I’ve begun Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, a book about his walk across Afghanistan starting in January, 2002. It’s quite absorbing, and it makes me want to go on adventures. Before this trip, he’d spent 16 months walking across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, but he’d had to skip Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to let him into the country. After the fall of the Taliban, he decided to give it another try. This is how he begins his Preface:
I’m not good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan. Perhaps I did it because it was an adventure. But it was the most interesting part of my journey across Asia.
I love that attitude, the “I’m not sure why I did it, I just wanted to” attitude. Because why do anything at all, really? In a lot of ways walking across Asia makes as much sense as anything else anybody might choose to do. So he walked across Asia because it was there and he could.
Can I tell you how much this makes me want to go off on some crazy, senseless adventure?
So far the book is very well written, very absorbing, and full of sentences like these:
It was possible that they had simply told Qasim and Abdul Haq to take me outside the city and kill me. No one would notice in the middle of a war. I felt it would be ludicrous to be killed only eight kilometers into my journey and not for the first time worried that when I was killed people would think me foolhardy.
I’ve read story after story of Stewart walking into strange villages with no idea whether he’ll be welcomed or attacked. In his previous walks, people had always taken him in, following customs of hospitality, but in Afghanistan things are not so simple — while the hospitality custom is still strong, so is fear of strangers in a country so unsettled.
Stewart briefly describes what fills his mind while he’s walking day after day. This is the only passage I’ve come across so far that talks about walking in a more theoretical way; I kind of wish he’d do it more often, but that’s not what the book is about (and if you’re interested in that subject, I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust):
Before I started, I imagined I could fill my days by composing an epic poem in my head or writing a novel about a Scottish village that would become more rooted in a single place as I kept moving. In Iran I tried earnestly to think through philosophical arguments, learn Persian vocabulary, and memorize poetry. Perhaps this is why I never felt quite at ease walking in Iran.
In Pakistan, having left the desert and entered the lush Doab of the Punjab, I stopped trying to think and instead looked at peacocks in trees and the movement of the canal water. In India, when I was walking from one pilgrimage site to another across the Himalayas, I carried the Bhagavad Gita open in my left hand and read one line at a time. In the center of Nepal, I began to count my breaths and my steps, and to recite phrases to myself, pushing thoughts away. This is the way some people meditate. I could only feel that calm for at most an hour a day. It was, however, a serenity I had not felt before. It was what I valued most about walking.
As an occasional backpacker, I’m interested in what people think about when they spend hours walking (or something similar like running or riding) — for me, sometimes get in the meditative mood Stewart describes and I agree with him that it’s one of the best things about walking.
More on this book later …