Thursday, 27 May 2010

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

Further afield this week to one of the best loved pieces of travel writing from the last century, Eric Newby’s account of his desperately unprepared trek through the wildest corner of Afghanistan and an almost suicidal attempt on the peak of Mir Samir.

After travelling overland to Kabul from the UK (an adventure in itself) Newby and his travelling companion Hugh Carless arrive in the Afghan capital feeling badly acclimatised and out of shape. In an effort to get a head for the mountains they decide to climb Legation Hill outside the city the next morning.

Above the compound there is a small hill, perhaps a thousand feet high, up which young secretaries pelt in gym shoes after a heavy night. This is Legation Hill. In the early morning we set out to scale it, laden with heavy boots and all the impedimenta of our assumed trade... It took us twenty-five minutes to reach the top. “Archie used to do it in ten,” said Hugh, as panting and feeling sick, we sprawled on the summit, pretending to admire the extensive view of the suburbs of Kabul spread out below us. “He must be a superman.” “Not at all. He had to leave the Foreign Service because he drank too much.”

Hiring three Tajik guides, they set off for the Hindu Kush, ostensibly to climb Mir Samir at the top of the Panjshir Valley. However, after this ends in failure below the summit, they press on into the forbidding valleys of Nuristan, the wildest and remotest part of Afghanistan.

Only converted to Islam in the last years of the 19th Century, Nuristan, formerly Kafiristan, enjoyed a healthy viticulture. Unfortunately, they also robbed and murdered travellers from other parts of the country and were slowly being tooled up by the Russians in a bloody side chapter of the Great Game.

In 1895 the happy existence of the Kafirs as robbers, murderers of Muslims, drinkers of prodigious quantities of wine, keepers of slaves, worshippers of Imra the Creator, Moni the Prophet, Gish the War God and the whole Kafir pantheon with its sixteen principal deities, came to an end...

By the time Newby and his team have arrived in the valleys, the area is dry, but the older men recall the times before Abdur Rahman set out on jehad from Kabul to crush the Kafirs:

“We used to make wine and hunt bear. There was much killing in those days and I was a great swimmer but I do not remember that time with much pleasure. No there is no longer any wine made,” he said rather wistfully. The coming of Islam to Kafiristan seemed to have had the same deadly effect as Knox and the Reformation on Scotland.

Newby describes the magnificent scenery in loving detail and along with his self-deprecating sense of humour it is one of the great pleasures of this book. That said, despite the rugged beauty of Nuristan, Newby can’t help but feel that with the re-introduction of wine making the place would have been a paradise.

There’s obviously something about the mountains that gives him a thirst. On his way back, footsore and dehydrated all he can think about is the contents of a glass:

I dreamt of all the cool drinks I had ever had in my life. The ginger beer I had drunk as a child; foaming lager; draught Worthington; Muscadet kept in a stream until I was ready for it; pints of Pimms, buckets of ice...

Despite the hardships, Newby managed to write up his experiences into a classic of travel literature, the story of two men who set off to visit the Ramgul Katirs in Nuristan for no other reason than to satisfy their curiosity.

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