A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

I have just finished reading the most amazing book. The title says it all. You just don’t do a short walk in the Hindu Kush. It is the most arduous climb of several days interspersed with dysentery, fever, falls on stony spikes of limbs bruised and raw and of terrifying near death experiences on cliffs while children and old men hop along from rock to rock in bare feet, mocking the climbers. A foreign office wallah and a London tailor with no prior experience of mountain climbing undertake the expedition and they abandon the climb just 700 feet short of the 19,500 feet of the climb, utterly exhausted. No one, but no one can write such a funny and knowledgeable book about failure to climb a mountain. It took a British man, a special British man called Eric Newby to do so. He is not even the Eric Newby the famous travel writer. He is a London tailor who set out to write of his experiences. And thank goodness! What a writer.

I am no book reviewer and I do not possess the vocabulary necessary to write of such things. I can only push through this screen my sheer enthusiasm for the book. What Newby is good at is watching people and characters and making word pictures of them so accurate and so funny that the style alone keeps you reading. He masters the art of British understatement  to perfection and makes it a true virtue in describing his travails. The title he has chosen is an example of this man’s “cool”.

My copy of the book is battered and baked. I have hauled it through two topical countries and underlined almost every page with a heavy drawing pencil. That’s how much I like it. All I can do in this post is to give passages from the book to give you a flavour of what I am seeing in it. Maybe it is me. Being a sedentary unadventurous type maybe I am hooked on the efforts of others who climb mountains!

Anyhow, I cannot help quoting extensively from the book to give you a flavour of it. First let me introduce you to Mr.Evelyn Waugh, another great stylist and intrepid Englishman who praises the book and the author in his preface:

It rejoices the heart of fellow Englishmen, and should at least illuminate those who have any curiosity about the odd character of our Kingdom. It exemplifies the essential traditional (some, not I, will say deplorable) amateurism of the English. For more than two hundred years now Englishmen have been wandering about the world for their amusement, suspect everywhere as government agents, to the great embarrassment of our officials. The Scotch endured great hardships in the cause of commerce; the French in the cause of either power or evangelism. The English only have half (and wholly) killed themselves in order to get away from England. Mr Newby is the latest, but, I pray, not the last, of a whimsical tradition. And in his writing he has all the marks of his not entirely absurd antecedents. The understatement, the self-ridicule, the delight in the foreignness of foreigners, the complete denial of any attempt to enlist the sympathies of his readers in the hardships he has capriciously invited; finally in his formal self-effacement in the presence of the specialist (with the essential reserve of unexpressed self-respect) which concludes, almost too abruptly, this beguiling narrative – in all these qualities Mr Newby has delighted the heart of a man whose travelling days are done and who sees, all too often, his countrymen represented abroad by other, new and (dammit) lower types.
Dear reader, if you have any softness left for the idiosyncrasies of our rough island race, fall to and enjoy this characteristic artifact.

It does not stop there. The travelers encounter Wilfred Thesiger the great 20th century traveler who crossed the dreaded Empty Quarter in Arabia twice. I have read of his exploits and was in love with him, though I must be careful how I say it. Thesiger was addicted to Arab boys and always took with him a couple for his amusement. But that is to come latter. Let us sample some of the descriptions of his surroundings that Newby makes. To the uninformed observer all mountains look grey and stark with toppings of snow. Here is Newby’s description of the of what faced him close up:

“We were in an impressive and beautiful situation on a rocky plateau. It was too high for grass, there was very little earth and the place was littered with boulders, but the whole plateau was covered with a thick carpet of mauve primulas. There were countless thousands of them, delicate flowers on thick green stems. Before us was the brilliant green lake, a quarter of a mile long, and in the shallows and in the streams that spilled over from it the primulas grew in clumps and perfect circles. The lake water came from the glacier of which Hugh had spoken; we were in fact in the ‘dead ground’ that I had been trying hard to visualize during our telescope reconnaissance. From the rock wall that was our immediate destination, the glacier rolled down towards us from the east (to be accurate E.N.E.) like a tidal wave, stopping short a mile from where we were in a confusion of moraine rocks thrown up by its own movement, like gigantic shingle thrown up by the sea. The cliff at the head which divided it, according to Hugh, from a similar larger glacier flowing down in the opposite direction, looked at this distance, about two miles, like the Great Wall of China ; while above it, like a colossal peak in the Dolomites but based at a far higher altitude, the mountain itself zoomed straight up into the air to its first bastion, the pinnacle of the north-west buttress. Above the buttress there was a dip, then a second ridge climbing to another pinnacle, twin to the first, then another ridge that seemed to lead to the summit itself. The cliff joined the buttress low down on its sheer face. Vast slopes of snow or ice (in my untutored state there was no way of knowing the difference) reached high up its sides. To more skilful operators they might have offered an easy beginning; no one could have found the rock above anything but daunting. For some time we considered our task in silence.
‘It’s nothing but a rock, climb, really.’
‘I can see that.’
‘Just a question of technique.’
‘What I don’t see is, how do we get on to it.’
‘That’s what we’ve got to find out.’

