I decided to include a post on the renowned diplomat, long-distance walker and former Deputy Governor in Iraq, Rory Stewart, as I’d just finished re-reading his great book The Places in Between. He’s a fascinating character with an interesting background and if a man deserves a wider audience then it is he. I recommend his book, heartily, and if you do read it I hope you get as much enjoyment from it as I did.
Rory Stewart is a Tory MP for Penrith and the Border and a former diplomat who has an unusual background. He is a supreme long-distance walker and wiki informs us that ‘from 2000 to 2002 he made a series of treks in rural districts of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey totalling around 6000 miles, during which time he stayed in five hundred different village houses’ . He walked across Afghanistan in January 2002 just as the post-9/11 Allied bombing of Afghanistan began. He covered the distance entirely on foot following the route taken by the Mongol Emperor Babur the Great. In extremely hostile conditions and at high altitude Stewart survived by living off the generosity of the Afghan people to shelter and feed him. When he sat down to write ‘The Places In Between’ he dedicated the book to ‘…the people of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal…never in twenty-one months of travel did they attempt to kidnap or kill me.’ His dedication gives you an idea of the hazards he faced and the tight prose chronicles his every misfortune, scrape and slice of good fortune. No doubt, the film will be in production soon as it is rumoured that Brad Pitt has bought the film option and was in the process of casting. We shall see.
So why walk? And why walk such long distances, day after day? Well, a long-distance walk gives an individual time to think and the space to let the imagination reign freely; it gives you time to reflect upon your life or to contemplate the meaning of human existence or to merely escape from the everyday and the mundane. With so much time to ruminate long walks can evoke new ideas or change an individuals perspective on the world. A long walk gives you plenty of miles to free the clutter and see the world clearly. Rory Stewart put it slightly more eloquently:
‘I felt quite detached from the landscape. I wondered how I might connect my Afghan walk to my walks in Iran and Pakistan… I redesigned a journey around the world, which would finish where I began in Turkey.
I thought about evolutionary historians who felt that walking was a central part of what it means to be human. Our two-legged motion was what first differentiated us from the apes. It freed our hands for tools and carried us on the long marches out of out of Africa. As a species we colonised the world on foot. Most of human history was created through contacts conducted at walking pace, even when some rode horses. I thought of the pilgrimages to Compostella in Spain; to Mecca; to the source of the Ganges; and of wandering dervishes, sadhus and friars who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the lakes.
Bruce Chatwin, who was very interested in these things, concluded from all of this that we would think and live better and be closer to our purposes as humans if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth. I was not certain that I was living or thinking any better.
Before I started, I had imagined that I could fill my days by composing an epic poem in my head or write a novel set in a Scottish village which 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 memorise 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 the movement of the canal water and peacocks in the trees. In India, when I was walking from one pilgrimage site to another across the Himalayas, I carried the Baghvad Ghita open in my left hand and read a line at a time. In the centre of Nepal I began to count my breaths and my steps, reciting phrases to myself, pushing thoughts away. This is the way in which some people meditate. I could only feel this calm for at most an hour a day. It was , however, a serenity that I had not felt before. It was what I valued most about walking.’
Rory Stewart The Places in Between (2004)