Monday, August 23, 2010

'Can you travel Nuristan, June?'

My roommate is in Tanzania[1] until next January and we have been making plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro when I visit her in a few months. We both love the outdoors but neither of us has particularly deep climbing experience, and I’m looking forward to 6 days of ascent and acclimatization amidst the anarchy of roommates reuniting after quite some time. When a friend recommended I read Eric Newby’s book about traversing the Hindu Kush mountain range in Nuristan (in northeast Afghanistan) back in the 1950s, I thought it fitting to write about it here, to psych myself, my roommate and all of you into jumping into (or scaling) something without sufficient preparation. Almost dying is clearly more fun than a cushy—pardon the pun—jaunt in a new place, no?

In characteristically sardonic British form, Newby has titled his book A SHORT WALK IN THE HINDU KUSH[2], which takes his partner Hugh Carless and him a month to complete, and even then, they don’t actually get to the top of the 20,000 foot tall mountain Mir Samir—“resembling a crouching lion; its head the summit, a long plume of smoke the mane”— after two attempts. But don’t be dotty, that isn’t the point. It’s the “almost mocking beauty” of the Central Asian landscapes they scrabble over, where, hilariously, the air is “full of the promise of disaster” and the chickens they eat are so old Newby calls them pterodactyls. His writing predominantly induces laughter, in spite of the danger and dysentery his team faces—and did I mention that he used to work in the Fashion Industry in London?

The duo takes turns being intrepid and itinerant, targeting an intimidating mountain range with an embarrassing four days of training on a little hill in Wales. In an interview in 2000[3], an 80-year-old Newby expertly jokes that he had managed to “capitalize on being an idiot and not doing things right,” and this resonates loudly off the peaks of the Hindu Kush. An Italian shoemaker politely observes that Newby’s feet are “not the feet of a man, but of a monkey.” Carless reminds me of Walter from The Big Lebowski (John Goodman’s character). He’s fearless and confident, and sounds big and gruff, but is prone to moments of stupidity. His affirmative telegram response to Newby when the trip is first conceived is addressed to ‘Eric Rubey, Shammersmith’ and Newby acknowledges that its arrival to his office in Hammersmith is “a mystery.” As part of the British Foreign Service, Carless has been dispatched to various corners of the world and conveniently speaks fluent Persian, serving as Newby’s interpreter for as long as his patience will last—insert ridiculous sentences here from Newby’s Kafir grammar and language book, such as ‘I have nine fingers; you have ten,’ or, ‘How long have you had a goitre?’ in addition to the grunts, spits and glares the Englishmen are dealt by their team and Nuristani villagers.

Newby’s flair for crisp, pithy conversation makes me want to re-read Douglas Adams’ HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY books for their abundance of wit and understatement. Newby and Carless are hitchhikers in their own right, at the mercy of roaring rivers, raining boulders, reticent Afghanis, conniving villagers and nervous horses, yet blindly forging their own paths across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. Carless has to threaten his anxious Afghan entourage with a made-up, ominous-sounding General Ubaildullah Khan to keep at this seemingly suicidal voyage; after all, they are at altitudes “not conducive to mildness.” Their humor rarely fails them, however:

‘Abdul Ghiyas says that we should post sentries for the night,’ said Hugh when it grew dark.

‘Do you want to be a sentry?’

‘No. I’d rather be murdered in bed.’

‘So would I.’

‘Abdul Ghiyas! No sentries!’

Newby evokes the curiosity and awe of the 14th century’s Ibn Battuta[4] who traveled an unprecedented 75,000 miles around Africa, Asia (Central, South and East) and Eurasia over 30 years, pilgrimaging to Mecca several times during that period. Newby overlaps slightly with this Muslim pioneer in the Hindu Kush, although they access it via different passes and in different eras. Writing in the 1950s, Newby is frank and attentive to the peoples and cultures he is passing through and depending on. When he first meets Nuristani villagers, he describes them “as strange and dated as the existentialists of St Germain des Pres; 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.” He describes the sweeping panoramas as elaborately as J.R.R. Tolkien does the fantastical vistas of his Middle-earth, although not ithout a dose of English snobbery:

As the afternoon advanced the woods were filled with an autumnal light. There were masses of hollyhocks from which rose the humming of countless bees. There were grapes too, as yet unripe, growing on trellises sheltered by the walls of the few houses. For some reason the appalling yellow fly had suddenly vanished.

Newby is humbled by Mir Samir, affectionate toward Carless by the end—dressing each other’s wounds and cooking for each other on stubborn, unfriendly fires daily tends towards companionship, he recognizes—and grateful for the opportunity to be a rare ice-ax wielding, pea soup-eating, fair-skinned face in the unforgiving plains and peaks of Afghanistan.

Here on the Arayu, one of the lonely places of the earth with all the winds of Asia droning over it, where the mountains seemed like the bones of the world breaking through, I had the sensation of emerging from a country that would continue to exist more or less unchanged whatever disasters overtook the rest of mankind.

I anticipate similar epiphanies after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, but don’t hold your breath, that would be dotty.

Book: A SHORT WALK IN THE HINDU KUSH by Eric Newby, published by Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1958 and by Lonely Planet Publications in 1998 and 2008

[1] Visit my roommate at her fantastic blog here:

Further reading: Check out William O. Douglas’s New York Times 1959 review “Popping off to Nuristan,” here:

[3] Full interview here:

[4] Read more about Ibn Battuta’s travels here:

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