Here is the point where they give up the climb. After what they have gone through it is a great tragedy but they take it in true Englishman’s style. That great sportsmanship again!

“‘The only alternative is to sleep on the ridge. We haven’t got any sleeping-bags. I’m afraid we wouldn’t last out. We can try if you like.’
For a moment we were dotty enough to consider going on. It was a terrific temptation: we were only 700 feet below the summit. Then we decided to give up. Both of us were nearly in tears. Sadly we ate our nougat and drank our cold coffee. The descent was terrible. With the stimulus of the summit gone, we suddenly realized how tired we were. But, although our strength and morale were ebbing, we both agreed to take every possible precaution. There was no mountain rescue service on this mountain. If anything happened to one of us, a bad sprain would be enough, it would be the end for both. As we went down I found myself mumbling to myself again and again, ‘One man’s death diminishes mee, one man’s death diminishes mee.’ Yet, though we were exhausted, we felt an immense sense of companionship. At this difficult moment the sense of dependence on one another, engendered perhaps by the fact that we were roped together and had one another’s lives in our hands, produced in me a feeling of great affection for Hugh, this tiresome character who had led me to such a spot.

I am not going to apologise for the next long passage. We hear now only of the war in Afghanistan and we see the despair on the faces of men cowering against their huts surrounded by large robot like beings in alien suits of armour. Newby gives us a different picture of the sheer vitality and colourfulness of the these people. Foreign office wallahs and London tailors were not noted for the political correctness of their language in the colonial ‘5Os. So abide with me, but Newby excels himself in the description of the peoples. Here they come into Nuristan, their ultimate goal. Remember they are still in the high passes halfway up the mountains and the inhabitants were racing around barefooted.

“After the miles of scree we had descended the grass was like a carpet into which our feet sank; after the still airlessness of the upper valley the breeze that blew was as refreshing as a cool drink. Apart from the sighing of the wind and the sound of the river, a huge silence hung over the place.
Men and horses were far behind. Feeling slightly nervous we began to cross towards the aylaq. We were a hundred yards from it when there was a shout and we saw our first Nuristanis.
They came pouring out of the bothy and raced over the grass towards us at a tremendous pace, dozens of them. It seemed impossible that such a small building could have contained so many men. As they came bounding up they gave an extraordinary impression of being out of the past. They were all extraordinary because they were all different, no two alike. They were tall and short, light-skinned and dark-skinned, browneyed and grey-eyed; some, with long straight noses, might have passed for Serbs or Croats ; others, with flashing eyes, hooked noses and black hair, might have been Jews. There were men like gypsies with a lock of hair brought forward in ringlets on either side of the forehead. There were men with great bushy beards and moustaches that made them look like Arctic explorers. There were others like early Mormons with a fuzz of beard round their faces but without moustaches. Some of the tallest (well over six feet), broken-nosed, clean-shaven giants, were like guardsmen in a painting by Kennington. Those who were hatless had cropped hair and the younger ones, especially those with rudimentary beards, looked as strange and dated as the existentialists of St Germain des Prés ; while those whose beards were still in embryo were as contemporary as the clients of a Café Espresso and would have been accepted as such without question almost anywhere in the Western World.
They were extraordinary and their clothes were extraordinary too. All but those who were bare-headed wore the same flat Chitrali cap that Hugh had worn ever since we had left Kabul, only theirs were larger and more floppy, and the colour of porridge. Worn on the back of the head the effect was Chaucerian. They wore drab brown, collarless shirts, like the Army issue, and over them loose waistcoats or else a sort of surcoat — a waistcoat without buttons. Their trousers were brown homespun, like baggy unbuckled plus-fours. They reached to the middle of the calf and flapped loosely as their wearers pounded up the meadow. They seemed to wear some kind of loose puttee around the lower leg, and some of the younger men wore coloured scarves knotted loosely around their necks. All were barefooted.”

I hope the extensive quotes have given a flavour of the book which me with my limited accoutrements as a reviewer cannot do. I shall leave you with an introduction to the great Thesiger. He is a larger than life man who is worth rooting out and reading. I urge you to read his ‘Arabian Sands’ about his travels in Arabia. It gives the measure of the man. But this following passage from Newby’s book gives an unmistakable flavour of what a man Thesiger was and explains why I love him so. If you don’t read anything else on this post, read this passage. It is priceless!

