On the hoof

The Places In Between

Rory Stewart <em>Picador, 324pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0330486330

When I was backpacking around Asia in the 1980s, we practised a form of inverted snobbery whereby the worse everything was, the better we liked it. We tried to outdo each other in how little we spent, how squalid were the guest houses we stayed in, how long we'd been on the road, how seriously ill we had been. We despised tourists who alighted in the Himalayas for a two-week trek in brand-new Gore-Tex, when we had spent months getting there, clad in local garb, and on a budget of £1 a week.

Rory Stewart is an extreme example. He writes about Afghanistan, but arrives there only after spending 20 months walking across Iran, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Eschewing all forms of transport, he chooses to walk hundreds of miles from Herat to Kabul just months after the Taliban have fallen, when the country is still torn apart by tribal warlords and the roads are littered with landmines. He insists on taking not the flatter quicker route, but the more arduous mountain path, and he does so in the depths of winter, encountering a frozen corpse and a doctor who that afternoon has been amputating frost-bitten limbs off Afghan soldiers.

One motivation is to write about modern Afghanistan. Another is to follow in the footsteps of the great 16th-century Moghul conqueror Babur. Stewart admits that reading Babur's medieval journal is not a task he relishes, but its descriptions add a delightful subtext to the story. It also seems possible that Stewart - an ex-soldier and diplomat - is a spy, and one of the wonders of the journey is that the Afghans allow him to do it at all. However, Stewart's real impulse is the simple desire to walk. When offered the chance to linger in a mud-walled village to wait out a snowstorm, or take a rest to cure his dysentery, he cannot resist the urge to keep on going.

Bruce Chatwin proposed that we would be better people if we lived on the hoof. (When Shirley Conran asked him how he preferred to travel and he replied "by boot", she thought he had a funny accent and meant "by boat".) However, Stewart confesses with greater honesty that after 20 months, his moments of serenity are brief. They merely punctuate the long hours in which he relives bad things he has done, or dwells pointlessly on anxieties that go round in his head like a song.

Such honesty is one of the features of The Places In Between. Stewart does not show off. He makes it clear that he has read the literature, but wears his reading lightly. He is frank about being humiliated and abused. He describes having to clamber over sleeping bodies in mud-floored guest rooms to relieve himself nine times in one night. When he escapes from frightening encounters with the Taliban and bandits, he never sets himself up as a hero.

Stewart's ability to speak Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, and his understanding of Islamic culture, give him an insight into the country which few could match. He realises that the strongest loyalties are not to the government or the nation but to different tribes, whether Hazara, Baluch or Tajik. He understands where their territories start and stop, and where letters of introduction from their chiefs will or will not work, and this undoubtedly helps him survive.

The result is an unsentimental and revealing portrait of a country that we have always admired and feared, but about which we know too little. Riven by war, tribal enmities and drought, its ancient remains plundered by its own volatile but often generous people, it is also grandly proud, with its starkly beautiful landscape. Stewart's terse prose is well suited to the pared-down deserts and mountain crests. It sometimes rattles like the gunfire that pursues him out of a village.

The disadvantage of the impulse to keep moving is that Stewart meets so many commandants and gun-toting teenagers that it becomes hard to distinguish one from another. They leave you with a vivid but patchy impression. When a chief's son invites Stewart to accompany him to visit his father's estates, one longs for him to accept: here is a chance really to engage with a single character, to burrow into the place and its people. But Stewart turns him down: he has to get on. Ultimately, the individual we come to know best is Stewart's companion, a toothless mastiff, also named Babur, whose story makes a touching counterpoint to the harsh land on which he so frequently lifts his leg.

Helena Drysdale's Mother Tongues: travels through tribal Europe is published by Picador