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The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

The Places In Between (original 2006; edition 2005)

by Rory Stewart

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1,754634,023 (3.85)70
Title:The Places In Between
Authors:Rory Stewart
Info:Picador (2005), Edition: 2, Paperback, 324 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:borrowed, reading group, non-fiction, travel, walking, Afghanistan, 2000s, dog

Work details

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart (2006)

  1. 00
    The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (rakerman)
    rakerman: Both The Road to Oxiana and The Places In Between are very personal explorations of the people and the places encountered. Oxiana covers travels in Persia and Afghanistan in 1933, while The Places In Between is a walk across Afghanistan in 2002. Both writers are keen observers of a region little-known to most of the west.… (more)
  2. 00
    A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby (Othemts)
  3. 00
    Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy (Othemts)
  4. 00
    The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth (Othemts)
  5. 11
    Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson (cransell)
    cransell: Mortenson's story heads in a different direction than Stewart's, but the are both memoirs dealing with the same region and the affect their experiences had on them.

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This is a travelogue of Rory Stewart’s walk across the centre of Afghanistan in 2002. I have travelled to some of the places that Stewart walked to, but I didn’t go on foot, or in the middle of winter or when the country was virtually still at war. Stewart’s walk was an epic and dangerous journey in a country that is backward, war torn and intensely tribal and he captures perfectly the hardships, the surprises and the mind numbing confusion in a populace whose hard lives got harder when the Russians invaded and then the Taliban insurgency and fall.

Stewart says that the only brand name in most of the country that he slogged through was Islam. There was no electricity, no T shirts and no coca-cola and people were deeply suspicious and sometimes hostile to strangers. Most villages were a collection of mud huts, a mosque, perhaps an old fort or caravanserai with very few if any cement buildings. Meat was unobtainable in many parts and Stewart had to rely on the Moslem religions edict that travellers should be welcomed as guests for any food and lodging that they might have. The walk turned out to be an endurance test and Stewart was under no illusions when he started. Previous travelling experience had taught him the essentials for survival in such a terrain. He always sought letters of introduction or a name of the headman of the next village, he sought out local knowledge and had the seasoned travellers sense of knowing when he was in danger. He could speak the lingua franca of Dari well enough to make himself understood and knew enough about the culture not to cause too great an offence, without these skills it would have been difficult for him to survive and even with them he needed to be lucky on occasions.

Walking in mountainous country in winter and climbing passes of between 8000-10000ft is very hard going. Snow drifts were up to his chest at times and he was mostly cold and wet. He needed all his will power to keep going especially when he was underfed and ill with dysentery. Sometimes it almost got too much for him, but the freedom of the walking, the sense of achievement, and of being alone in the landscape kept him going. He always had it in mind to get to the next place and as readers we enjoy the thrill of the getting there (from the safety of our armchairs perhaps). Occasionally the frustrations seep through into his writing, but it is not typical of him, here is such a paragraph:

Perhaps because I was sick, I was often irritated by villagers and village hospitality. On the fourteenth day, when I came off the snow plains after five hours walking and turned into a village hoping to get lunch, I was left standing in the snow with my pack on my back for half an hour while the headman decided to speak to me and another villager told me I would never make it to Barra Khana by dark. Finally I shouted “Right, thats it. If there is no welcome here, I’m off to Bara Khana now” and began to walk away. Only then did the headman invite me in and give me some dry bread. After the meal I found a gully, a necessity with Diarrhea, and half the village followed to watch me defecate. Back in the village, the headman’s son asked if he could try my camera and proceeded to finish the roll of film by pointing the lens to the ground and clicking again and again. I now had only one roll to see me to Kabul. I was angry for the rest of the day. That night I dreamed I was buying a plane ticket to Venice.

