Customer Reviews: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
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on January 6, 2000
They don't come sweeter than this. Facing middle age, Eric Newby abandons his chosen career as a fashion wholesaler to embark on a whimsical journey to remotest Afghanistan to attempt a mighty peak that has never been climbed. His companion, an old friend, knows as much about high-altitude (or ANY) climbing as he does: not a skerrick. They are almost parodies of a vanished England - absurdly brave, amateurish and uncomplaining; Newby's account of their scratchings up airy ice-walls will have the sweat springing from your palms. Along the way we get a rich insight into the rare mountain societies of one of the most mysterious nations on earth, but it is Newby's character itself that makes this book such a joy. Self-mocking, his courage entirely inferred, Newby's modesty holds until the final hilarious, appalling line. We may not want to go climbing with him, but we'd welcome his company on any journey. In fact, Newby's courage was always a key to his personality. His teenage years were spent as a high-rigging sailor on grain ships in the Southern Ocean. In World War Two he was a commando with the Special Boat Squadron. His capture, escape, and life on the run is memorably recounted in another of his classics "Love and War in the Appennines." But for me, "A Short Walk.." remains his most charming, exciting and extraordinary book.
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on September 11, 2002
Quintessentially English bit of travel, with the ambitious idea of climbing Mir Samir in Afghanistan, but ostensibly to visit Nuristan next door. The English bit comes into play when you discover that Newby isn't a mountain climber, nor is his traveling friend. They "practice" for four days in Wales before embarking.
This is the type of travel literature I favor. A trip, yes, with its attendant hazards and foibles, but also a story about the travelers, why they travel and the people they meet. So far, I can sense a "difference" in travel writing, easily two categories now, but possibly many others. This book would join with Seth & O'Hanlon as a "Hardship Trip"--a journey filled in pain and danger. Salzman and Mayle are "Sedentary Travelers." They both got to the place, then stuck around and observed the things that happened around them. This book also has one of the best last lines I've read in quite a while. I can't quote it, because not only would it ruin the line for you in case you choose to read this book yourself, but also because it is necessary to sit through the 180 or so pages that go before to fully appreciate the irony of it.
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on January 3, 1999
In A Short Walk, Eric Newby and companions manage to do everything wrong in order to climb a remote mountain in the Hindu Kush, which happens to be located in Afghanistan. But that's only the best part. The trip starts with a climbing trip to Ben Nevis where the would be climbers are given a pamphlet on how to climb in ice and snow, which is their only introduction to high climbing. They drive a car from Britain to Afghanistan and manage to do everything wrong in a very earnest and english way. Their death defying attempt to climb the mountain has the best of intentions, the worst training and some rather dodgy gear. A brilliant travel story and a excellent guide on how not to climb mountains!!!
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on January 2, 2002
I'm sure that this book had a different impact upon me than on readers who picked it up before the attacks of September 11 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan. After having my head filled with heavily-slanted news profiles of places like Kabul and Jalalabad and the people of this part of central Asia, it was extremely refreshing to lose myself in Eric Newby's impressions of the land, the people and the history. Newby was not an expert or scholar - and this layman's perspective may be precisely why I found the book so interesting. Of course, I also agree with the previous reviewers who enjoyed the story of Newby and Carless' somewhat foolhardy travels. But I also recommend this book to anyone who wants to add to his or her understanding of this region.
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In the late 1950s Eric Newby, who had been living an overly civilized and unfulfilling life in London's women's fashion industry, was lured by a friend into hiking the Hindu Kush, some of the most rugged terrain on the planet. The trip regularly involved scaling mountains that measure in thousands of meters, and was fraught with surprise, high adventure, peril, and no amount of suffering from inexplicable climate changes and shoes that never quite worked as advertised. Despite this reader's expectations of a grim tale of machismo and derring-do, Newby's narrative, though consummately British, turns out to be understated, dry, self-effacing, and very, very funny without really trying to be. Newby's crew typically hiked into one mountain trading pass or river village after another, encountering denizens who varied widely and violently in language, religion and economic practices though only a few miles apart as the crow flies. This reminded me that Afghanistan, though all one color on the map, is a nation not easily conquered--not really a nation at all, as one invading empire after another has learned to its chagrin. A SHORT WALK IN THE HINDU KUSH is a wonderful travel book, very enjoyable to read, with a significance even Newby may not have intended.
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... or in the Hindu Kush of today.

