Review: Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”

by Jeremy Bassetti
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush Review

This review of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was prepared alongside a podcast conversation about the book with Aaron Millar. Review by Jeremy Bassetti.

In 1956, Eric Newby left his job in the British fashion industry to explore Nuristan, a remote region of Afghanistan, and to hike throughout the Hindu Kush range. He enlisted his friend Hugh Carless who suggested an attempt to summit Mir Samir, a previously-unclimbed peak. At 36 years of age, Newby had never climbed a mountain. And this is how the lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush begins. 

If the ironic and understated title alone didn’t allude to Newby’s comical approach (a “short” walk), then certainly chapter titles like “Birth of a Salesman” and “Death of a Salesman” would. The book has an “idiot abroad” feel, a travelogue of two bumbling foreigners who somehow get into awkward and improbable situations like getting hit on by a mechanic, dropping a pristine Rolex watch into a cauldron of boiling food, and, you know, attempting to climb a 6,000-meter mountain peak in the Hindu Kush.

Those looking for information on the political and cultural history of the Hindu Kush will have to wait until Chapter 7, where Newby interrupts the chapter with a curious disclaimer: “Readers who are not interested in the history and geography of Nuristan should leave off here and start again at Chapter 8.” And even here it is a scant few pages. Luckily, we have books like Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light (1999) to help fill in the gaps. But from the disclaimer on, the book takes on a different tone and improves substantially, no less because henceforth, and for the remaining twelve chapters, Newby and Carless are finally exploring Afghanistan. 

The two travelers eventually set their sights on Mir Samir, a 19,000-foot peak in the Hindu Kush range in northeastern Afghanistan. They attempt to summit it twice, nearly achieving their goal in the second attempt before retreating due to deteriorating conditions and a lack of time. It must be noted that Mir Samir was summited a few years later in 1959 by Harald Biller, his wife Bobby (who is rarely mentioned), and a few other companions.

Curiously, the famed explored Wilfred Thesiger, author of classic travel books like Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, makes an unexpected cameo in the final chapter of A Short Walk as the amateurish Newby and Carless come upon his caravan. Thesiger serves as a final counterpoint–the final foil of sorts–to illustrate how unprepared and inept Newby and Carless were throughout their journey. Indeed, Thesiger calls them “a couple of pansies” in the final line of the book for inflating their air-beds (had they been carrying air-beds this entire time?). 

But one questions Newby’s self-deprecating depiction when one looks into his background. This must be another example of Newby’s understatement, for he, like Thesiger, had an adventurous, military background. Newby had sailed from Belfast to Australia and back aboard a Finnish grain ship as World War II was about to start in Europe. During the war, he was stationed in India and in Africa, and he was twice a prisoner of war. In fact, the person that would become his wife helped him escape via horseback to the mountains in Italy, but Newby was later recaptured by the Nazis. Surely Newby wasn’t as much of a “pansy” we are led on to believe. 

Reading A Short Walk on the heels of Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, as I did, one notices a stark difference in tone. Both lean more on the travelogue side of narratives, but in my opinion, Newby’s book lacks the descriptive beauty, cultural insight, and gravitas of Thesiger’s. Indeed, one really doesn’t notice description, insight, or gravitas at all until Newby and Carless arrive at the Panjshir Valley in Chapter 8. And one wouldn’t, as they’re not even in the Hindu Kush until then. What is a tongue-in-cheek title turns into an ironic truth about the book: comprising of little more than half the book, the walk is indeed short. But, as the travel writer Edward Marriott once implied, one doesn’t read Newby for his cultural or historical insights; rather, one reads Newby for the character of Newby. And this is reason enough to read A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.

This review of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was prepared alongside a podcast conversation about the book with Aaron Millar. Review by Jeremy Bassetti.

Last Updated on 4 July 2021 by Travel Writing World

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