Although Stewart focuses his journey on the current situation in Afghanistan (there are few history lessons here) he does delight in following in the footsteps of the Emperor Babur who made the journey in the 16th century. Stewart includes extracts from Babur’s diary, which make it sound like little has changed since medieval times, which is probably not far from the truth. This is a fascinating juxtaposition and gives Stewart’s rumination on the current situation an added dimension. Stewart wanted to travel alone, but when he started out from Herat he was forced to accept two of the current warlords (Commandant Haji Mohsin Khan) men who were suspicious of his intentions. These men were often more of a hindrance and Stewart was never in control of their actions, fortunately they were only charged to follow him while he was walking through Khan’s territory. The real problem for Stewart was convincing people that he was just walking through the country, hardly anyone believed him because it was beyond their comprehension, as it may be to many readers of this book. Stewart encountered another problem when one of the village headman presented him with a very large dog (a fighting dog) which caused many villagers to set their own dogs on the pair (stone throwing children were a particular menace), however once Stewart named his dog Babur he forged a bond between them which kept both of them going until the end.

Stewart is critical of the aid agencies and foreign intervention advisers who try and solve problems from the top down, without spending time to understand the culture. Afghanistan is a tribal country, barely out of its feudalistic past and it is a Moslem country and until these two basic facts are understood and worked through, intervention will only make things worse. It was also a country when Stewart was there which had until two months previously been under the yoke of the Taliban and it was never easy to discover where the Taliban still held sway. A wrong word said in ignorance in one of the guest rooms could have been fatal. The Taliban committed atrocities especially in the central eastern area of the Country, which was populated by the Hazara’s and there is an intense feeling of desperation as Stewart walks through burnt out villages and decimated lands.

From my own experience of travelling I can admire the fortitude and honesty in Stewarts account. He tells it like it is and creates an atmosphere that will thrill the most hardened armchair traveller. A four star read. ( )
9 vote baswood | Sep 26, 2015 |
Fascinating look at Afghanistan in the months after the fall of the Taliban. At times I wished he was a Nat Geo reporter for more context on where he was, at other times I wished for a news reporter to find out what happened to the people he meets in the years ahead. But he does offer a look into the lives of real Afghans and what you can learn about yourself by going way out of your comfort zone. ( )
  bhutton | Dec 9, 2014 |
It took some time to read and that made it feel like I was on his long journey with him. I learned much more about Afghanistan than I ever learned from the news and it was all very fascinating. Well worth the time it took.
  amyem58 | Jul 16, 2014 |
Rory Stewart describes his crossing on foot through ice and snow the Afghanistan Mountains from Herat to Kabul in January 2002. In his walk he followed the steps of the 16th century Mughal emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur. R.S. speaks Dari (Fārsi), the most widely spoken Persian language in Afghanistan. The hospitality of the people – a sacred duty towards travellers - is remarkable. As guest in village houses he was offered by people, mostly extremely poor, to share their little food and a place to sleep. – But why does he impose himself on them knowing full well that they would not accept any money? His motives for undertaking this dangerous journey never become quite clear. – Thus he gained a unique inside into these diverse communities of different allegiances often having fought against each other. Although alone and a stranger and guns everywhere, he says he was never threatened to be kidnapped or killed. In his account he uses a sparse language which I like. The landscape, the people and their ancient history come alive. All this was new to me. Despite not being a great friend of travel-writing, this book kept me fascinated from the first page. (VII-14) ( )
  MeisterPfriem | Jul 15, 2014 |
Listened to audiobook narrated by Rory Stewart - he seemed bored - I was also bored, forced myself to see it through to the end. Interesting topic, interesting tidbits but overall a huge disappointment. ( )
  Dlouria | Jul 27, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156031566, Paperback)

In January 2002 Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan-surviving by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers. By day he passed through mountains covered in nine feet of snow, hamlets burned and emptied by the Taliban, and communities thriving amid the remains of medieval civilizations. By night he slept on villagers' floors, shared their meals, and listened to their stories of the recent and ancient past. Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion-a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan's first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following.

Through these encounters-by turns touching, con-founding, surprising, and funny-Stewart makes tangible the forces of tradition, ideology, and allegiance that shape life in the map's countless places in between.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:37 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Traces the author's 2002 journey by foot across Afghanistan, during which he survived the harsh elements through the kindness of tribal elders, teen soldiers, Taliban commanders, and foreign-aid workers whose stories he collected along his way.

(summary from another edition)

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