Since my days studying English as an undergraduate, I haven’t read a lot of what could be called “classics”. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is certainly a classic of the travel literature genre, and turns up at every second-hand book stall and shop I frequent. I am of the opinion that there is no literature better than good travel writing, but truly good travel writing is hard to come by. Like many other classics, its acclaim is well deserved—it is funny, wry, and adventurous. It is also clearly the ancestor of some more recent travel writing on Afghanistan, Jason Elliot’s sublime An Unexpected Light, and Rory Stewart’s slightly looser, yet still enjoyable, The Places In Between.
What made Eric Newby—a mountaineering novice who worked in the London fashion industry—take on one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, still eludes me even after finishing this book. But it is his inexperience that provides much of the humour. His travelling companion, Hugh, is hardly much better. Faced with the realisation that they will be travelling overland to Afghanistan in several days, Eric and Hugh head to north Wales for a crash course which, at times, is as farcical as Monty Python:
“Full of boiled egg and crumpet, we clung upside down to the boulder like bluebottles, while the Doctor shouted encouragement to us from a safe distance. Occasionally one of us would fall off and land with a painful thump on the back of his head.
‘YOU MUST NOT FALL OFF. Imagine that there is a thousand-foot drop under you.’
‘I am imagining it but I still can’t stay on.’
Back at the inn we had hot baths, several pints of beer, an enormous dinner and immediately sank into a coma. For more than forty hours we had had hardly any sleep. ‘Good training,’ was Hugh’s last muffled comment.” (p. 37)
Things don’t exactly improve from here—they spend most of the time in Afghanistan sick, hungry, cold, and battling infected feet and difficult local guides. This latter difficulty seems to be caused almost entirely by cultural clash and misunderstanding. An attraction, if I can call it that, of reading non-contemporary literature is encountering those turns of phrase or episodes that one just couldn’t get away with today, yet that are told entirely sincerely:
“I started to cook. Unable to stand the thought of Irish stew, and as a revenge on our drivers for forcing us to camp in this spot, I concocted a loathsome mixture of soup and pork which I knew would be unacceptable to them on religious grounds.” (p. 209)
Showing contempt for one’s Afghan guides by cooking pork is cringeworthy, but surely a sign of the times. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was originally published in 1958, and though it has certainly dated, it is a wonderful chronicle of not only two men’s adventure, but of Afghanistan in a different era.