Why Walk?

In the winter of 2002 Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan. It was a mere six weeks after the fall of the Taliban.  He then wrote The Places in Between, describing the experience. A friend lent me the book, saying “I don’t know why he walked all the way. He refused rides at all costs, even when he was sick. He was obsessed.” I answered that perhaps he thought he could learn more by walking.  

“But why did he have to walk? And even when he did take a short ride at one point, he went back the next day to re-travel the stretch by foot. That’s going too far. ” Because of this conversation, I set out to read the book not only to learn something about Afghanistan, but to discover what drove Rory Stewart to travel on foot, sometimes through chest-high snow, across a land where many people own Kalashnikovs but few own TVs.

Stewart tells the story in sparse prose, yet at times he is almost poetic in his attention to details, apt use of metaphor and just the right adjectives. His chapter titles also become increasingly poetic as the book progresses, perhaps reflecting his state of mind. His spare style at first gave me the impression that not much was happening; that it was a straightforward story of walking and stopping, with descriptions of similar experiences at most of the villages in which he stopped, and of the people who identify places by what kind of violence happened there.

However, there is much more. The book is at once a travel memoir, a valuable cultural and historical study, and from the halfway point on, a mystical meditative journey. During the first half of his walk, he was obliged by Secret Service officials to travel in the company of two of their men, who were then joined by yet another man. While at times these men were helpful, they mostly seem to have been a hindrance and the journey changed markedly after they went their separate ways.

Stewart walked through remote places inaccessible by car. Through him, we make archaeological discoveries; histories are revealed; and an ancient city, the fabled Turquoise Mountain in Ghor, comes to light as he describes coming across men unearthing treasures to sell. We gain anthropological and economical perspectives on a number of remote peoples that live in isolation, of whom little is known, and of whom much of what he (and we) had heard before turns out to be not quite true. (He was warned that the Hazara were an unwelcoming and dangerous people, but he met some of his kindest hosts among them.) Yet, Stewart muses that perhaps his studying and recording of all these things was really a way of justifying his journey not only to others, but to himself.

My friend wondered why Stewart was so driven to travel only by foot. The author himself, in the opening words of the preface, says that he’s not good at explaining why he walked across Afghanistan. Later, he mentions a moment that must have been the birth of his journeys through Asia: he was out walking one day in Scotland, when it suddenly occurred to him that he could just keep walking, as if he had thoughts of walking around the world.

One of his reasons for walking in Afghanistan was that he wanted to connect his footsteps through Iran with his walk through Pakistan, India and Nepal. The trip had been interrupted when first, Iranian officials seized his passport, then the Taliban refused him access to Afghanistan, and he wasn’t permitted into Baluchistan, leaving a long gap in his journey. As soon as he heard that the Taliban had fallen, he decided to return to Afghanistan to fill in that gap. He travelled in a straight line from West to East across the center of the country; geographically a most difficult path, but the easier option by way of Kandahar led through territory still partially controlled by the Taliban.

During his walk, numerous people asked what he was doing, and why he was walking.  His answers varied according to who was asking; sometimes he said he was a historian, sometimes a development officer, a pilgrim for peace, or following in the footsteps of Babur, first emperor of Mughal India, who made the same journey around the turn of the 16th Century. The truth of who he is and why he walked seems to be most of these, and none of these.

Occasional vignettes of Babur give us an interesting historical background, but Stewart also mentions that he wasn’t actually so much interested in focusing on Afghanistan from a historical viewpoint as he was in getting to know the modern Afghanistan. He also points out that it was only after he had made his decision to walk the central route during the harshest winter month that he learned Babur had done the same. Although he was at first unaware of the similarities between his and Babur’s walks, he did indeed mirror the emperor when he not only traveled across the country during dangerous times and under perilous conditions, but like Babur, wrote and documented as he went, almost died along the way, and wrote in an honest, fairly modest, almost matter-of-fact style.

The book tells the story of the people he met, but we never lose sight of him. He gives us his thoughts as a traveller, so that we make the discoveries along with him. He doesn’t just jump right to the realizations and conclusions, but takes us through the development. He doesn’t romanticize; there is no orientalism here. He is almost brutally honest at times. He describes the people and their rough lives as they are. When something stinks (in all senses of the word), he says so, but he is also ready to give things a chance, to see the good in someone who may at first not seem so good, and to make the best of a difficult situation.

He doesn’t gloss over his own mistakes either. At one point he had me wondering how he could expect these people in a war-ravaged land to take in a traveller, as Islamic tradition dictates. He expected a welcome, with food and a place to sleep in every village, not to mention the same for the dog he adopted along the way, in a land where dogs are considered unclean animals, kept mostly for dog-fighting and to keep wolves at bay.  Stewart was a foreigner and a stranger, visiting during extraordinarily hard times. Some of these people had nothing but bread to eat. At Yakawlang, where 400 people were killed by the Taliban, and a total of 75% of the people had either fled or died, it was no wonder they wouldn’t even open their gates to him.

