A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

BOOK: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
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A Short Walk
in the Hindu Kush
ERIC NEWBY

Preface by Evelyn Waugh

Epilogue by Hugh Carless

Table of Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Preface

Chapter One Life of a Salesman

Chapter Two Death of a Salesman

Chapter Three Birth of a Mountain Climber

Chapter Four Pera Palace

Chapter Five The Dying Nomad

Chapter Six Airing in a Closed Carriage

Chapter Seven A Little Bit of Protocol

Chapter Eight Panjshir Valley

Chapter Nine A Walk in the Sun

Chapter Ten Finding our Feet

Chapter Eleven Western Approaches

Chapter Twelve Round 1

Chapter Thirteen Coming Round the Mountain

Chapter Fourteen Round 2

Chapter Fifteen Knock-out

Chapter Sixteen Over the Top

Chapter Seventeen Going Down!

Chapter Eighteen A Room with a View

Chapter Nineteen Disaster at Lake Mundul

Chapter Twenty Beyond the Arayu

Epilogue to the 50th Anniversary Edition

Notes

Acknowledgements

List of Illustrations

Maps

About the author

Praise

By the same author

Copyright

About the publisher

Dedication

This book is dedicated to Hugh Carless of Her Majesty’s Foreign Service, without whose determination, it must be obvious to anyone who reads it, this journey could never have been made.

Epigraph

‘Il faudrait une expédition bien organisée et pourvue de moyens matérials puissants pour tenter l’étude de cette région de haute montagne dont les rares cols sont à plus de 5000 mètres d’altitude.’

L’Hindou Kouch et le Kaboulistan

Raymond Furon

Preface

Mr Eric Newby must not be confused with the other English writer of the same surname. I began reading
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
in the belief that it was the work of his namesake, whom I have long relished. I found something equally delightful but quite different.

Mr Eric Newby, I have since learned, is the author of an exciting sea-log,
The Last Grain Race,
an account of how at the age of eighteen he signed on as an apprentice of the Finnish barque
Moshulu,
lived in the fo’c’sle as the only Englishman, worked the ship, rounded both capes under sail in all the vicissitudes of the historic and now extinct passage from Australia to the United Kingdom of the grain-carrying windjammers. His career in the army was heroic and romantic. The bravado and endurance which had briefly made him a sailor were turned to the King’s service. After the war he went into the most improbable of trades,
haute couture.
It would strain the imagination to picture this stalwart young adventurer selling women’s clothes. We are relieved of the difficulty by his own deliciously funny description, which immediately captivates the reader of the opening chapters of
A Short
Walk.
One can only use the absurdly trite phrase ‘the call of the wild’ to describe the peculiar impetus which carried Mr Newby from Mayfair to the wild mountains of Afghanistan. He was no sailor when he embarked in the
Moshulu
; he was no mountaineer when he decided to climb the Hindu Kush. A few days scrambling on the rocks in Wales, enchantingly chronicled here, were his sole preparation. It was not mountaineering that attracted him; the Alps abound in opportunities for every exertion of that kind. It was the longing, romantic, reasonless, which lies deep in the hearts of most Englishmen, to shun the celebrated spectacles of the tourist and without any concern with science or politics or commerce, simply to set their feet where few civilized feet have trod.

An American critic who read the manuscript of this book condemned it as ‘too English’. It
is
intensely English, despite the fact that most of its action takes place in wildly foreign places and that it is written in an idiomatic, uncalculated manner the very antithesis of ‘Mandarin’ stylishness. 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.

EVELYN WAUGH

1959

CHAPTER ONE
Life of a Salesman

With all the lights on and the door shut to protect us from the hellish draught that blew up the backstairs, the fitting-room was like an oven with mirrors. There were four of us jammed in it: Hyde-Clarke, the designer; Milly, a very contemporary model girl with none of the normal protuberances; the sour-looking fitter in whose workroom the dress was being made; and Newby.

Things were not going well. It was the week before the showing of the 1956 Spring Collection, a time when the
vendeuses
crouched behind their little cream and gold desks, doodling furiously, and the Directors swooped through the vast empty showrooms switching off lights in a frenzy of economy, plunging whole wings into darkness. It was a time of endless fittings, the girls in the workrooms working late. The corset-makers, embroiderers, furriers, milliners, tailors, skirt-makers and matchers all involved in disasters and overcoming them – but by now slightly insane.

