Book: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Newby’s work is on everybody’s list of travel literature not to be missed. I read a 1999 edition of the book, and the link here takes you to a Lonely Planet reprint. The original 1973 edition is out of print. Newby also wins praise for the book, Love and War in the Apennines, about his war time experience in Italy.
The self-effacing Newby tells his story in the framework of a humble ill-prepared would-be adventurer (himself) who joins a much more experienced friend in an exploration of northern Afghanistan. During the trek described in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1973), they will be following the path of Alexander the Great, and they will see reminders of Tamerlane’s journey through the same mountain passes. This expedition takes place in the late 1950’s when very few outsiders had ventured into the area and relative peace prevailed, except for age-old grudges between tribes and cold war nervousness. Today, Al Qaeda hides in this rough country which still cannot be reached by motor roads.
Newby and his friend Hugh, who turns out not to have the great expertise Newby thought he possessed, survive the fool-hardy adventure by sheer stiff-upper-lip fortitude. One of the joys of the book is the subtle unmasking of Hugh, the alleged expert in expeditions, and the wry repartee between the two friends.
Being products of the British education system, they bring a knowledge of history and more than average language fluency to the task. Living as they do at the tail end of England’s glory days as master of a far-flung Empire, they have a sense of built-in superiority over other races and cultures. Their attitude toward the natives reeks of a kind of master-slave sensibility.
The British traditions of forbearance of hardship, however, keep them going as they sleep on bare, rocky ground, endure meals of packaged Irish stew and helpings of jam, and constantly suffer from dysentery that forces them to duck behind the nearest rock. They sustain the hardship, knowing they are going where few have gone before and seeing amazing landscapes and interesting cultures.
Newby supplements the narrative with diversion of history–both of the native people and of explorers who trekked this way before. He reproduces dialogue and captures word pictures of the passing scenes.
With Afghanistan once again at the top of American attention and our generally abysmal ignorance of geography, this book provides useful background. If, on the other hand, you are of the opinion that people who try to climb up sheer rock walls for fun have a screw loose, you probably should read something else.
Photograph by Alan Cordova, from Flickr, Creative Commons license
By the way, what book do you think these explorers took along to read (and re-read many times, it turned out)? The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. Which brings up an interesting question. If you were venturing into the unknown, what would you take along to read?