A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

IMG One of the Folio Society’s 2011 publications, this is Eric Newby’s best known book. First published in 1958 it is an account of a journey to a remote mountainous region in the north of  Afghanistan by Newby and his companion Hugh Carless.

The Book

Printed on Abbey Wove Paper, bound in cloth blocked with an illustration of the peaks in the Hindu Kush. Within the book, the illustrations are photographs from Newby’s collection. There is an introduction by Richard Grant, and an afterword by Hugh Carless.

The Story

In 1957 Eric Newby and Hugh Carless arrange to go on an expedition to Nuristan, one of the remote areas of Afghanistan little visited by Europeans. Hugh is a young man in the British diplomatic service and Eric is a salesman in the family fashion business.

The focus of the expedition becomes an attempt to climb to the summit of Mir Samir, a previously unclimbed peak  19,880 feet tall. Hugh had made a previous attempt in 1952, but had to return 3000 feet below the peak. Prior to the journey neither Newby or Carless had much mountainering experience, but did a few days instruction in the Welsh mountains before departure.

The next part of the book chronicles the expedition, driving from Instanbul through Persia to Afghanistan, and then recruiting some locals for the trip to the Hindu Kush.

The bulk of the book follows, which is an account of the journey towards Mir Samir, the failed attempt to reach the summit, and the chance encounter the two have with Thesiger, a legendary explorer. The book concludes with Thesiger’s words as he sees Hugh and Eric blowing up a couple of airbeds “God, you must be a couple of pansies”

This is a most engaging book. Like so many great books, both fictional and nonfictional, it’s about the journey and not the destination.

During the journey in the Hindu Kush Hugh and Eric had three main local companions, Abdul Ghiyas, Shir Muhammad and Badar Khan. At times the relationships were fraught but without these intermediaries the two Englishmen would have had an impossible trip. Travelling to Nuristan meant negotiating with ethnic groups of different backgrounds and customs.

As the journey progresses there are wonderful descriptions of the country, the inhabitants, the weather, and the barriers (physical and psychological) to the goal. Some historical background is interwoven throughout. No doubt some of the descriptions of the inhabitants would be regarded as inappropriate these days, but they do anchor this book in a certain cultural context.

Throughout the book Newby portrays himself as a somewhat effete amateur. There is humour aplenty, but its of the self depreciating wry school. There is the notion of “innocents abroad” right throughout the book. This belies his real life which I’ll expand in the next section..

The Author

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was Eric Newby’s second book. The first was The Last Grain Race. Eric Newby was born in 1919 and died in 2006. During WW2 he was a member of the SBS (Special Boat Section), an elite unit. He was captured, escaped and then recaptured again during that time. None of this deering-do is alluded to in this work, but that background demonstrates his metal.

Newby wrote several other travel books, but none matched the fame of this account

Next book

Probably Rupert Brooke’s Poems. I have been putting this off, but I need to get back to those older books to maintain my focus. After that The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard. I would like to get through all the 1948 books by the end of this year!

 

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