Often when a book received the kind of press that Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between has, I’m usually skeptical. Fortunately the book deserves much of the praise it has been getting. Stewart’s account of walking across Afghanistan in January 2002 shortly after the fall of the Taliban is just one part of a larger trip. He spent sixteen months walking across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. Stewart had wanted to cross Afghanistan in December of 2000 but had trouble getting into the country after Iran took his visa away. He returned once he learned about the fall of the Taliban to finish his journey. It seems crazy, walking through a country that had been at war for twenty five years and with a new government only two weeks old. Everyone warned him that this trip could end with his death. And the most fascinating aspect to this story to me is that he didn’t do it because of the danger. For him, it was all about finishing his initial trek. He’s not after glory, he wants to understand the places and people. His odyssey seems more like a pilgrimage, but instead of arriving at a sacred place, the trek itself holds the importance.
It’s a fascinating book and Stewart writes well about a land that can seem exotic and backward at the same time. Rather than dismissing some of the people he met who by our Western account would seem ill mannered and politically backward (he meets several former members of the Taliban), he finds common ground between them. Stewart works hard to write about the average Afghani instead of focusing on Taliban bashing. This is a great book to give a human face to an area of the world I know little about.