2002. Even in mild weather in an Abrams tank, such a trip would be mane-whitening. But Stewart goes in the middle of winter, crossing through some territory still shakily held by the Taliban — and entirely on foot. There are some Medusa-slayingly gutsy travel writers out there — Redmond O’Hanlon, Jeffrey Tayler, Robert Young Pelton — but Stewart makes them look like Hilton sisters.
“Paul Theroux once described a certain kind of travel book as having mainly “human sacrifice” allure, and how close Stewart comes to being killed on his journey won’t be disclosed here. He is, however, sternly warned before he begins his walk. ‘You are the first tourist in Afghanistan,’ observes an Afghan from the country’s recently resurrected Security Service. ‘It is mid-winter,’ he adds. ‘There are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee.’ For perhaps the first time in the history of travel writing, a secret-police goon emerges as the voice of sobriety and reason.
“Stewart, who speaks Persian, has no orientalist illusions; he romanticizes nothing and no one. Rather, he has written a kind of tonic to mindless Taliban-hating. He doesn’t pardon the Mullah Omars who replicated seventh-century conditions at the end of a weapon the prophet could scarcely have dreamed of, and he’s rightfully devastating on the remnants of the hard-core Taliban, describing them as “bullies with a strangled and dangerous view of God and a stupid obsession with death.” But the average citizens of Afghanistan, some of whom found themselves working for or aiding the Taliban, he beholds with admirable calm.”