‘The valiant never taste of death but once.’
I’d find it hard to walk across 400 miles of anywhere, but I suppose I could imagine the pleasures; frequent stops at charming out-of-the-way cafés, ah the coffee, the steaming pastries, that healthy feeling that comes from fresh air and exercise and, at day’s end, a relaxing meal and a warm bath (with bubbles). Yes, indeed, can’t wait, where do I sign? But 400 miles from Herat to Kabul, across mountainous country in winter, six weeks after the Taliban’s ‘departure’? Are you crazy? How crazy do you think I am? How crazy was Rory Stewart? Answers on a postcode please. Yet for all the insanity of the journey, this is a marvelous, inspiring, humane book and I can’t think I’ve ever read a better one, not in this genre.
The journey needed permission. It was Afghanistan. It was January 2002. As an Iranian-trained security officer made clear to him: ‘You are the first tourist in Afghanistan. It is midwinter: there are three metres of snow on the high passes, there are wolves and this is a war. You will die. I can guarantee. Do you want to die?’
From an officer who knew ‘security’, whose most conspicuous characteristic seemed to be his understanding of the many unpleasant pathways to death, this was a question to be taken seriously. Do you want to die? It was a question I found myself asking several times during the course of the book.
Rory Stewart could have met his maker on many occasions and in many different ways. He was shot at. He was attacked by enraged dogs. He fell down a cliff in thick fog. He fell through ice into the Hari Rud river. Children in the villages threw stones at him. He suffered acute dysentery. He was usually cold, usually wet and frequently lost. In deep snow he ‘stumbled again and again into three and four feet snow drifts’. Guessing where the path might be he ‘set off on a traverse across the slope hoping there were no crevasses.’ He walked among unmarked land mines. He was punched to the ground. It is something of a miracle that he wasn’t robbed, that he didn’t have his boots stolen.
Such insecurity went on for mile after mile. Herat to Kabul is a long way through the mountains and on foot. He was reliant on the villages he came across for food and shelter. Mostly he received pieces of nan bread, sometimes rice, occasionally meat. The villages were poor and he was put up either in the mosque or in the communal guest room. ‘Communal’ was the word. Sometimes he was curled so tightly around the man next to him that he couldn’t turn over, (which was probably just as well given the absence of communal toothpaste). And it was cold. ‘Despite the press of bodies, ice had formed on our wet clothes.’
To me, this is heroic, beyond heroic, at that point where heroism and craziness mingle and merge. Personally, I like to know, at least approximately, where I’ll be sleeping of a night, that I might at least get something more than a piece of bread to eat, that I won’t be gang-raped by 30 soldiers, that I won’t be shot at and – this is important – that I won’t find myself in the Himalayas on my own and with no idea where the path is. I can get lost anywhere but I prefer to do it in places where I know a friendly face will shortly come along and guide me back to the straight and narrow. No such luxuries for Rory.
There were rare occasions when he admits to being on the verge of succumbing to mortal temptation and giving up. ‘I stopped, sat down, got up, walked ten more minutes and then, because I felt exhausted, sat down again, half buried in deep powder. My feet were wet, my hands were cold and the wind moved in a fine white mist over the surface of the snow. I lifted my sunglasses and looked through sudden light at a landscape shrinking, contorting, corroding, dissolving. … I could not remember why I was walking. I was sick, my muscles were stiff. The snow formed a bright clean cushion, perfectly shaped to my back. Lying back, I felt warm and at ease. I closed my eyes and smiled. I had done enough. It occurred to me that no one could criticize me for staying here. I half opened my eyes and the sun seemed particularly brilliant; the unbroken powder stretched without end. It was a very private place and here, buried in the snow with only my head in the sun, my body would not be disturbed for days. I knew villages lay ahead but there seemed no point in trying to reach them.’
