A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is a 1958 book by the English travel writer Eric Newby. It is an autobiographical account of his adventures in the Hindu Kush, around the Nuristan mountains of Afghanistan, ostensibly to make the first mountaineering ascent of Mir Samir. It has been described as a comic masterpiece, intensely English, and understated. Publications including The Guardian and The Telegraph list it among the greatest travel books of all time. It has sold over 500,000 copies in paperback.
The book has 14 monochrome photographs taken mainly by Newby, and two hand-drawn maps. The novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote a preface that mentions the book's whimsy and its Englishness.
The action in the book moves from Newby's life in the fashion business in London to Afghanistan. On the way Newby describes his very brief training in mountaineering in North Wales, a stop in Istanbul, and a nearly-disastrous drive across Turkey and Persia. They are driven out to the Panjshir Valley, where they begin their walk, with many small hardships described in a humorous narrative, supported by genuine history of Nuristan and brief descriptions of the rare moments of beauty along the way. Disagreements with Newby's Persian-speaking companion Hugh Carless, and odd phrases in an antique grammar book, are exploited to comic effect.
The book has been reprinted many times, in at least 16 English versions and in Spanish, Chinese and German editions. While some critics consider Newby's Love and War in the Apennines a better book, A Short Walk was the book that made him well-known, and critics agree that it is both understated and very funny in an old-school British way.
In 1956 at the age of 36, Newby ended his London career in fashion and decided impulsively to travel to a remote corner of Afghanistan where no Englishman had ventured for 60 years.
He sent a telegraph to his friend the diplomat Hugh Carless, then due to take up his position as First Secretary in Tehran later that year, requesting he accompany him on an expedition to Northern Afghanistan. They were poorly prepared and inexperienced, but Newby and Carless vowed to attempt Mir Samir, a glacial and then unclimbed 20,000 foot peak in the Hindu Kush.
A Short Walk was first published in 1958 by Secker and Warburg. It has been reprinted many times since.
Translations include:1997: Laertes, Barcelona (Spanish)
1998: 馬可孛羅文化事業股份有限公司. Marco Polo, Taibei (Chinese)
2002: Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main (German)
2005: Goldmann, München (German)
The book was illustrated with 14 monochrome photographs taken by Newby or Carless; one depicts the explorer Wilfred Thesiger in his sleeping-bag.
There are two hand-drawn maps. The "Map to illustrate a journey in Nuristan by Eric Newby and Hugh Carless in 1956", shows an area of 75 x 55 miles covering the Panjshir valley to the Northwest, and Nuristan and the Pushal valley to the Southeast; it has a small inset of Central Asia showing the area's location to the Northeast of Kabul. The other map, "Nuristan", covers a larger area of about 185 x 140 miles, showing Kabul and Jalalabad to the South, and Chitral and the Pakistan region of Kohistan to the East.
A two-page preface by novelist Evelyn Waugh recommends the book, remarking on its "idiomatic, uncalculated manner", and that the "beguiling narrative" is "intensely English". He hopes that Newby is not the last of a "whimsical tradition". He explains that Newby is not the other English writer of the same name and confesses (or pretends) that he began to read it thinking that it was the other man's work. He sketches out the "deliciously funny" account of Newby selling women's clothes, and the "call of the wild" (he admits it is an absurdly trite phrase) that led him to the Hindu Kush. Waugh ends by advising the "dear reader" to "fall to and enjoy this characteristic artifact."
The book contains 20 chapters, all narrated in the first person by Newby.Chapter 1 Life of a Salesman
Chapter 2 Death of a Salesman
Chapter 3 Birth of a Mountain Climber
Chapter 4 Pera Palace
Chapter 5 The Dying Nomad
Chapter 6 Airing in a Closed Carriage
Chapter 7 A Little Bit of Protocol
Chapter 8 Panjshir Valley
Chapter 9 A Walk in the Sun
Chapter 10 Finding our Feet
Chapter 11 Western Approaches
Chapter 12 Round 1
Chapter 13 Coming Round the Mountain
Chapter 14 Round 2
Chapter 15 Knock-out
Chapter 16 Over the Top
Chapter 17 Going Down!
