The Places In Between, Rory Stewart's moving account of his walk across Afghanistan in January 2002 was immediately hailed as a classic.
Caught between hostile nations, warring factions and competing ideologies, at the time Afghanistan was in turmoil following the US invasion. Travelling entirely on foot and following the inaccessible mountainous route once taken by the Mogul Emperor, Babur the Great, Stewart was nearly defeated by the extreme, hostile conditions. Only with the help of an unexpected companion and the generosity of the people he met on the way did he survive to report back with unique insight on a region closed to the world by twenty-four years of war.
Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Award and the Spirit of Scotland Award and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and the Scottish Book of the Year Prize.
We never really find out why Stewart decided to walk across Afghanistan only a few months after the Taliban were deposed, but what emerges from the last leg of his two-year journey across Asia is a lesson in good travel writing. By turns harrowing and meditative, Stewart's trek through Afghanistan in the footsteps of the 15th-century emperor Babur is edifying at every step, grounded by his knowledge of local history, politics and dialects. His prose is lean and unsentimental: whether pushing through chest-high snow in the mountains of Hazarajat or through villages still under de facto Taliban control, his descriptions offer a cool assessment of a landscape and a people eviscerated by war, forgotten by time and isolated by geography. The well-oiled apparatus of his writing mimics a dispassionate camera shutter in its precision. But if we are to accompany someone on such a highly personal quest, we want to know who that person is. Unfortunately, Stewart shares little emotional background; the writer's identity is discerned best by inference. Sometimes we get the sense he cares more for preserving history than for the people who live in it (and for whom historical knowledge would be luxury). But remembering Geraldo Rivera's gunslinging escapades, perhaps we could use less sap and more clarity about this troubled and fascinating country.