If you’re looking for adventure travel from the safety of an armchair, Stewart is your man. This captivating book recounts a walk across Afghanistan in the winter of 2002, hardly a time when tourists were flocking there. A Scotsman, Stewart was educated at Oxford and is a former fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government. He also served in the British diplomatic service in Iraq, which he has written about in The Prince of Marshes, a book that preceded this one.
Why Afghanistan? As Stewart puts it, “I had just spent sixteen months walking twenty to twenty-two miles a day across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. I had wanted to walk every step of the way and I had intended to cross Afghanistan a year earlier.” Then the Iranians took his visa away, the Taliban refused him entry into Afghanistan and Pakistan barred him from Baluchistan. Eager to complete the journey, when he heard of the Taliban’s fall Stewart returned to Afghanistan to begin walking from Herat to Kabul “in a straight line through the central mountains. The normal dogleg through Kandahar was flatter and easier, and free of snow. But it was also longer and controlled in parts by the Taliban.”
When Stewart told the Afghan Security Service his plans, he was warned that he was “the first tourist in Afganistan. It is midwinter . . . there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee.” Afghanistan was, after all, a country that “had been at war for twenty-five years; the new government had been in place for only two weeks; there was no electricity between Heart and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. . . . In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov, and the only global brand was Islam.” None of this deterred the intrepid Stewart, a traveler in the tradition of his countryman Richard Burton.
When the authorities finally decided to let him proceed, they insisted that he take along for part of the journey two escorts singularly ill-equipped for the trek. But then so was Stewart, at least by travel catalogue standards. Wearing Afghan clothes and carrying a crude homemade walking stick, he toted a backpack covered with a “plastic rice bag to make it look more like something a villager would carry.” His few supplies included a towel and a toothbrush, some antibiotics and a little morphine. He had a sleeping bag, some warm clothes and an MRE ration pack picked up in the Kabul bazaar in case he got stuck in the snow, and that was it. He was, however, fluent in many of the local dialects and conversant with the local customs, baggage essential to the success of his venture.
Still, still, most readers will be thinking, this was a very risky undertaking, further complicated from a practical perspective by Stewart’s acquisition of a dog he
named Babur, an old mastiff the size of a small pony who had “never seen a motorized vehicle, electricity, or a village of more than six houses” and for whom Stewart develops a lasting affection. Later, Afghans were . . . to describe Babur as big, strong, ferocious, useless, tired or decrepit. I called him beautiful, wise, and friendly.” Babur, the first Emperor of Mughal India, also walked across Afghanistan, and Stewart’s route is roughly the same. He has along with him Babur’s diary, from which he occasionally quotes. The description of its author’s narrative technique is revealing: “What he did was very dangerous, but he never draws attention to this. Instead, he focuses on the people he meets and uses portraits of individuals to suggest a whole society. . . . Unlike most travel writers, he is honest.” The same is true of Stewart’s straightforward prose and for his unwavering concentration on the countryside and its inhabitants.
And a colorful lot they were. Stewart and Babur spent most nights with the village headmen, many of whom had been leaders in the war against the Russians and who served on various sides during the Taliban period. Stewart’s photographs offer graphic proof of the humble nature of the accommodations. He found the nights difficult; other guests and residents slept little, instead smoking and playing cards and there was always someone coughing. Before long, Stewart was battling a case of diarrhea and some legs. But he and Babur soldiered on, and there were rewards, as when Stewart stumbled upon the Tower of Jam, perhaps a pre-Moslem victory tower built by a lost tribe “to mark the conversion of a lonely and sacred pagan spot to Islam.” There had been no report on the tower for months, and given that much of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage was destroyed or damaged, his was a significant find.
But if finding the tower was a thrill, the value of his trip for Stewart and was his exposure to life in the villages of a war-torn country, so much of which he passes along to his readers. The descriptions of the Afghan people and the cultural mores of their remote villages suggest the difficulty of helping Afghanistan build a future, and perhaps the impossibility because of the complexity of shifting loyalties. For example, on his last afternoon in Herat Stewart visited Ismail Khan, the “most powerful man in western Afghanistan.” Khan, who had recently captured Herat from the Taliban, had fought with the Russians at the beginning of that conflict. He had been fighting for twenty-two years and now the Americans had taken him up. “He seemed,” says Stewart, “to impress those he met.” When Stewart asked him to support his proposed journey, Khan replied “this journey is not possible in the winter. I know this. I have fought in the region at this season.”
When the journey ends, and Stewart is back in Scotland, he thinks back to how uncomfortable he was “in villages because of the filthy, crowded rooms, the illiterate men, the limited conversation.” Yet he also recalls savoring “the hot rice, the firm floor, the shelter from the wind, and the companionship. I had felt how proud the men were of what they could provide and how lucky I was to share their space. They treated me as though I belonged and I had felt that I did.” It’s a tribute to Stewart’s skills as an observer that he takes us along with him through Afghanistan from the safety of our armchairs.