A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
By Eric Newby
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
Until the recent Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie In Love and War, based on his escape from an Italian prisoner of war camp, few Americans knew of Eric Newby. But most who did likely became acquainted with him through his hilarious travel tome A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.
After a bad day at the office, the then 36-year-old London fashion salesman decides to quit his job, kiss goodbye his wife and children, and mount an ill-conceived exploration of mountainous Afghani hinterlands with an eccentric foreign service friend luxuriating in Rio.
After two days of mountain-climbing school in Wales, they drive off toward Kabul. Within weeks they find themselves scaling 19,000-foot mountains, inching up near perpendicular rock with the aid of an instruction manual.
Along the way they are accused of vehicular homicide and beset by dysentery. They endure thirst, hunger and near death on icy precipices. They insult the natives and each other.
The subsequent account of these travels and travails, now in print for some forty-five years, has influenced countless other bumbling travel writers. You can hear its echoes clearly—in concept, structure and humor—in Bill Bryson’s recent bestseller, A Walk in the Woods.
As rude as many an ugly American abroad, Newby and companion Hugh Carless angrily berate a Mullah who has just immersed their camera and packaged food in a river, and tell mocking Pathans to “____ off!” Carless cuffs a Tajik boy for purposefully leading them astray, only later to discover him the son of their chieftain host. They argue continuously with their balking Afghani packmen and between themselves.
Somehow they blunder on toward their whimsical destination, Nuristan, where no Englishman has set foot for 60 years. Facing for the first time sheer, ice-covered rock in a looming mountain, the blasé Carless remarks:
“It’s nothing but a rock climb, really.”
“I can see that.”
“Just a question of technique.”
A commodity of which they seemingly possess little.
Carless, who speaks fluent Persian, chafes Newby for his slow uptake with the language. Secretly studying a dubious language guide, Newby memorizes “basic” phrases, such as “I saw a corpse in the field.” Sadly, this phrase has occasion for use, when they discover a young traveler on the road “who has lost everything,” his skull bashed in with a rock.
Danger lurks everywhere for these unarmed and blithely confident Brits: not only crevasses and precipices but also thieves, bears, disease. Both Newby and Carless suffer from dysentery most of their hike and often go thirsty rather than drink from cool, inviting streams. Particularly after discovering the source of their contamination:
“‘You know those little huts they build over the streams,’ I said. There was one outside our house, built over the stream from which the drinking water was fetched. It was a pretty little hut; Hugh had particularly admired it. He called it a gazebo.
“‘What about them?’
“‘I’ve found out what they’re for. No wonder we’re getting worse.'”
To spin his seductive and tickling narrative, Newby employs understatement, self-effacement, savage wit, honed irony, and unrelenting honesty. The result is a web of foible, reluctant courage, stupidity, and curiosity—i.e., a human story, into which we are drawn by his endearingly flawed humanity.
At the center, however, always lies Newby’s curiosity. It impels him on his trip and keeps him trudging on despite bad food, bad water, bad weather, sleepless nights, blisters, scrapes, and threats to his life. He gives precise, detailed descriptions of the landscape, flora and fauna—including the human animal: the Tajiks, Pathans, Kafirs, Rajputs, and others he encounters along the way. As when, at night, he enters a desolate Afghani town:
“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.”
But A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is by no means a trifle, all laughs and landscape. Newby also recounts Afghan history, now made even more pertinent by the war there. Such as the 1895 forced conversion of tribal pantheists to Islam—this done with the swords of Abdur Rahman’s armies. Further, if one wanted to get an intimate picture of tribal life in Afghanistan before the onslaught of war two decades ago, this would be an excellent place to start.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush launched Newby on a career as one of Britain’s best and best-read travel writers. Now, as an octogenarian, he is gaining the same well-deserved notoriety here in America.