“We crossed the river by a bridge, went up through the village of Shâhnaiz and downhill towards the Lower Panjshir.
‘Look,’ said Hugh, ‘it must be Thesiger.’
Coming towards us out of the great gorge where the river thundered was a small caravan like our own. He named an English explorer, a remarkable throwback to the Victorian era, a fluent speaker of Arabic, a very brave man, who has twice crossed the Empty Quarter and, apart from a few weeks every year, has passed his entire life among primitive peoples.
We had been on the march for a month. We were all rather jaded; the horses were galled because the drivers were careless of them, and their ribs stood out because they had been in places only fit for mules and forded innumerable torrents filled with slippery rocks as big as footballs; the drivers had run out of tobacco and were pining for their wives; there was no more sugar to put in the tea, no more jam, no more cigarettes and I was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles for the third time; all of us suffered from a persistent dysentery. The ecstatic sensations we had experienced at a higher altitude were beginning to wear off. It was not a particularly gay party. Thesiger’s caravan was abreast of us now, his horses lurching to a standstill on the execrable track. They were deep-loaded with great wooden presses, marked ‘British Museum’, and black tin trunks (like the ones my solicitors have, marked ‘ Not Russel-Jones’ or ‘All Bishop of Chichester’).
The party consisted of two villainous-looking tribesmen dressed like royal mourners in long overcoats reaching to the ankles; a shivering Tajik cook, to whom some strange mutation had given bright red hair, unsuitably dressed for Central Asia in crippling pointed brown shoes and natty socks supported by suspenders, but no trousers; the interpreter, a gloomy-looking middle-class Afghan in a coma of fatigue, wearing dark glasses, a double-breasted lounge suit and an American hat with stitching all over it; and Thesiger himself, a great, long-striding crag of a man, with an outcrop for a nose and bushy eyebrows, forty five years old and as hard as nails, in an old tweed jacket of the sort worn by Eton boys, a pair of thin grey cotton trousers, rope-soled Persian slippers and a woollen cap comforter.
‘Turn round,’ he said, ‘you’ll stay the night with us. We’re going to kill some chickens.’
We tried to explain that we had to get to Kabul, that we wanted our mail, but our men, who professed to understand no English but were reluctant to pass through the gorges at night, had already turned the horses and were making for the collection of miserable hovels that was the nearest village. Soon we were sitting on a carpet under some mulberry trees, surrounded by the entire population, with all Thesiger’s belongings piled up behind us.
‘Can’t speak a word of the language,’ he said cheerfully.
‘Know a lot of the Koran by heart but not a word of Persian. Still, it’s not really necessary. Here, you,’ he shouted at the cook, who had only entered his service the day before and had never seen another Englishman. ‘Make some green tea and alot of chicken and rice – three chickens.’
‘ No good bothering the interpreter,’ he went on, ‘the poor fellow’s got a sty, that’s why we only did seventeen miles today. It’s no good doing too much at first, especially as he’s not feeling well.’
The chickens were produced. They were very old; in the half-light they looked like pterodactyls.
‘Are they expensive?’
‘ The Power of Britain never grows less,’ said the headman, lying superbly.
‘ That means they are very expensive,’ said the interpreter, rousing himself. Soon the cook was back,.semaphoring desperately.
‘Speak up, can’t understand a thing. You want sugar? Why don’t you say so? ‘ He produced a large bunch of keys, like a housekeeper in some stately home. All that evening he was opening and shutting boxes so that I had tantalizing glimpses of the contents of an explorer’s luggage — a telescope, a string vest, the Charterhouse of Parma, Du Côté de Chez Swann, some fish-hooks and the 1/1000000 map of Afghanistan — not like mine, a sodden pulp, but neatly dissected, mounted between marbled boards.
‘ That cook’s going to die,’ said Thesiger; ‘hasn’t got a coat and look at his feet. We’re nine thousand feet if we’re an inch here. How high’s the Chamar Pass?’ We told him 16,000 feet. ‘ Get yourself a coat and boots, do you hear?’ he shouted in the direction of the camp fire. After two hours the chickens arrived ; they were like elastic, only the rice and gravy were delicious. Famished, we wrestled with the bones in the darkness.
‘England’s going to pot,’ said Thesiger, as Hugh and I lay smoking the interpreter’s King Size cigarettes, the first for a fortnight. ‘Look at this shirt, I’ve only had it three years, now it’s splitting. Same with tailors; Gull and Croke made me a pair of whipcord trousers to go to the Atlas Mountains. Sixteen guineas — wore a hole in them in a fortnight. Bought half a dozen shotguns to give to my headmen, well-known make, twenty guineas apiece, absolute rubbish.’
He began to tell me about his Arabs.
‘I give them powders for worms and that sort of thing.’
I asked him about surgery.’
I take off fingers and there’s a lot of surgery to be done ; they’re frightened of their own doctors because they’re not clean.’
‘ Do you do it? Cutting off fingers?’
‘Hundreds of them,’ he said dreamily, for it was very late. ‘Lord, yes. Why, the other day I took out an eye. I enjoyed that.
‘ Let ‘ s turn in,’ he said.
The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘ God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”

The book is falling apart but I will have one more go at it. Newby has done his research and quotes references which you might find interesting, for instance on the intricacies of the languages he encounters. In short, a great book for the pedant as well as the armchair traveler.

So long folks! And thanks for your patience. I hope my enthusiasm has been infectious.

This entry was published on March 7, 2015 at 7:18 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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