The Places in Between by Rory Stewart | book review
There are many kinds of travel books. There are some which are elaborate day-by-day account of some guy’s backpacking trip across Europe or Indochina. There are also those that tell of an adventure that is mind-blowing crazy yet surprisingly relevant. Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between beautifully straddles between these two.
In 2002, Rory walked across post 9/11 Afghanistan in the footsteps of Babur, the first Emperor of Mughal India. He started in Herat and ended his incredible journey at Kabul. Along the way, he saw traces of forgotten civilizations, experienced the hospitality of armed strangers and became intimate with a country that the modern world may have misunderstood all this time.
At the onset, Rory doesn’t have a clear answer as to why he wanted to do this rather mad endeavor or why he insisted on walking despite the many offers of safer and faster transportation. Yet as he unravels his story, chapter by chapter, you would be taken into a different Afghanistan, the remnants perhaps of the Afghanistan that Babur may have seen. You would then get a picture of the message that he may have wanted to convey.
Just like Babur, Rory ‘tells this adventure with impressive modesty.’ Despite the obvious perils he had gotten himself into, he never draws attention to himself. There are just a few lines where he would describe the state of his stomach or that of his dog he named Babur. His narrative is replete instead with stunning descriptions of the landscapes and interesting observations of the various villages he encountered along the way.
The Places in Between is engaging, poignant and heartbreaking. It is indeed a welcome antithesis to that dreamy travel article you recently read in an inflight magazine. It tells a story in a manner that is daring and at the same time subtle, realistic yet ambitious, objective yet personal as well. This kind of writing is a far cry compared perhaps to most travel blogs or that rather host-centric travel show on cable TV.
So skip the Lonely Planet guidebooks for once. This is definitely the kind of travel literature that you may just want to try out next.