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Sunday, 17 November 2013

PAKISTAN: Carry on up the Khyber (without the innuendo)

Mule Train by Huw Francis

This is a backpacking novel that any of you heading out to the opium growing areas of the world need to read! It won't put you off going because the author vividly captures the life and people - in this instance Pakistan - but it will encourage you to be wary of chance encounters! All set against the beautiful and imposing backdrop of the Himalaya. 

Helpfully to start with, there is a small map of Pakistan (although the bordering countries could also be usefully included in the next edition, as a lot of the action heads towards Afghanistan). It would also have been lovely to have a bit of background about the author, as he clearly knows this part of the world really well and writes with passion about the country, the food and the customs.  

The opening pages of the book set the scene nicely for the ensuing encounters between Matt and Annie, Ricky (also known as Raseem Hasni) and Ishmael Khan, border policeman, and various other characters who glide in and out of the storyline. It is a good story and the writing itself is smooth and very readable, as the various backpackers set out on their journeys and chance upon each other. From hostel to hotel, via tuk-tuk and bus, each character has his/her own backstory, which drives each onward and deeper into the country. "Four lives come together in the remote and spectacular mountains bordering Afghanistan and explode in a deadly cocktail of treachery, betrayal and violence". And there you have the nub of the storyline.

This is a novel that also informs. Inspiration is drawn from Eric Newby's wonderful travelogue A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Rudyard Kipling's Kim, both are mentioned in the novel. Annie travels on the same train from Peshawar into the Khyber tribal area that her Grandfather had described to her as a child, which she finds thrilling - and we thrill along with her. Little snippets bring understanding to the reader - for example the men of Chitral and Gilgit now play polo but not so long ago were fighting each other. And it wasn't the British who introduced the locals to the game of Polo; Polo in fact originated in Persia and came from there to Britain. In many ways, this hugely informative book brings this multifaceted country to life, its history but it also brings the hazards of opium production and drug smuggling to the fore. Beware the traveller who enters this region in a naive state of mind, and further clouds it with drug use whilst there. Trouble could well lie ahead!

I certainly felt hooked by this book, and looked forward to picking it up again after each break in reading; the storyline and the region come together really well. The plot does, however, become a bit threadbare as the novel heads towards the end, meandering over the potholed roads and rugged terrain of the north of the country in search of its conclusion. The adjective 'nervous' was a favoured term and was gratingly over-used. And Ricky and Chris were the least plausible characters: the former because his chance encounter that is central to the book seemed too staged; the latter - in his role of Customs Official - seemed to have carte blanche over his expense account and activities, which seemed an unlikely scenario as an employee of The UK Border Agency (who hopefully in reality has a more structured response than mere whim and one drugs arrest at Heathrow when it comes to combatting drug smuggling and searching for disappearing UK nationals). In the next edition no doubt it will be possible to get rid of the volley of hashtags that appeared in our copy from about the middle of the book, and also to rectify some of the small typos that popped up intermittently - although these didn't really affect the overall positive reading experience.

We are really pleased to feature this novel amongst our collated Must-Reads for any backpacking adventure. 

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Tina and the TripFiction Team

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