I had heard a lot about this book and I looked forward to reading it. There was a certain amount of hype building around it and the New York Times proclaims on the cover that it was "a flat-out masterpiece". Masterpiece is a much overused word these days by book and movie critics. One wishes that these people could restrain themselves sometimes.
I do not think Rory Stewart's book is a masterpiece but it certainly is a very good story. Stewart is a brilliant young writer who by the age of thirty had already been deputy governor of a province in Iraq for the Foreign Office, a fellow at Harvard, a summer tutor to Princes William and Harry, and served as an officer in the British Infantry. He speaks several languages.
One day he decided to walk across Iran, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan, a 6000 mile journey. When he reached the Afghan border he was unable to continue because of the Taliban occupation, so he leap frogged and continued his walk in India. After the American invasion and fall of the Taliban, he went back to Herat to finish the middle part of his walk, hence the title of the book.
Stewart decides to follow the same journey of the first Moghal emperor, Babur and he visits many of the same places. He has a keen interest in Afghan history and we sense his enthusiasm as searches for the Turquoise Mountain. Early on his journey, he is given a dog, a huge mastiff he names Babur, after the emperor and for most of his trek, Babur will be his only companion. It is winter, it is cold, people are not friendly, he is sick most of the time, and he must rely completely on the generosity of poor villagers for shelter and food. One wonders why he is doing this.
The author certainly cannot explain to the reader why he has undertaken such a difficult goal as Stewart himself seems to not know himself. He puts himself into dangerous situations in this unstable country over and over and must trust competing tribal leaders and illiterate guides. I think Stewart is a brilliant man but with emotional issues he never reveals. Instead of dealing with this, he marches through the snow from one barren place to another with marginal letters of introduction to keep him safe. He meets mostly ignorant and suspicious people and one bleak village is pretty much like the next. Except for some historic sites such as the isolated Minaret of Jam and the mountain Buddhas of Bamiyan, Stewart writes of the daily drudgery of finding a cold wet place to sleep for the night. For the most part he is miserable and looks like a beggar.
Yet this is still a remarkable journey because we really understand that Afghanistan is a complex, ruined country that will not be quickly fixed up by NATO troops and well meaning NGOs. There are a lot of forces at work here and Stewart does a good job of explaining it.
On thing that I do not understand is why Stewart decided to just write about this short segment of his walk in Afghanistan. Surely he could have written a bigger, and better book about the entire journey. Perhaps he plans another book. Right now he is back in Kabul, running the Turquoise Mountain Foundation that Prince Charles helped create. He obviously loves this country and cares about restoring its past. The Afghan people are lucky to have him in their presence.