Travel literature review: Halfway House to Heaven

Halfway House to Heaven by Bill Colegrave

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

I must admit to a certain amount of jealously when I first encountered Halfway House to Heaven by Bill Colegrave. The Wakhan Corridor, that long thin sliver of Afghanistan thrusting into the Pamir Mountains, hemmed in on three sides by Pakistan, China and Tajikistan, has long been on my own radar, ever since I read The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron and Peter Hopkirk's Great Game series.  Colegrave, though, claims a much older influence, the Central Asian tragedy of Sohrab and Rustum, as recounted by the 19th century English poet Matthew Arnold.

Colegrave is well aware of the size of the footsteps he's following as he sets off to discover the true source of Central Asia's mysterious River Oxus, a quest that has enticed adventurers throughout the ages. With a passion for history and geography, Colegrave reveals a fascinating region seldom seen by outsiders and we're treated to the enthralling colonial exploits of Curzon, Younghusband and John Wood intermingled with more recent visitors including Eric Newby,  Greg Mortensen (of Three Cups of Tea fame) and Colegrave's own previous outings.

Halfway House to Heaven is more expedition log than travel narrative - we garner scant details about the author himself, other than he suffers from vertigo, isn't short of a quid, and planned most of the trip from his bath. Nor does he expand widely on his travelling companions, or on the various ethnic groups encountered en-route. This doesn't detract from the account, rather it lends an authenticity reminiscent of the styles of the earlier explorers whose feats he would emulate. We're left with a quirky, rather short book containing some excellent images, a superb bibliography, quite a few typos and the odd factual error — Rakaposhi does not rise 15 vertical kilometres (no mountain on earth does) and Shimshal is actually north-east, not west of Hunza. The main map, so integral to the story, suffers from poor reproduction.

However, aficionados of 19thC exploration and Central Asia will forgive these shortcomings, as Colegrave has left a true explorer's legacy, by smoothing the path for those that choose to follow, and offering at least one tantalizing new problem to solve.

Steve Waters misplaced his youth somewhere in the high passes of Hunza and Chinese Turkestan and now rides a desk in LP’s Melbourne office.

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