The subject line is a classic one that flashes across the TV screen when professional stunt-persons are engaged in a particularly dangerous activity, and the show's producers want to protect themselves from lawsuits from an outrageously ill-prepared amateur sitting at home who goes out and attempts the same dangerous activity. This is a delightful story of two outrageously ill-prepared amateurs, Eric Newby and Hugh Carless, impulsively pursuing a whim, and not only living to tell the tale, but providing this very well-written account of same.

The year was 1956. Both men were in their mid-30's. Both had survived the Second World War (Newby as a prisoner for three years). Newby was working in the family business, in the "rag-trade," that is, high fashion clothing for women. Newby needs OUT, and cables his friend, asking if he'd be interested in going to one of the more remote spots on earth, Nuristan, in northeastern Afghanistan, and climb a mountain. He receives a positive response, and the adventure of a lifetime - well, not really, seems like Newby in particular had several others - commenced.

Though neither were the wimps that Wilfred Thesiger, who used a more politically incorrect word, would accuse them of being when they had a chance meeting in Afghanistan, still, neither had ever done any technical climbing (that is, with ropes, karabiners, et al.). (This is the same Thesiger who twice crossed the Rub Al Khali of the Arabian peninsula, and would live with the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq for a couple of years). Carless and Newby set off for Wales to learn the skills of mountaineering... "belaying" and all... in a couple of days! That would be their total training. They then drove to Afghanistan, across Europe, and taking a (familiar to me) overland route through Turkey and Iran, and on to Kabul. Carless was in the British diplomatic service, with his next posting in Tehran. Time was limited, so they never had enough to "smell the roses." He had been in this area of Afghanistan before, and surveyed much of the territory. They drove north from Kabul, and were soon in Panjshir Valley, walking, with horses and Afghani guides.

Newby writes well. He is fully knowledgeable with the names of the flora and fauna. He lovingly describes the landscape (if Newby's words are not enough, I highly recommend some of the books of photography, produced by a French couple, Roland and Sabrina Michaud including Afghanistan and Caravans to Tartary who were there an approximately the same time). Newby's style is well-executed British understatement, as suggested by the title. (Hindu Kush means "Hindu killer," purportedly because so many low-land Hindus who were captured by Mongol raiders, to be taken to the slave markets of central Asia, died in these mountains.)

Neither Carless nor Newby had ever climbed on ice or snow before, but they attempt to climb Mir Samir, which is 19,880 ft. The Afghani guides, who did not accompany them on the climb, never thought they'd see them again. At times, they are literally reading the how-to manual as they climb. How many times they could have died... but it truly was a case of "beginners luck", as well as some understated British fortitude.

In the last third of the book they make it into Nuristan (which means country of light), and was renamed from "Kafirstan", (country of unbelievers) after their mass conversion - at the point of the sword - at the end of the 19th century.

There is an introduction by Evelyn Waugh who wryly notes: "For more than two hundred years now Englishmen have been wandering about the world for their amusement, suspect everywhere as government agents, to the great embarrassment of our officials." On a whim and a lark, "because it was there" motivation, a wonderful impulsive journey well-told. 5-stars.
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on January 16, 2012
It seems like it took me an awfully long time to get through such a short book. I think it was just his writing style and the way he included detail about certain things I wasn't so interested in, such as mountain climbing technicalities.
However, I did enjoy the book and stuck with it because I wanted to know what it was like in this part of the world in the 1950s as compared to the present.

