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When I borrowed the book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush from a friend I was attracted to the setting, having been fascinated by Afghanistan since 2001. I had never heard of Eric Newby and I took a long time to read this book but finally had time on my solo trip to the Middle East (you can read about it here if you are interested). From the very first page I found Newby to be an engaging narrator. He was self-effacing and funny, making me laugh out loud in several sections of the book.
Newby was born into a middle-class family in London and at the age of 16 he left school to join an advertising firm. Two years later he joined the crew of a four-masted barque, first as an apprentice, then as an ordinary seaman, sailing in the last Grain race from Australia to Europe, via Cape Horn. In WWII he joined the army and was captured and held as a POW twice. Apparently he wrote about his experiences as a POW in his book Love and War in the Apennines and said that his recapture was “a very disagreeable experience”. After the war he worked for 10 years in high fashion in London until he experienced the need to travel to the seldom visited and relentlessly rugged Hindu Kush mountains in Nuristan (now northern Afghanistan).
Newby shared this amusing conversation with his fashion colleague Hyde-Clarke over ‘luncheon’:
Newby: I saw the directors this morning
Hyde-Clarke: Oh, what did they say?
Newby: That they were keeping me on for the time being but that they make no promises for the future.
Hyde-Clarke: What did you say?
Newby: That I had just had a book accepted for publication and that I am staying on for the time being but I make no promises for the future
On the way back from ‘luncheon’ Newby went to the Post Office and sent a cable to Hugh Carless, a friend and career diplomat saying: CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE? Newby then reveals to the reader that it had taken him 10 years to realise what everyone else already knew, that he was not suited to the Fashion Industry. Newby and Carles were ridiculously ill-prepared and it’s extraordinary that they survived the arduous walk.
It was interesting to read about the journey by car, filled with concerning anecdotes, from Turkey to Kabul. The anecdotes include their near-miss of a desert nomad who was lying on the road in Turkey after being hit by another vehicle. The man soon died and they were accused of having hit him with their car and were put on trial by Turkish authorities. It was quite horrible to read about. Another time in Iran he responded to desperate wailing over a missing boy by ding into an open sewer to rescue him and it wasn’t until he had repeatedly submerged himself in the filth that he realised there wasn’t a baby in there at all and the hysteria was about a missing boy who was standing watching the whole escapade from the neighbours yard.
After reaching Kabul they set off for Panjshir Valley. Throughout their road journey they drove as fast as possible due to a tight timeline and it’s sad but amusing to read about the magical sights that Newby misses out on seeing. Fortunately for me, I recently read about a similar journey in The Road to Oxiana and from Byron’s excellent descriptions I was able to picture the sights that Newby missed. For example as they headed west from Kabul with a cook named Ghulam Naabi past the oasis of Istalif which is reputedly very beautiful.
Carless: Istalif produces pottery of a delightful blue colour.
Naabi: He who has not seen Istalif has nothing seen.
Nevertheless, true to our policy of stopping for nothing, we thundered past the road that leads to it.
In the Panjshir Valley the three men stopped to pick up a Tajik who had helped Carless on a previous journey, named Abdul Ghiyas. Ghiyas is not particularly pleased to see Carless or keen to leave his tranquil home but agrees to undertake the journey with two other drivers and three horses. Naabi leaves the party unexpectedly after being recalled by his employer to Kabul. The other 5 set off with their massive amount of equipment and supplies to walk to the summit of Mir Shamir mountain and then through Nuristan over high mountain passes. Their journey is punctuated by altitude sickness, atrocious blisters, hands stripped of skin by schist on Mir Samir, and gastric upsets that lead to dysentery. I can barely imagine the agony of walking for days on end through mountains while purging every 1/2 hour.
For me the most interesting aspect of the book were the interactions with the 3 drivers and the Nuristanis, many of whom had never seen British people. Nuristan means Land of Light and before conversion to Islam in 1895 it was called Kafiristan which means Land of Non-Believers. It is now a province of Afghanistan. There are many interesting anecdotes and some menacing moments, like when they pass a young man who is lying recently killed on the track. In more than one interaction with Nuristanis, Newby is afraid of the barely restrained violence that he senses in the men. In a gloriously improbable finale, he actually crosses paths at the end of the journey with Wilfred Thesiger the explorer and travel writer who famously crossed the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia on foot and with camels. Thesiger sounds like a hard man from the short interaction that Newby relates, for example, he is at the end of his first day of walking into Nuristan with a cook who is unsuitably dressed for Central Asia in cripping pointed brown shoes, socks supported by suspenders and no trousers. Thesiger’s interpreter is in a coma of fatigue, wearing a double-breasted lounge suit. Thesiger said:
No good bothering the interpreter… the poor fellow’s got a sty, that’s why we only did seventeen miles today. It’s no good doing too much at first, especially as he’s not feeling well
Wow, 17 miles is not too much for the first day?! Thesiger invited Newby, Carless and their drivers to stay in his camp that night and when it was time to sleep:
The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger
This is an adventure story, filled with alarming, awful and sometimes funny anecdotes and one of the most arduous journeys of the 1950’s that I’ve read about. The privilege that Newby has enjoyed in his life and his anglo-centric superiority are evident in the book and he is arrogant and rude to the local people, their customs and culture. However it is no worse than Byron in The Road to Oxiana. It should be read and understood for the period in which it was written. There were a few errors in information he gave but considering that he wrote and published it without an understanding of the geology of the mountains he climbed or the languages of the people among whom he travelled and it was before the age of the internet these are trivial and understandable.
Other Reviews with quite different viewpoints to one another: