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A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

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A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush cover.jpg
First edition
Author Eric Newby
Illustrator Photographs by Newby
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Mountaineering
Publisher Secker and Warburg
Publication date
Pages 253 pp.
ISBN 0-330-24227-X

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.[1]

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[2] and decided impulsively to travel to a remote corner of Afghanistan where no Englishman had ventured for 60 years.[3]

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.[4] They were poorly prepared and inexperienced, but Newby and Carless vowed to attempt Mir Samir, a glacial and then unclimbed[5] 20,000 foot peak in the Hindu Kush.[6]

The book[edit]


A Short Walk was first published in 1958 by Secker and Warburg. It has been reprinted many times since.[a]

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.[7]

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.[8]

Preface by Evelyn Waugh[edit]

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."[9]


The book contains 20 chapters, all narrated in the first person by Newby.

The rag trade[edit]

Chapter 1 Life of a Salesman
Newby describes his frustration with life in the fashion business or "rag trade" in London.
Chapter 2 Death of a Salesman
Newby leaves the rag trade.


Chapter 3 Birth of a Mountain Climber
Newby and Carless receive very brief training in mountaineering technique, on boulders and small cliffs in North Wales. The inn has "splendid" waitresses who seem to be expert climbers and who take them up the Ivy Sepulchre[b] on Dinas Cromlech, as the easier Spiral Stairs route is busy.

Driving out[edit]

Chapter 4 Pera Palace
Newby arrives in Istanbul with his wife, Wanda, having driven across Europe.
Chapter 5 The Dying Nomad
With Carless, they drive across Turkey to Persia (present day Iran). They make an emergency stop on the road, just short of a dying nomad, and with difficulty convince the police they did not cause the death.
Chapter 6 Airing in a Closed Carriage
Wanda returns home and the men cross Persia and Afghanistan, driving through Herat to Kandahar and Kabul. They had driven 5,000 miles (8,000 km) in a month. There are comic touches, as when "The proprietor Abdul, a broken-toothed demon of a man, conceived a violent passion for Hugh. We sat with him drinking coffee... 'Arrrh, CAHARLESS, soul of your father. You have ill-used your motor-car.' He hit Hugh a violent blow of affection in the small of his back, just as he was drinking his coffee. 'Urggh!'"[11]


