As if the weather wasn't enough of a challenge, Stewart's choice of route was also uncompromising. Many previous travellers had avoided the remote mountain region of central Afghanistan even in summer, preferring to make a longer but less demanding detour either north or south. But Stewart went straight through the middle, following the route taken by the Emperor Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty in India.
The dangers and difficulties of the undertaking proved quite as intimidating as one would expect. They were complicated further by Stewart's acquisition of a large, elderly, toothless and semi-wild dog whom he named Babur, after the Emperor. Babur the dog, who had never previously left his village, found the journey excessively tough and kept wanting to give up, so that Stewart had to literally drag him at times. However, roles were once reversed, when Stewart, exhausted and almost delirious, lay down in a snowdrift and started to go to sleep. But Babur, after failing to rouse him, set off on his own, and this prompted Stewart to get up and follow him. It seems likely that Babur saved his life in this instance.
At all times, survival of both man and dog was dependent on the kindness and hospitality of strangers in the villages they passed, who were mostly desperately poor. But not everyone was so well-disposed; on one occasion three shots were fired at Stewart and a companion. Soon after they reached the next village they were followed by the man who had shot at them—a local commander with a large armed retinue who said that his cousin had bet him that he couldn't hit Stewart and he had wanted to win the bet. It's hardly surprising that at one point Stewart wrote a long letter to his parents in case he was killed the next day.
The centrepiece of the book, both literally and figuratively, is undoubtedly the crossing the central mountainous region known as Ghor and inhabited by the Hazara. This is much the least-visited part of the country and is wild and poor, with passes at up to 14000 feet. And yet, although largely ignored today, Ghor has an astonishing history. In the twelfth century it was the centre of a great empire.
"The Ghorids [conquered] much of Asia, from Baghdad to the east of India, and took control of the Silk Road to China." They built their enormously wealthy capital in the centre of their territory at a site known as the Turquiose Mountain, which is so inaccessible that archaeologists have been unable locate it. In its brief existence the Ghorid empire was the seat of one of the most powerful dynasties in the world, but in 1216 it was destroyed by Genghis Khan.
The Ghorids were Muslims but of an unusual kind. They built domed mosques of a different design from other mosques and also built the mysterious and impressive high tower known as the Minaret of Jam, which Stewart visited and, intrepidly, climbed. They patronised a Sufi dervish sect that went in for ecstatic dancing and may have been linked with Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian mysticism. "Their saints talked of being able to see the ultimate one-ness of God and they drowned details of religious doctrine in a transcendental fervor, seemingly intoxicated with an almost erotic love of the deity."
Ironically, the most dangerous stage of Stewart's walk came on the last day, when he was approaching Kabul. He encountered Taliban who would almost certainly have killed him had they known he was British. He had been advised to hire a car to take him through this area but he insisted on walking.
This was an astonishing journey and it is brilliantly described. Not many people would have even begun the trek, let alone have continued it to the end, but Stewart seems never to have thought of giving up. Not without reason, he has been compared with earlier travel writers in Islamic lands such as Richard Burton and Charles Doughty.
The experience left Stewart with a deep love for the country.
[The book's] aim was to record carefully the bewilderment, joy, disappointments and privilege of crossing Afghanistan [in the winter]… It was for me the end of eighteen months of solitary walking through Asia, but the beginning of a twelve-year relationship with Afghanistan.
In an afterword, Stewart criticises the failure of most Western outsiders to understand how life in Afghanistan works and he deplores Western attempts to intervene militarily in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. As I write this, the Americans have negociated a cease-fire with the Taliban in the hope that this will enable them to withdraw their forces. It will be interesting to see how this works out.