A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
In an effort to get more variety into our reading, we’ve started a subject cycle. We pick a topic to research, then next month everyone comes with a suggestion or two on that subject and we whittle them down to a handful to draw a title from to read and discuss the month after that.
This time the subject was ‘travel’. I suggested Simon Armitage’s Walking Home/Walking Away but it was Eric Newby’s classic adventure that was drawn from the hat, which was one of those books that everyone has heard of due to its title but few have read in recent years.
In 1956, Newby was working as a salesman in the fashion trade in London (which he would write about in his memoir Something Wholesale – in my TBR), but was considering his future having had a book accepted for publication and fancied an expedition of some sort. He goes to the pub with his colleague Hyde-Clark:
On the way back from ‘luncheon’, while Hyde-Clark bought some Scotch ribs in a fashionable butcher’s shop, I went into the Post Office in Mount Street and sent a cable to Hugh Carless, a friend of mine at the British Embassy, Rio de Janeiro.
CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?
It had taken me ten years to discover what everyone connected with it had been telling me all along, that the Fashion Industry was not for me.
Nuristan, which used to be known as Kafiristan, is a province of Afghanistan to the NE of Kabul and borders with northern Pakistan, surrounded by the Hindu-Kush mountains. Few westerners have travelled there – and Carless tells Newby that no Englishman had been there since 1891! Carless also advised that they should officially make their expedition a ‘climbing’ one rather than exploring Nuristan so they can get the necessary permissions. “He [Carless] was already deeply involved in the cliches of mountaineering jargon.” A list of the equipment needed follows. Newby’s wife Wanda is of the opinion, “I think he’s insane,” she said, “just dotty.”
It turns out that Carless talks good mountaineering, but doesn’t exactly have much experience, Newby even less. They learn the ropes, so to speak, from a couple of expert girl climbers in Wales before the trip.
As we were leaving for London, Judith gave me a little pamphlet costing sixpence. It showed, with the aid of pictures, the right and wrong ways of climbing a mountain.
“We haven’t been able to teach you anything about show and ice,” she said, “but this shows you how to do it. If you find anything on the journey with snow on it, I should climb it if you get the chance.”
“I wish we were coming with you,” she added, “to keep you out of trouble.”
“So do we,” we said, and we really meant it.
Eleven days later Newby and Wanda arrive in Istanbul where Carless will join them. Wanda will leave them in Tehran, but not before they almost get thrown in jail for murder! They come across the victim of a hit and run, and they are the ones arrested and initially not believed. They are only released because “M.Carless was gentlemanly in this thing.” Then they hire Tajik guides and horses and the expedition proper can begin…
Soon they’re trekking through the Panjshir Valley and Newby takes time to give us a picture of a kind of rural idyll which they are invading:
In the fields the harvest was far advanced; whole families worked happily together threshing the wheat, the chaff rising on the wind in ragged clouds; children in charge of the bullocks which plodded blindfolded round and round the threshing floor; men in waistcoats worn over white shirts, and wide trousers, wearing on their heads turbans of black or white or bay blue; girls beautiful but unforthcoming, drawing their head cloths tightly across their faces and turning their backs as we approached in such a manner that we began to feel ourselves the vanguard of a whole cohort of sexual maniacs come to this paradise to violate and destroy. Perhaps one of the most disagreeable features of fanatic Islam is its ability to make people of other faiths feel impure in thought, word and deed.
Our group would have liked much more about all the people they met along the way – and rather less about Newby’s dysentery and Stoic lack of concern about the state of his feet in his not properly worn-in boots, (that they didn’t appear to end up infected was a miracle). They did do some mountain climbing, but didn’t make the summit of their chosen peak, Mir Samir. Choosing not to try again they carry on exploring until it’s time to head for Kabul again and thence homeward bound.
We all suspected that the story had been cleaned up a little for publication, for Newby and Carless definitely come across as gentlemen explorers and their expedition is told with good humour. Apart from the brief glimpses as above, we didn’t feel that we got to experience the country and its people. This book was more about them and showed in particular how ill-prepared they were – if in doubt, eat jam!
In the latest edition of the book – published for the 60th anniversary of the expedition, Carless adds an epilogue. He tells us how he and Newby met and about the success of the book, which opened doors. He says:
Looking back on our journey into the Hindu Kush in 1956 my reflections centre on the good fortune we enjoyed. Afghanistan was then cocooned in a rare period of peace and stability which lasted for some forty years until roughly 1973.
They were undoubtedly lucky, and fortunate in their choice of guide. In the final chapter they encounter the veteran explorer Wilfred Thesiger who puts them in their place with an hilarious last line – which I shall leave for you to discover by yourselves.
This travelogue was very easy to read and Newby is a good companion for the armchair traveller. (8/10)
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Source: Own copy