Chapter 18 A Room with a View
Chapter 19 Disaster at Lake Mundul
Chapter 20 Beyond the Arayu
Edward Mace George, writing in The Guardian, notes that the book "is the comic masterpiece Newby will be remembered by", though his finest work was Love and War in the Apennines (1971).
Kari Herbert notes in The Guardian's list of travel writer's favourite travel books that she inherited her father, English polar explorer Wally Herbert's "well-loved copy" of Newby's book. "Like Newby, I was in a soulless job, desperate for change and adventure. Reading A Short Walk was a revelation. The superbly crafted, eccentric and evocative story of his Afghan travels was like a call to arms." John Gimlette, in the same list, chooses Newby's Love and War in the Apennines. The Telegraph includes it as one of its "20 best travel books of all time", describing Newby and Carless's meeting with the explorer Wilfred Thesiger as a "hilarious segment". It quotes "We started to blow up our air-beds. 'God, you must be a couple of pansies,' said Thesiger." Outside magazine includes A Short Walk among its "25 essential books for the well-read explorer".
Margalit Fox, writing Newby's obituary in the New York Times, notes that the trip was the one that made him famous, and states that "As in all his work, the narrative was marked by genial self-effacement and overwhelming understatement." She cites a 1959 review in the same publication by William O. Douglas, later a Supreme Court judge, who called the book "a chatty, humorous and perceptive account", adding that "Even the unsanitary hotel accommodations, the infected drinking water, the unpalatable food, the inevitable dysentery are lively, amusing, laughable episodes."
The Anmore Ladies Book Club (Gentlemen welcomed) called the book "an understated and very humorous travel story", with "often 'laugh out loud' funny" descriptions. While "the writing was a bit tedious at times, the general consensus was that [the book] was well worth the read".
Travel writer John Pilkington includes the book in his "Top 10 writer's reads" in Geographical magazine, observing that it is "still unmatched after nearly 50 years in print", and describing it as a "hilarious and nicely understated description of an ill-fated journey".
American novelist Rick Skwiot enjoys the "blithely confident Brit's" narrative style, finding echoes of its concept, structure and humour in Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. Skwiot notes the hazards of the journey as crevasses, precipices, thieves, bears, disease, thirst, hunger. "Somehow they blunder on toward their whimsical destination", he remarks, the "seductive and tickling narrative" told with "understatement, self-effacement, savage wit, honed irony, and unrelenting honesty." The reader is drawn in "by his endearingly flawed humanity."
Michael Shapiro, interviewing Newby for Travelers' Tales, calls the book "a classic piece of old-school British exploration, and established Newby’s trademark self-deprecating wry humor."
In Varieties of Nostalgia in Contemporary Travel Writing, Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan observe that "travel writing, like travel itself, is generated by nostalgia". But the "anachronistic gentleman" can only exist, they note, quoting Simon Raven, "in circumstances that are manifestly contrived or unreal". The resulting "atmosphere of enhanced affectation is exploited to maximum comic effect" in books like A Short Walk, which they call "an acclaimed post-Byronic escapade in which gentlemanly theatrics come to assume the proportions of full-blown farce."
The Austrian alpinist Adolf Diemberger wrote in a 1966 report that in mountaineering terms Newby and Carless's reconnaissance of the Central Hindu Kush was a "negligible effort", admitting however that they "almost climbed it". The climb was more warmly described in the same year as "The first serious attempt at mountaineering in that country [the Afghan Hindu Kush]" by the Polish mountaineer Boleslaw Chwascinski.
In January 2012, an expedition under the auspices of the British Mountaineering Council, citing the "popular adventure book", attempted the first winter ascent of Mir Samir, but it was cut short by an equipment theft and "very deep snow conditions and route finding difficulties".