This particular dress was a disaster that no one was going to overcome. Its real name, the one on the progress board on the wall of the fitting-room, pinned up with a little flag and a cutting
of the material, was
Royal Yacht,
but by general consent we all called it
Grand Guignol
.

I held a docket on which all the components used in its construction were written down as they were called up from the stockroom. The list already covered an entire sheet. It was not only a hideous dress; it was soaking up money like a sponge.

‘How very odd. According to the docket
Grand Guignol’s
got nine zips in it. Surely there must be some mistake.’

Hyde-Clarke was squatting on his haunches ramming pins into
Grand Guignol
like a riveter.

‘This dress is
DOOMED.
I know it’s doomed.
BOTHER
, I’ve swallowed a pin! Pins, quickly, pins.’

The fitter, a thin woman like a wardress at the Old Bailey and with the same look of indifference to human suffering, extended a bony wrist with a velvet pin-cushion strapped to it like a watch. He took three and jabbed them malevolently into the material; Milly swore fearfully.

‘Mind where you’re putting those … pins. What d’you think I am – a bloody yoga?’

‘You
MUST
stand still, dear; undulation will get you nowhere,’ Hyde-Clarke said.

He stood up breathing heavily and lit a cigarette. There was a long silence broken only by the fitter who was grinding her teeth.

‘What do you think of it now, Mr Newby?’ he said. ‘It’s
you
who have to sell it.’

‘Much worse, Mr Hyde-Clarke.’ (We took a certain ironic pleasure in calling one another Mister.) ‘Like one of those flagpoles they put up in the Mall when the Queen comes home.’

‘I don’t agree. I think she looks like a Druid in it; one of those terribly runny-nosed old men dressed in sheets at an
Eisteddfod
. How much has it cost up to now?’

I told him.

‘Breathe
OUT
, dear. Perhaps you’ll look better without any air. I must say there’s nothing more gruesome than white jersey when it goes wrong.’ ‘Dear’ breathed out and the dress fell down to her ankles. She folded her arms across her shoulders and gazed despairingly at the ceiling so that the whites of her eyes showed.

‘There’s no need to behave like a
SLUT
,’ said Hyde-Clarke. He was already putting on his covert coat. ‘We’ll try again at two. I am going to luncheon.’ He turned to me. ‘Are you coming?’ he said.

We went to ‘luncheon’. In speech Hyde-Clarke was a stickler in the use of certain Edwardianisms, so that beer and sandwiches in a pub became ‘luncheon’ and a journey in his dilapidated sports car ‘travel by motor’.

Today was a sandwich day. As we battled our way up Mount Street through a blizzard, I screeched in his ear that I was abandoning the fashion industry.

‘I saw the directors this morning.’

‘Oh, what did they say?’

‘That they were keeping me on for the time being but that they make no promises for the future.’

‘What did you say?’

‘That I had just had a book accepted for publication and that I am staying on for the time being but I make no promises for the future.’

‘It isn’t true, is it? I can hardly visualize you
writing
anything.’

‘That’s what the publishers said, originally. Now I want to go on an expedition.’

‘Aren’t you rather old?’

‘I’m just as old here as on an expedition. You can’t imagine anything more rigorous than this, can you? In another couple of years I’ll be dyeing my hair.’

‘In another couple of years you won’t have any to dye,’ said Hyde-Clarke.

On the way back from ‘luncheon’, while Hyde-Clarke bought some Scotch ribs in a fashionable butcher’s shop, I went into the Post Office in Mount Street and sent a cable to Hugh Carless, a friend of mine at the British Embassy, Rio de Janeiro.

CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?

It had taken me ten years to discover what everyone connected with it had been telling me all along, that the Fashion Industry was not for me.

CHAPTER TWO
Death of a Salesman

The rehearsal was set for four o’clock on Tuesday. At eleven o’clock on Tuesday morning I was called to the telephone. It was the London agent of one of the great New York stores.