In 1956, the author quit his job in the haute couture industry and trekked with a friend through a region called Nuristan, in the extreme NE part of Afghanistan. They attempted, with virtually no climbing experience, to climb a very challenging peak called Mir Samir.

Along the way they had a great variety of adventures and experiences, not all of them pleasant. They met and traveled with people from many tribal backgrounds and learned much about local customs and traditions, some quite bizarre.
I especially enjoyed reading about some of the small villages they passed through that were practically idyllic at that time and are probably rubble today.

The book definitely has its humorous moments. He quotes from his Bashgali(Kafir) phrasebook, which turned out to be of questionable usefulness.
The funniest phrase: "A lammergeier came down from the sky and took off my cock." (Meaning rooster, not the other kind!)
Can't help wondering when a tourist might have need of that one.

At the conclusion of the trek, the author wrote:

"I had the sensation of emerging from a country that would continue to exist more or less unchanged whatever disasters overtook the rest of mankind."
He couldn't have known how wrong he would turn out to be about Afghanistan.
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on September 25, 2001
Eric Newby's account of his trip to the Hindu Kush is a book both daunting and delightful. He makes light of the incompetence and ignorance of both himself and his companion in the realm of climbing and exploring. Yet what they achieve is nothing short of remarkable, given their level of ignorance. Perhaps a more experienced team would have sensibly given up in the face of hunger, illness and cold. Messrs. Newby and Carless soldier on and the account, understandably slightly incoherent, is both funny, self-deprecating and very, very readable. Their account of a chance meeting with the famous explorer Wilfred Thesiger is recounted, far less humorously, by the great man in one of his recent books.
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on December 20, 2004
This is a great travel book through part of Afganistan in the mid-1950's. Newby writes in a dry and witty style which I found perfect. It's not condecending or superior or too trite or "cute". It's only about 260 pages and that's a pity as I would of loved it being twice as long. I first came across it as an unabridged recording on 8 cassettes - it was a magnificent reading of it and it become a favourite of mine from the first. If you find or buy the recording (I think only one recording of it was ever made) then get it as it's well worth the price - but you might have to try the UK edition of this web site for it. Please ignore the one poor review listed here - this is a wonderful book. It's the sort of book I would like to write myself!
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on August 11, 2008
Ok, I have read the reviews about this book, most of which have "got it" and some of whom have not. Firstly get a map or even better a globe (a kind of round map) and see just how far London (England) is from Afghanistan. Now try and imagine driving there in a family car, not one of those road going ocean liners known I believe as "SUV's", through countries, some of which are considered too dangerous for westerners to enter.

Remember that even at the time of writing, Britain was still recovering from the effects of WW2, indeed rationing continued until 1954, and those who had the money to travel might have considered a trip by train to Blackpool (a seaside resort in the north-west of England) quite an adventure. So the idea of on a whim jumping into the family jalopy and driving 2/3 of the way around the world might be considered a tad eccentric. The 2 adventurers are total amateurs, if I remember rightly; they are stuck on a glacier half way up the mountain, and have to refer to their mountain climbing textbook on how to get off it!

Imagine 2 gentlemen after having a couple of gliding lessons deciding to build a rocket in their back garden and go into space? That's the sort of order of magnitude of adventure that Newby and Carless embarked on. Also one has to bear in mind that in the 50's, Afghanistan was to all intents and purposes cut off from the "modern" world and quite literally the back of beyond.

As a Brit, I am aware of the issues of our colonial past, but I still retain a soft spot for the pith helmeted "gentleman adventurer", the sort of people who in the 20's might have climber Everest but turned back when they couldn't get the grand piano and rowing boat past the 5th base camp at 27,000 ft.

It's hard to describe in these days of Google earth how large the world was in those days. Its been many years since I read this book, and I am writing this review because I have loaned it to a friend who is going to Kathmandu for a wedding and wanted to give to her a book to read on the plane that would make her laugh.

This book is unlikely, and funny, and I feel the world is a little sadder for the loss of the generation of men who could attempt such whimsy.
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