Page 166 of the Picador edition of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush ranks among the funniest things I've ever read. On it, Newby quotes from a phrasebook of the Afghan Bashgali language, which apparently contains opening gambits like 'How long have you had a goitre', 'I have nine fingers; you have ten', 'A dwarf has come to ask for food' and 'I have an intention to kill you', which made me laugh so hard I actually dropped my copy of the book. One day I hope to lay my hands on the phrasebook from which Newby quotes here. Which may prove hard, as it's over 100 years old and devilishly obscure.
While not as hilarious as the quotes listed above, the rest of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush -- about the author's impromptu trip to Afghanistan's Nuristan region, one of the most inaccessible parts of the world -- is pretty damn entertaining, too. You see, the road from Kabul to Nuristan is rather mountainous, and the author and his companion aren't exactly experienced mountaineers. They are an haute couture salesman and a career diplomat, respectively, whose only serious climbing experience prior to setting off for Afghanistan is a two-day crash course in Wales. Needless to say, this leaves them woefully unprepared for the majesty of Mir Samir, a tall and windy peak they have vowed to climb. Their misadventures on the mountain, described in a witty, self-deprecating and quintessentially British style, make for interesting reading. So does the rest of their trip. The book gets off to a slow (albeit entertaining) start, but once the actual expedition gets under way, it gets better with every page. Newby is an excellent writer with a keen eye for character, beauty and absurd dialogue. His descriptions of the scenery and the eccentric characters they come across are superb, as are his underplayed but impressive tales of woe. And boy, do the author and his friend come to woe. Yet despite the setbacks they persevere, and in the end they're rewarded for their perseverance with a chance encounter with the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who kindly calls them a couple of pansies.
If I have any quibbles with the book, they concern the ending, which is rather abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The rest of the book, however, is excellent, especially the second half. Highly recommended to armchair travellers and real explorers alike.