‘Miss Candlemass is coming to see your Collection this afternoon.’

‘We’re only having the rehearsal this afternoon. The opening’s tomorrow.’

‘Miss Candlemass has a very tight schedule.’ (I wanted to say I was sorry and hoped that it would be better soon.) ‘She’s on her way home from Paris. She’s open to buy.’

‘We’ll be very happy if she comes to the rehearsal. It’s at four o’clock.’

‘She’s only free at one-thirty. Make it one-thirty and you’ll have to be
READY
. She doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’

He went on to say that Miss Candlemass was only interested in tweed suits and that the material had to be of a precise weight and proof against the corruptions of moth and rust and every other natural and unnatural ailment.

I told the Managing Director. He pretended to be unimpressed.
I told the Head of the Boutique, who was not unnaturally furious, We told the workrooms that they had two and a half hours less to make the final adjustments in the suits and one of the skirt-makers had hysterics and had to lie down on the couch reserved for those suffering from female disorders; we told the model girls that they would have to lunch in the canteen, all four had lunch dates; the Commissionaire was warned to man the
porte cochère
; the counting-house was ordered to stand by from one o’clock onwards to be ready to answer any difficult questions about shipping and customs. I set off in a taxi on a circular tour of London cloth merchants to obtain swatches of the sort of material required by Miss Candlemass. Then I came back and re-costed the collection.

By one-thirty the atmosphere was electric. The Commissionaire was in position; the Head of the Boutique was ready to receive Miss Candlemass; the model girls were poised on the threshold of the changing-room with the first suits strapped on, like racehorses under starter’s orders. I had just finished heavily annotating three programmes in dollars. The only person not present was Hyde-Clarke.

‘I do not propose to change the habits of a lifetime to suit the convenience of a citizen of the United States,’ he remarked, and departed to luncheon. He proved to be the only one of us who had correctly appreciated the situation.

At half past three Miss Candlemass arrived. It was quite obvious, without her saying so, which she did incessantly during her brief stay on the premises, that she had been lunching at Claridges.

The party consisted of the Shoe Buyer from the same store, readily identifiable because he was wearing a pair of brown crocodile shoes; the Agent, normally a man of briskness and decision, now reduced to a state of gibbering sycophancy by the proximity of Miss Candlemass; and Miss Candlemass herself. All three were
a uniform, bright shade of puce. I must say in my lunchless state I envied them. The Head of the Boutique, a Scotswoman of character, refused to admit their existence, for which I admired her deeply, so that it was left for me to escort them to their seats.

Miss Candlemass was about nine feet high and hidden behind smoked glasses in mauve frames studded with semi-precious metal. She was like a lath, with very long legs, just too thin to be healthy, but she was very hygienic, smelled good and had fabulous shoes and stockings. With her dark glasses, the general effect was that of being engaged in watching an eclipse of the earth from the moon.

She didn’t get as far as the showroom. As she clicked across the hall, she was attracted by the scent counter. She swooped on the largest bottle of scent we put out, a Rajah size flagon as big as a port decanter, and began to croon over it.

‘Why don’t you take it, Minnie?’ said the man in the crocodile shoes, to whom I had already taken a violent dislike.

‘Well, I rather think I will. I just adore these people’s perfume.’ She opened an enormous black gladstone bag and dropped it in.

They sat down and the model girls came streaming in wearing our beautiful new suits. I handed Miss Candlemass the annotated programme and a nicely arranged pattern card with the fruits of my morning’s labours neatly arranged on it.

Miss Candlemass wasn’t paying any attention. She was well away describing the Duke of Norfolk who had been lunching at the next table, in minute, ecstatic detail, for the benefit of the agent, who, by reason of his status, had been given a seat with his back to the engine.

‘What do you think of them, Miss Candlemass?’ Sixteen suits had passed in front of her.

‘A very lovely family; and so old.’

‘Yes, but the suits?’

‘Suits. I don’t want any suits, do I? I’m filled up with suits. I want to see some dresses.’

‘But, surely, Miss Felsheim buys the dresses?’

‘Yes, Lulu buys the dresses, but I just adore to see dresses. You know all that lovely perfume makes me feel in the mood for dresses.’