Chapter 7 A Little Bit of Protocol
Newby and Carless try to acclimatise to the altitude with a practice walk. They visit the Foreign Ministry, hire an Afghan cook, and buy a "very short" list of supplies. Newby describes the geography of Nuristan "walled in on every side by the most formidable mountains" and a little history, with the legend of descent from Alexander the Great, the British imperial adventures, and pre-war German expeditions.[12]
Chapter 8 Panjshir Valley
They are driven out from Kabul by a servant from the Embassy. They stay in a tall mud house in a place with mulberry trees, vines and willows by a river. Hugh puts the dinner guests to sleep with a complicated story "about an anaconda killing a horse".[13]
Boys on donkey, Afghanistan
Chapter 9 A Walk in the Sun
They meet their three "very small" horses and their horse-drivers. The cook has to return to Kabul. Despite having horses, they decide to carry 40 pound (20 kg) packs "to toughen ourselves up".[14] The local people insult them for carrying loads in the heat. The drivers are angry at having to walk in the heat. They agree the drivers' pay.
Chapter 10 Finding our Feet
They walk. They get upset stomachs and blisters. They find a man "with his skull smashed to pulp"; the head driver suggests they should leave the place immediately. Two lammergeiers circle overhead.[15]
Chapter 11 Western Approaches
They become tired of each other's company, and of the food they have brought. They come to a ruinous summer pasture village, and eat local food: boiled milk, the yellow crust that forms on cream, and fresh bread. They catch sight of their goal, Mir Samir. They find tracks of ibex and wolf. One of their drivers catches a snowcock by running after it.
Chapter 12 Round 1
They look up at the awesome West wall of the mountain above them. They walk up the glacier wearing new crampons, probing for crevasses with their ice-axes. They cross the bergschrund and climb "a few feet of easy rock". Carless suggests rappelling 200 feet (60 m) to the next glacier. They agree "it would be difficult"[16] to get back if they did that. They return to their base camp and try again the next morning, again finding their way blocked. They wish the climbing waitresses from Wales were with them.
Chapter 13 Coming Round the Mountain
An injured boy is dressed in a "devilish" goatskin to draw the poison from his wounds. Newby has to eat the tail of a fat-tailed sheep. They are escorted up the Chamar valley by a greedy farting albino. Newby tries to learn some phrases in the Bashguli or Kafir language from a 1901 Indian Staff Corps grammar, which contains sentences such as "A lammergeier came down from the sky and took off my cock".[17]
Chapter 14 Round 2
Setting out at 5 a.m., they attempt to climb the East ridge. It becomes very hot. The rock is gritty with sharp flakes of mica. They pretend to be "Damon Runyon characters trying to climb a mountain" to cheer themselves up.[18] They get better at roped climbing. After six and a half hours the altimeter shows 18,000 feet. They reckon they could reach the top if they tried a different gully and started at 4 a.m. They go down. Carless's hands are red and bleeding.
Chapter 15 Knock-out
They camp below a cliff. Rocks continually fall, bouncing over their heads. It is bitterly cold. There is a thunderstorm. They eat pea soup, tinned apple pudding, and jam straight from the tin. They try to sleep. They try to ascend a 70 degree ice slope. They reach the ridge, after five hours, not the estimated two. At 19,100 feet they have a tremendous view of the Hindu Kush, the Anjuman Pass, Tirich Mir, and the mountains that border Pakistan. Choughs croak above them. They are only 700 feet below the summit, but four hours away. They turn back. "The descent was terrible."[19] They return to camp at 9 p.m. after climbing for 17 hours.
Chapter 16 Over the Top
Carless makes an impressive speech in Persian to convince the drivers to continue into Nuristan. They climb an extremely indistinct track to the pass. They descend into Nuristan: it grows hot. Men run to meet them: they are told they are the first Europeans ever to cross the pass (Newby doesn't believe this). They are given ice-cold milk to drink.
Chapter 17 Going Down!
They make camp in a loop of the river to reduce the risk of being murdered in the night. They are visited by two evil-looking men with an ancient Martini-Henry rifle, riding a horse. In the morning they try out the Bashguli grammar on a man; he understands, but speaks a variant dialect or language. Newby tells the history of the Kafirs and the Russians. Their guide does not let them camp in a grove of mulberry trees full of "extremely handsome" girls and young women; instead, he makes them camp under some cliffs in a place full of flies and excrement. They undress to wash in the river, discovering how thin they have become.[20]
Chapter 18 A Room with a View
A large audience gathers to watch them get up and cook. There is a violent storm. They reach Pushal, "the capital of the Ramgul Kafirs".[21] The headman gives them delicious apricots and tells tales of the old days. They admire the antique rifles of many kinds that the men have, all "in a disgraceful condition".[22] A mullah forbids them to go to a funeral where a bullock is to be slaughtered, in a holiday atmosphere. Instead, they sit under a walnut tree beside a river, with kingfishers, butterflies, hummingbird hawkmoths, a woodpecker drilling, and have "a rare moment of peace".[23] Newby shakes hands with two lepers. They all have dysentery. Newby spends hours negotiating the price of a complete male Nuristanis costume.
Chapter 19 Disaster at Lake Mundul
Irrigating by hand
Walking down from Lustagam they pass hand-made irrigation canals of hollowed-out halved tree trunks on stone pillars. They are shown a large rock, the Sang Neveshteh, with an inscription said to be in Kufic script, supposedly recording the Emperor Timur Leng's visit in 1398 A.D. Newby gives some pages of history "lifted almost in their entirety... from Elliott [sic] and Dawson's History of India, Vol. III, London, 1871."[24] The emperor forcibly converted the Nuristanis to Islam, which Newby implies they still regret. The country becomes lusher, with both ordinary mulberries and the king mulberry, plums, sloes and soft apples. Then they cross a wooded country with watermills, wild raspberries and buttercups "like a summer morning in England, but a long time ago".[25] They climb back into the "wilderness" to Gadval, a village on a cliff, with picturesque privies over the streams. At Lake Mundul a mullah swims the horse with Newby's camera and all their film and other possessions across the river. The headman shows a scar inflicted on him in deep snow by a black bear.
Chapter 20 Beyond the Arayu
They climb 2,000 feet out of the valley to reach the Arayu. At Warna they rest by a waterfall with mulberry trees. They walk on. Newby dreams of cool drinks and hot baths. They struggle on over a high cold pass. The last village of Nuristan, Achagaur, is peopled by Rajputs who claim to come from Arabia. They reach the top of the Arayu pass, "one of the lonely places of the earth with all the winds of Asia droning over it".[26] Newby feels the place will continue "whatever disasters overtook the rest of mankind".[26] They feel very happy going down from the pass. They meet the explorer and author of Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger. He is disgusted by their air-beds.[27]


