Rory Stewart walked through India, Pakistan and Nepal in 2002, a time that was very unstable given the events of 2001 and the subsequent war. He decided that he wanted to walk through the heart of Afghanistan as well. He met with a lot of bureaucracy, but he was eventually given permission to undertake his journey on the condition that several soldiers accompany him. He sets out across Afghanistan in winter, towering mountains and layers of snow between him and his final destination of Kabul.
I was a little disappointed in this and I'm having a hard time putting my finger on why, exactly. I think I expected more interaction with people? He's on foot and relies on the kindness of strangers for shelter and food. It's not like there are Holiday Inns on every street corner in Afghanistan. Heck, for that matter, there aren't even any streets to form corners in the rural areas he travels through. Just spending a night or two in one place, I felt like I didn't get a good sense of what the average people were really like. Which is kind of stupid to say. People are people. Afghans are like people everywhere--mean or kind, religious or not, apathetic or passionate. The one thing they are is crushingly poor. The country has been at war for so long, and I believe there's been a terrible drought that has dried up everything, so there's no chance to grow crops or lead a normal life. Anyway, I guess I didn't get a feel for what an average day in the life of an average Afghan is really like. Mr. Stewart mostly saw other people at night, when they'd settled in the house for what little dinner they could scrape together. What do they do with their time? I have no idea. What do they hope for or dream of? I don't know that either. It just felt like a lot of, "I walked, begged for shelter and food, then we all fell asleep. I left early the next morning, dragging my dog behind me." I'm not being entirely fair, but that's closer to the truth than I hoped for when I picked this book up.
There were a few things that stood out. There's an ancient civilization based in Afghanistan that archeologists haven't been able to find traces of. Mr. Stewart believes that villagers have found the ancient capital city and are looting it mercilessly. He describes untrained people digging through rubble, breaking what are probably priceless antiquities in their ignorance and rush to get items sold on the black market for a little more money to survive a few more days. Who can really blame them? He says that he tried to bring attention to the site when he left the country but no one was interested. I guess it's just too unsafe. Meanwhile, the knowledge and history to be gained is lost. There are other sites where the same kind of thing is happening, either due to unintentional harm or neglect.
Overall, the book was easy enough to read and I did learn about a country that is very foreign to me and the different ethnic groups that live there. I just somehow wanted more out of it.
Read an excerpt.
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|Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography|
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