This question kept building in my mind until, two thirds into the book, he describes how in all the Muslim countries he travelled through, people proudly told him they were famous for their hospitality. They told him that this was a religious duty, and that he would be welcomed everywhere he went, but in fact, he says, he was often received only with great reluctance.  He describes his disappointment and then finally, he explains how it was only much later that he realized how very lucky he was.

The friend who lent me the book also questioned why he continued to keep the dog, sometimes worrying more about the animal than about himself.  Without the dog’s companionship, I wonder if he would have completed his pilgrimage. The animal was at once an asset and a liability. Boys threw stones at him and many villagers distrusted him because of the dog. On the other hand, the dog gave him a reason to keep going, and even saved him from sinking into a sleep from which he would likely never have awakened; the cold and exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him, and death beckoned with an escape, a soft leave-taking by simply lying back in the snow. The dog barked at him and he thought that if the dog could keep going, so could he. The spell was broken and he continued on.

Early in the book, he says he wanted to be on the move, “and to see the places between Herat and Kabul.” (p.6). Perhaps this is what his walk was all about. He simply wanted to be moving, and to see the places which are between in both a literal sense—between the two cities—and in a more figurative sense. These are the places between the mountains and the valleys, the places that slip through the cracks so to speak, because of their inaccessibility. These in-between places are where he meets people such as the Hazara, foreign even to many of the Afghan peoples, and according to Stewart, the least known and perhaps most misunderstood people of Afghanistan.  It is in these in-between spaces that the author also finds himself.

Certainly, Stewart gained a deep knowledge and understanding that he couldn’t have done had he not walked, and this applies to an inner understanding as well. The walk itself is a long meditation with moments of realization, sometimes in almost blinding flashes. During the second half, he spent much of his time in silence and solitude, except for the company of his dog. When describing how, for the first time in a month, he heard music after hearing mostly silence, he speaks of sharing the beauty of the music and of this rare moment with the others present; it is clear that it is for such moments that he walked.

I returned the book to my friend, and again she shook her head, saying she couldn’t see the point in all that walking through danger and snow. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a specific reason. Ultimately, it was just something he wanted to accomplish. Even he questioned why he was walking at times. I’m glad he was obsessed; if he hadn’t walked, we wouldn’t have this book to read. It was by walking that he met all these people, and through the book, we profit from his insight into their lives, customs and histories, not to mention a much clearer picture of Afghanistan than we are given on the news.

The Places In Between
by Rory Stewart
320 pages
Published by Penguin Canada (Aug. 29, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0143053302
ISBN-13: 978-0143053309



About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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6 Responses to Why Walk?

  1. Berit says:

    This sounds like a deeply moving book and a very courageous journey!

    Thanks for this reflected and in depth recommendation of the book. I will certainly keep it in mind.

    I would have thought that a foreigner would be shot at sight or kidnapped, in certain places of Afghanistan today.

    In Norway walking or hiking is panacea for everything, so I don’t find his urge to walk that strange.

    • chris says:

      Hi Berit, Thanks so much for reading and commenting. The main issue people seem to have with his journey is not somuch that he walked, but that he chose to do it alone (the men who walked the first half with him weren’t of his choice), that he wanted to do it in January, and through territory that even Afghanis believed to be extremely dangerous. However, as he pointed out, the “safer” route, while easier to walk, was still partially under control of the Taliban.

      He dressed in Afghani clothes, and he speaks Dari andhas knowledgeof some other languages, which made a big difference as to how he was perceived. A little language goes a long way.

      This is a great book, and I really love the author’s almost matter-of-fact way of relating the events. It’s not an indifference so much as an openness, I think. I’m glad too that my friend questioned the walking, as it gave me an extra reason to pay attention while reading.

  2. J.A. Pak says:

    There’s a mental openness to walking alone in unfamiliar places. Perhaps it was that freedom of experience he wanted.

  3. chris says:

    I like that idea. It fits in well with the meditative experience that he gained from walking.

  4. yamabuki says:

    I have done the same thing.
    In my 20’s I went to Kauai
    I brought a tent and back pack
    I walked most of the way around the island
    Cars sometimes stopped to offer rides
    But mostly I refused

    I’m tempted to say that
    It was a spiritual journey
    But really I did it alone
    On foot
    Because it felt right to me

    Cars isolate us from the land
    Walking connects us to it
    We are more there
    We are more part of the world
    When we walk
    and feel the slow changes
    That walking brings us

    I spent about two weeks
    Walking Kauai’s roads
    Part of it was in a deep canyon
    That was so cut off from the world
    That I saw wild chickens and pigs
    and even wild horses
    So I was not really alone


    • chris says:

      Hi Yamabuki, That sounds wonderful. I’d love to walk Kauai. So true about the slow changes. You really miss a lot when you zip past everything by car. “Because it felt right to me” is the best reason of all. What more can you ask?

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