We showed the dresses. Finally
Grand Guignol
hove into sight. Great changes had taken place but it still looked ghastly. Miss Candlemass loved it and swore to tell Miss Felsheim about it. As Milly tore round for the long beat to the changing-room, she passed me two envelopes. One contained the perfectly enormous bill for the scent, beaten out in a white heat of rage by the ladies in the counting-house. The other contained a cable. I read it.

It came from the British Embassy, Rio de Janeiro, and was addressed to ‘Eric Rubey, Shammersmith’ (I lived in Hammersmith), which would account for the slight delay. How it had arrived at all was a mystery. It bore three words.

OF COURSE, HUGH
.

The showroom, already large, suddenly expanded. I understood what Sassoon meant when he wrote, ‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing.’

Miss Candlemass was saying, ‘I’m afraid you haven’t got it, Mr Newby.’

‘Splendid, splendid.’

‘We did much better with Raymond Beale; he really studies the American market.’

‘Mr Beale has since gone bankrupt. Hi-de-ho.’

As they were leaving I handed the bill for the scent to the agent.

‘I think Miss Candlemass is expecting that as a
pourboire
.’

‘So do I, very strict firm this, tum-te-tum, very businesslike.’

‘I don’t think she’s going to like this, Mr Newby. It may make things more difficult.’

‘She can put it down to the shoe department, tra-la-la.’

‘I’d better give you a cheque if you insist. You’re very cheerful for someone who hasn’t had an order. Are you always like this?’

‘No, hardly ever. I’ve just had some really good news.’

He wrote a cheque. When they had gone I gave it to Madame Fifi, the aged
vendeuse
who ran the scent department.

‘Good boy,’ she croaked, patting my cheek. ‘That was a dummy bottle – full of coloured wattair.’
1

Hugh Carless, who had replied so opportunely to my cable, entered the Foreign Service in 1950. The son of a retired Indian Civil Servant, himself a man of unusual intellectual attainments, he is, like so many Englishmen, in love with Asia. For a time he was posted to the School of Oriental Studies, from which he emerged with a good knowledge of Persian; then to the Foreign Office, from which he frequently disappeared on visits to industrial plants; once he went down a coalmine. It was even suggested that he should visit a couture house and he approached me with this project, which did seem to have a certain educative value. It at least accorded far more with my pre-conceived ideas of the Higher Diplomacy, which derived from an intensive study of the works of E. Phillips Oppenheim, than the visits to atomic piles and computer factories that the spirit of the age demanded.

His Persian being both fluent and academic, he was lucky to be posted to our Embassy at Kabul where he could actually make use of his talents.

From time to time he wrote me long letters, which came to me by way of the District Postmaster, Peshwaar, which I read with envy in the bedrooms of the provincial hotels I stayed in when I ‘travelled’. They were not the sort of letters that third secretaries
in the Foreign Office usually write, full of details of the compound, the current indiscretions, the cocktail parties and the people passing through. Instead, they spoke of long, arduous, and to me fascinating, journeys to the interior, undertaken with horses and mysterious beings called Tajik drivers.

It was early in 1952 that he first mentioned Nuristan.

‘An Austrian forestry expert, a Herr von Dückelmann, has recently dined with me,’ he wrote. ‘He has been three or four times in Nuristan. Food there is very scarce, he says, and although he himself is a lean, hardy man he lost twelve pounds in weight during a ten day trip to the interior.’

Later in 1952 he wrote again.

I have just returned from an expedition to the borders of Nuristan,
The Country of Light.
This is the place for you. It lies in the extreme N.E. of Afghanistan, bordering on Chitral and enclosed by the main range of the Hindu-Kush mountains. Until 1895 it was called Kafiristan,
The Country of the Unbelievers
. We didn’t get in but we didn’t expect to, the passes are all over 15,000 feet and we didn’t have permission. So far as I can discover no Englishman has been there since Robertson in 1891. The last Europeans to visit it – von Dückelmann apart – were a German expedition in 1935, and it’s possible that no one has visited the north-west corner at all. I went with Bob Dreesen of the American Embassy.

