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A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush Paperback – September 1, 1998
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For more than a decade following the end of World War II, Eric Newby toiled away in the British fashion industry, peddling some of the ugliest clothes on the planet. (Regarding one wafer-thin model in her runway best, he was reminded of "those flagpoles they put up in the Mall when the Queen comes home.") Fortunately, Newby reached the end his haute-couture tether in 1956. At that point, with the sort of sublime impulsiveness that's forbidden to fictional characters but endemic to real ones, he decided to visit a remote corner of Afghanistan, where no Englishman had planted his brogans for at least 50 years. What's more, he recorded his adventure in a classic narrative, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. The title, of course, is a fine example of Newby's habitual self-effacement, since his journey--which included a near-ascent of the 19,800-foot Mir Samir--was anything but short. And his book seems to furnish a missing link between the great Britannic wanderers of the Victorian era and such contemporary jungle nuts as Redmond O'Hanlon.
At times it also brings to mind Evelyn Waugh, who contributed the preface. Newby is a less acidulous writer, to be sure, and he has little interest in launching the sort of heat-seeking satiric missiles that were Waugh's specialty. Still, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is a hilarious read. The author excels at the dispiriting snapshot, capturing, say, the Afghan backwater of Fariman in two crisp sentences: "A whole gale of wind was blowing, tearing up the surface of the main street. Except for two policemen holding hands and a dog whose hind legs were paralysed it was deserted." His capsule history of Nuristan also gets in some sly digs at Britain's special relationship with the violence-prone Abdur Rahman:
Officially his subsidy had just been increased from 12,000 to 16,000 lakhs of rupees. To the British he had fully justified their selection of him as Amir of Afghanistan and, apart from the few foibles remarked by Lord Curzon, like flaying people alive who displeased him, blowing them from the mouths of cannon, or standing them up to the neck in pools of water on the summits of high mountains and letting them freeze solid, he had done nothing to which exception could be taken.Newby also surpasses Waugh--and indeed, most other travel writers--in another important respect: he's miraculously free of solipsism. Even the keenest literary voyagers tend to be, in the purest sense of the term, self-centered. But A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush includes wonderfully oblique portraits of the author's travel companion, Hugh Carless, and his wife, Wanda (who plays a starring role in such subsequent chronicles as Slowly down the Ganges). There are also dozens of brilliant cameo parts, and an indelible record of a stunning landscape. The roof of the world is, in Newby's rendering, both an absolute heaven and a low-oxygen hell. Yet the author never pretends to pit himself against a malicious Nature--his mountains are, in Frost's memorable phrase, too lofty and original to rage. Which is yet another reason to call this little masterpiece a peak performance. --James Marcus
a total success' -- New Yorker
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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.