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600-Mile Journey in Nowhere Land

Afghanistan: Scotsman sets off on foot through some of the Earth's most forbidding terrain.

January 29, 2002|DAVID ZUCCHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HERAT, Afghanistan — For breakfast Sunday morning, Rory Stewart ate four fried eggs and a fistful of naan, the flat Afghan bread. Then he walked to the local bazaar and bought 20 tablets of the antibiotic Cipro, two dog-eared English-language books and a walking stick.

Now he was ready to walk across Afghanistan.

Stewart, an Oxford-educated Scotsman, set out Sunday afternoon on a 600-mile walk through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. He intends to hike from Herat, in western Afghanistan, to Kabul in the east, through snow and ice, past bandits and gunmen, wolves and guard dogs, famine and drought.

Stewart is fairly certain--and there are no known challengers--that he was the first tourist to enter Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime late last year. He is unquestionably the most unconventional foreigner in these parts, with his skeletal 126-pound frame and his dream of walking the path once taken by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

His journey will take him through a region abandoned by tens of thousands of hardy villagers who fled crop failures caused by a four-year drought. He will have to climb as high as 12,900 feet, along ice packs where Stewart says a Russian weather station has recorded temperatures of 40 below zero.

When Herat's warlord, Ismail Khan, heard of Stewart's plan, his bushy eyebrows shot up. Then he ordered two of his soldiers to walk with this strange Scotsman for at least part of the journey. The bodyguards joined Stewart on a dusty Herat street Sunday afternoon, toting ragged sleeping bags and looking aggrieved.

"These two chaps must have made some enemies," Stewart said.

Since abandoning a promising career in the British Foreign Service two years ago, Stewart said, he has walked across Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan and Nepal. But the ultimate challenge, he believed, was war-ravaged Afghanistan, where his mother traveled part of the same route in the 1930s, albeit in a Land Rover.

Stewart is traveling light. The only food in his backpack is a yellow container of emergency rations dropped over Afghanistan by American planes last fall. He said he plans to survive on bread and eggs provided by villagers he stays with along the way.

He carries no maps, saying he doesn't want to be accused of being a spy. He has a few pages torn from a 1977 Afghanistan guidebook, a Dari language dictionary, two pairs of socks, a single change of clothes and a sleeping bag. In addition to antibiotics, he has packed chlorine tablets for purifying water.

His two bodyguards were carrying even less. One of them, Abdul Haq, had stuffed his ammunition pouches with a carton of cigarettes, three packs of biscuits and a roll of pink toilet paper. Slung over his shoulder were a sleeping bag and an AK-47 assault rifle.

"Well," Haq said diplomatically, trudging down a dirt road in the countryside a few miles east of Herat, "we are obliged to serve this gentleman because our supreme commander has ordered us."

His fellow bodyguard, Said Qasim, had two things to say:

"It's the first time we have heard of something like this." And: "The road is not safe."

Stewart, 29, a pale, wispy fellow with long mutton chops and a faint goatee, said he knows that the route is perilous. "It would be a pity to be killed, of course," he said. "But I'm willing to take that chance."

He said his parents were horrified when he quit the Foreign Service and are now sick with worry. Borrowing a satellite telephone from a new acquaintance in Herat, Stewart consoled his mother in Scotland on Saturday night. "I'll be just fine, Mummy," he said in the most assured tone he could muster. He promised to return home to Scotland after his anticipated six-week trek in Afghanistan--walking up from the southern coast of England, of course.

On the phone from Crieff, Scotland, on Monday night, Sally Stewart confessed to a reporter that she was so terrified, she dreamed about her son the night before. "Oh, dear--why of course I'm worried," she said. "It seems rather frightening."

On the other hand, she said, young Rory comes from a long line of venturesome souls. His grandfather lived in Calcutta for half a century, and his father was a British diplomat for 50 years, serving in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Rory himself served in Indonesia and Yugoslavia.

"We have confidence that Rory won't do anything too terribly foolish," she said. "I only hope the Americans don't bomb him, like they bombed his father in Hanoi."

Informed in a separate phone call that his son had left Herat on foot Sunday, Brian Stewart replied, "Oh, he's set off, has he? Well, then."

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