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).[28]

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."[29] 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."[30] Outside magazine includes A Short Walk among its "25 essential books for the well-read explorer".[31]

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."[32]

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".[33]

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".[34]

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."[35]

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."[36]

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."[37]


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".[38] 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.[5]

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".[39]


  1. ^ Other editions include:
    • 1959: Popular Book Club, London
    • 1961: Arrow Books, London
    • 1968: Penguin, Harmondsworth
    • 1972: Hodder and Stoughton, London
    • 1973: Book Club Associates, London
    • 1974: Pan Books, London and Sydney
    • 1974: Picador, London
    • 1984: Harvill Press, London
    • 1986: Isis Large Print, Oxford and New York
    • 1987: Isis Audio Books, Oxford
    • 1989: Collins, London
    • 1998: Lonely Planet, Victoria, Australia
    • 2008: Picador, London (50th Anniversary Edition)
    • 2010: HarperPress, London (50th Anniversary Edition)
    • 2011: Folio Society, London
  2. ^ This is one of the routes pioneered by Peter Harding.[10]


  1. ^ Anon (2002). "Hugh Michael Carless, CMG" (PDF). British Diplomatic Oral History Programme, Churchill College, Cambridge. p. 9. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  2. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 17.
  3. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 22.
  4. ^ "Obituaries – Hugh Carless". The Telegraph. 21 December 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Chwascinski, Boleslaw (1966). "The Exploration of the Hindu Kush" (PDF). Alpine Journal: 199–214. 
  6. ^ Newby, 1974. pp. 22–23.
  7. ^ Newby, 1974. between pp. 128–129.
  8. ^ Newby, 1974. After p. 248.
  9. ^ Newby, 1974. pp. 11–12.
  10. ^ Perrin, Jim (19 December 2007). "Peter Harding Rock-climbing pioneer whose exploits defined the postwar sport". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-05-17. 
  11. ^ Newby, 1974. pp. 59–60.
  12. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 84.
  13. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 106.
  14. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 110.
  15. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 129.
  16. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 149.
  17. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 166.
  18. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 169.
  19. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 181.
  20. ^ Newby, 1974. pp. 207–208.
  21. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 212.
  22. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 216.
  23. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 219.
  24. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 227.
  25. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 230.
  26. ^ a b Newby, 1974. p. 244.
  27. ^ Newby, 1974. p. 248.
  28. ^ George, Edward Mace (23 October 2006). "Idiosyncratic travel writer from another age, and author of the classic A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 April 2013. 
  29. ^ Herbert, Kari; Gimlette, John; et al. (16 September 2011). "My favourite travel book, by the world's greatest travel writers". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  30. ^ Anon. "The 20 best travel books of all time". The Telegraph. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  31. ^ Wieners, Brad & "the editors" (1 January 2003). "The 25 (Essential) Books for the Well-Read Explorer". Outside magazine. Archived from the original on 30 May 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  32. ^ Fox, Margalit (24 October 2006). "Eric Newby, 86, Acclaimed British Travel Writer, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  33. ^ Anon (24 October 2012). "Review of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby" (PDF). Anmore Ladies’Book Club (Gentlemen Welcome). Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  34. ^ Pilkington, John (June 2007). "Top 10 Writer's Reads" (PDF). Geographical magazine. Retrieved 4 April 2013. [permanent dead link]
  35. ^ "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby". Rick Skwiot. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  36. ^ Shapiro, Michael (2004). "Eric Newby: Through Love and War". Travelers' Tales. Archived from the original on 13 March 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  37. ^ Holland, Patrick; Huggan, Graham (2004). "Varieties of Nostalgia in Contemporary Travel Writing". In Hooper, Glenn; Youngs, Tim. Perspectives on Travel Writing. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 139–152. 
  38. ^ Diemberger, Adolf (1966). Translated by Merrick, Hugh. "Development of Mountaineering in the Hindu Kush". Himalayan Journal. 27. 
  39. ^ Bingham, James; Brooksbank, Quentin; Wynne, Mark (2012). "A Short Winter in the Hindu Kush" (PDF). British Mountaineering Council. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 


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