I’ve just finished reading Robert Byron’s account of his journeys in Persia and Afghanistan undertaken between 1933 and 1934 and recounted in his volume “The Road to Oxiana”. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The title makes reference to the River Oxus: the largest river in Central Asia and which represented the Eastern-most boundary of Greek influence in classical times.
Written in the old style of travel-writing – more or less in the form of a diary – its pages are filled with subtle observations, hilarious (and sometimes downright dangerous) escapades, diligent and precise ethnography and delightful prose.
Byron obviously came from a privileged background that allowed him to travel in style. He employed chauffeurs, private guards and a servant who would do everything from washing his clothes, cooking his meals and preparing his bed. He stayed in the private houses of ambassadors and opulent hotels and was evidently wealthy enough to purchase a car for some of his travels.
Furthermore, many of his meetings with the upper-echelons of Afghanistan and Iran are preceded by letters of introduction penned by contacts high up in the civil service of Britain and the near-East.
It was travel in a different class. One can’t help but notice that lunch is almost always accompanied by at least one bottle of wine – and sometimes more. In one hotel in Iran he buys their whole wine cellar and on more than one occasion, breakfast consisted of ‘whisky and cigars’.
But this was no toffs’ outing. When the occasion dictated, he was not averse to sleeping in the open, hitching lifts in lorries and riding on horse-back. He frequently suffered hunger and thirst (at one time resorting to drinking muddied snow), as well as the frequent inflictions of lice and bed-bugs. There were innumerable set-backs to their journey as they were unable to obtain visas and permission to cross borders. Distances traversed were large and they set themselves a punishing schedule. One notices that he frequently rose at four in the morning in order to be ready for departure before dawn. That their plans were ultimately frustrated by the denial of a travel permit to reach the River Oxus only adds poignancy to their journey.
Furthermore, much of their travel negotiation and discourse appears to have been undertaken in Persian. In the days before Linguaphone, one assumes this was gleaned from a simple phrase book, making it no small achievement in just a few months. (Though it is admittedly true that his travelling companion, Christopher Sykes had studied Farsi at SOAS).
But one is left impressed by the wide education that Byron brings to his observations. There is a huge wealth of knowledge of architecture, linguistics and history that scarcely seems possible for such a young man (Byron was just 28 at the time of his travels). And remarkably, in an account from this era, there is a very little hint of the sophisticated anthropologist studying the primitive native. Indeed, his prose displays a rare sensitivity for local people as well as an overt disgust of the Shah’s omnipotent power and wealth.
Byron died during the second World War, presumed drowned after the ship that was carrying him to West Africa was torpedoed off the coast of Scotland. In his short life he achieved so much more than many of us do in twice the number of years.
If you are short of something to read and in need of inspiration, I can absolutely recommend ‘The Road to Oxiana’.