Well, he did get up and continue on for a reason I won’t spoil by explaining, but why did he put himself through this? Why did he drive himself to surmount all these difficulties that took such a toll of his health and spirit and might well have been the end of him? Why didn’t he just give it a day or two to see how the land lay and then remember a more pressing engagement back home in Perthshire? In the preface, he says, ‘I’m not good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan. Perhaps I did it as an adventure.’ Yes, well, an adventure might be the reason for starting out but it doesn’t explain the sheer doggedness that made him finish.
From time to time he drops hints about his deeper motivation. On leaving Herat, he says, ‘I felt with the strike of each heel step I was marking Afghanistan. I wanted to touch as much as possible of the country with my feet. I remembered why I had once thought of walking right around the world.’ Later he says, ‘My thoughts participated in each step, never getting ahead of me.’ He experiences moments of beauty enhanced by the immediacy of his circumstance; a landscape; the playing of a tamboura lute made from a small yellow plastic oil bottle, a table leg and two wooden awls. Towards the end of the journey, he admits that ‘Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune: often repeated, revealing nothing. And then his reality shifts. ‘But as I kept moving, no thoughts came. Instead I became aware of the landscape as I once had in the Indian Himalayas. Every element around me seemed sharper, the colours more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continued to develop in reality and presence. I was suddenly afraid, uncertain I could sustain this vision.’
This must surely be the only viable motivation for a journey of this hazard; that a deeper reality might be glimpsed, a reality that transcends the pragmatic hurly burly of the day to day, a reality that is the product of a mind made quiet by hardship and endurance. And was this enhanced perception when it came worth all the danger and hardship? I imagine Rory Stewart would say it was, yes, undoubtedly.
Rory Stewart’s writing is straightforward, unfussy and at times beautiful. ‘The sun had come out … sharpening the shadows of tired men pushing handcarts.’ … ‘A low orange sun was descending dust-muffled to the west. I, with a tiny pink flower in my cap, strode with the three armed men down the avenue of cypresses towards the sunset.’ He doesn’t dwell on his hardships and, when he does, it is usually with a touch of humour: ‘I entered Dahan-e-Siar Sang an hour after dark under a light snowfall with the ice cracking under my feet and no moon to light the way. My stomach had gone and I had a hacking cough. … I had bedbugs and prickly heat, my nails were long and my hair had not been cut in four months. … I ran my filthy hands over my failure of a beard, my black eye, my blistered lips and peeling nose and looked at my clothes which had gone unwashed for three weeks. I could understand why the commander was not immediately keen for me to sleep on his floor.’
Rory Stewart was the first tourist to visit post-Taliban Afghanistan and his book is unlikely to swell the numbers. He portrays life in the remote villages as illiterate and impoverished with the main entertainment being the call to prayer. It is also violent, part of which is a consequence of conquest – Russian, Taliban or American – but part of it ingrained in the differences, both tribal and not, within the country. As one village chief tells Rory; ‘But there were fights also between different villages in this valley. We have killed thirty men from Sang-i-zard and they have killed ten of us, so we still have a blood vendetta with them. For twenty-five years we have not been able to walk from end to end of the road that you are walking because it has been too dangerous for us … We could be killed if we went to Sang-i-zard. And the same if we walked east.’
There’s interesting history in the book, not least that which references the remarkable conquest of India by two poor Afghan mountain kingdoms, first the Ghaznis, then the Ghorids. There is interesting comment, too, on the failed attempt to rebuild Afghanistan after the Taliban; a failure made inevitable by the difference between Afghanistan as it is – as Rory Stewart has experienced it in village after village – and Afghanistan as the international community believes it ought to be.
But the abiding memory of the book – while you trudge with Rory through the wet and the cold, while you bang on doors in remote villages in the hope of a morsel and a roof, while you hope not to get shot or lost forever in abandoned mountains – is that here is a man of integrity, intelligence, grit, courage and unshakeable determination.
At the time of writing this, Rory Stewart has put his name forward to be leader of the Conservative party and, therefore, Prime Minister. We could do worse.