I had heard of Dreesen. He was one of the American party which escaped from the Chinese Communist advance into Turkestan in 1950, evacuating the Consulate from Urumchi by lorry to Kashgar and then crossing the Karakoram Range into India with horses. Hugh went on to speak of a large mountain, nearly 20,000 feet high, that they had attempted to climb and of one of his men being hit on the head by a great stone. At that time it had
all seemed infinitely remote, and subsequently Hugh had been transferred to Rio de Janeiro; but the seed had been planted.

Hugh’s telegram was followed by a great spate of letters which began to flow into London from Rio. They were all at least four pages long, neatly typed in single spacing – sometimes two would arrive in one day. They showed that he was in a far more advanced state of mental readiness for the journey than I was. It was as if, by some process of mental telepathy, he had been able to anticipate the whole thing.

‘Time’, he wrote, ‘is likely to prove a tricky factor for me. I have been posted at Tehran. I hope to leave here on 12 May and fly home via the United States where I must spend five days in New York with a friend’ (the sex of the friend was unspecified but he subsequently married her). ‘I could meet you in Stamboul on 20 June. We can be in Kabul on 1 July. I have heard from my Ambassador in Tehran who hopes I will be there by August. He will probably allow late August.’

In answer to my unspoken question about how I was to be in Stamboul on 20 June, he continued.

‘I have ordered a vehicle for delivery at Brighton’ (why Brighton, I wondered) ‘on 25 May. It will be a station wagon with sleeping accommodation for two and will have a wireless set and two extra wheels.’ It was typical of Hugh that he could invest a car radio with all the attributes of a transmitting set without actually saying so. ‘You will have to leave England on 1 June whether you drive to Stamboul or ship from Genoa or Trieste.’

This was heady stuff but then, quite suddenly, the tone of the letters changed.

I don’t think we should make known our ambition to go to Nuristan. Rather I suggest we ask permission to go on a
Climbing Expedition.
There are three very good and unclimbed peaks of
about 20,000 feet, all on the marches of Nuristan. One of them, Mir Samir (19,880) I attempted with Bob Dreesen in 1952 (
vide
my letter of 20.9.52). We climbed up to some glaciers and reached a point 3,000 feet below the final pyramid. A minor mishap forced us to return.

He was already deeply involved in the clichés of mountaineering jargon. I re-read his 1952 letter and found that the ‘minor mishap’ was an amendment. At the time he had written, ‘one of the party was hit on the head by a boulder’: he didn’t say who. He continued remorselessly:

This will leave us free to approach the War Office for equipment [I had rashly mentioned a Territorial Regiment with which I was associated] and the Everest Foundation for a grant. It will be honest, honourable, and attainable, and if only partially so leaves us free to return to that part
NEXT YEAR
.

I was filled with profound misgiving. In cold print 20,000 feet does not seem very much. Every year more and more expeditions climb peaks of 25,000 feet, and over. In the Himalayas a mountain of this size is regarded as an absolute pimple, unworthy of serious consideration. But I had never climbed anything. It was true that I had done some hill walking and a certain amount of scrambling in the Dolomites with my wife, but nowhere had we failed to encounter ladies twice our age armed with umbrellas. I had never been anywhere that a rope had been remotely necessary.

It was useless to dissemble any longer. I wrote a letter protesting in the strongest possible terms and received by return a list of equipment that I was to purchase. Many of the objects I had never even heard of – two Horeschowsky ice-axes; three dozen Simond rock and ice pitons; six oval karabiners (2,000 lb. minimum
breaking strain); five 100 ft nylon ropes; six abseil slings; Everest goggles; Grivel, ten point crampons; a high altitude tent; an altimeter; Yukon pack frames – the list was an endless one. ‘You will also need boots. I should see about these right away. They may need to be made.’

I told Wanda, my wife.

‘I think he’s insane,’ she said, ‘just dotty. What will happen if you say no?’

‘I already have but he doesn’t take any notice. You see what he says here, if we don’t go as mountaineers we shan’t get permission.’

‘Have you told the Directors you’re leaving?’

‘Yes.’

‘You
are
in a spot. We’re all in a spot. Well, if you’re going I’m going too. I want to see this mountain.’

BOOK: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
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