Half a century after Eric Newby wrote the definitive Afghanistan travel book, Lianne Gutcher visits the Panjshir Valley to meet his local sidekick
The books editor of the newspaper I wrote for before moving to Afghanistan to work was clearly appalled.
And rightly so. The tale by Eric Newby is considered by some to be the best and most humorous travel book written. It recounts Newby’s adventures with his diplomat friend Hugh Carless as they attempted, rather ineptly, to climb Mir Samir in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountain range in the 1950s.
I quickly added A Short Walk to my ‘Afghanistan To Read List’, to fill this heinous gap in my research. So four months later in Kabul, when my new friend and guidebook author Matthew Leeming asked whether I would be interested in a day-trip to the Panjshir Valley, where the book is set, I jumped at the chance.
Our mission was to deliver a copy of A Short Walk, signed by Carless, to Badar Khan, one of the two guides who accompanied Newby and Carless on their expedition.
The Panjshir is Afghanistan’s most beautiful river valley and offers a wonderful escape from the dust and bombs of Kabul as well as being a favourite picnicking spot. Even now, amid the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, such pleasures can be enjoyed.
As we headed out of a polluted Kabul, leaving behind the Toyota Corolla-congested roads, Matthew handed over a battered hardback copy of the book. On inspecting the dust jacket, I noticed that a chunk of text had been carefully snipped out. The blurb had erroneously described the guides as ‘surly Nuristanis’ rather than ‘stout-hearted Panjshiris’. This would have caused great offence; though hailing from neighbouring provinces, Nuristanis and Panjshiris do not get along.
A fairly decent road took us the 30km from Kabul to the start of the valley. Sadly for tourists the ‘tank graveyard’ has been cleared away but it is still possible to spot the odd rusting hulk of a Russian armoured vehicle littering the roadside. We also stopped at the monument commemorating Ahmad Shah Massoud, the mujahideen leader killed by Al-Qaeda in September 2001. Given that Massoud is a national hero, the brash memorial surrounding his tomb is a little disappointing – not least because it remains unfinished and is, to Western eyes, frankly a little tacky.
Arriving in the village in which we had been told Badar Khan lived, we were faced with the problem of how to find him. We flagged down a helpful local who pointed out Badar Khan’s grandson – he had just swept up in a 4WD, and invited us to the house.
Badar Khan had evidently done not too badly for himself in the past half-century. As well as the 4WD (de rigueur for aid workers, warlords and men of means), he also boasted a number of wives and several beautiful buzkashi horses. Buzkashi is Afghanistan’s national sport, most often likened to polo – but played with a dead goat.
Badar Khan welcomed us in. In the book, he is described by Newby as ‘cunning, intelligent and the antithesis of the faithful retainer’. Although no spring chicken – Badar Khan was about the same age as the pair had been when they made the trip, and Newby died in 2006, aged 86 – he looked as if he had retained his guile.
We handed the book over. Unable to read, let alone read in English, Badar Khan initially held the book upside down. Righted for him, he then flicked through until he came across the photographs. He peered at the images of his younger self.
In those pictures he looked remarkably similar to the local guides who today shepherd tourists round. Indeed, just beyond Badar Khan’s house, where the road runs out, the valley has hardly changed since Newby and Carless’s day.
Travellers start their days at 4am, setting off through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. As the sun rises and slowly warms the valleys, layers of the 4m-long pattu (shawl) that keeps out the chill are peeled off. Eventually, there is that longed-for moment when the horse dung that has been produced en route is used to boil water for chai (tea). Newby and Carless failed in their attempt to climb Mir Samir. They were defeated 500m from the summit, which was at the time, unconquered.
Ash Sweeting, Kabul’s most accomplished rock climber, thinks not. Two years ago, armed with a copy of the book, he made an attempt on Mir Samir.
“You’ve got to remember that there’s been an order-of-magnitude improvement in climbing equipment since 1957,” Sweeting said. “In five minutes we got up an ice face that took them hours, simply because of our equipment. It was a very difficult climb when they did it. It wasn’t a failure – for two beginners to come so close to the summit of Mir Samir was something like a triumph.”
Meeting Badar Khan was the inspiration I needed to finally read the book – a 50th anniversary edition. It was as good as its hype, and its infamous last line, the put-down delivered by Wilfred Thesiger to Newby and Carless (“a couple of pansies”, apparently), did not fail to raise a hearty chuckle.
A month later I heard that Badar Khan had died. Reflecting on our visit, I felt doubly privileged – to have been able to travel to this wild, beautiful and hospitable place, and to have met one of the protagonists in a small moment of literary history.
The 50th anniversary edition of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (£8.99) by Eric Newby is published by Pan Macmillan