‘To a Mountain in Tibet’: A Secular Pilgrim’s Progress to the Center of the World

Colin Thubron is touted as a master of the travel genre, and understandably so. This tale immediately plunges you into the climb into the Himalayas, towards the Nepalese remoteness of Humla, on his way to the sacred “spindle” of Hindus and Buddhists as the world’s axis, the Kailas peak over the Tibetan border. Thubron describes the scenes clearly, without sentiment, but with compassion as well as objectivity. The estrangement he feels, as a British hiker able to enter the realm where Tibetan exiles cannot in search of this pilgrimage site, deepens the resonance of his story.

For example, one guide’s face “has the lemony blandness of a sumo wrestler’s, faintly androgynous.” A woman carries on her back a sick baby, “bundled like a sad, balding toy.” Thurbon’s tale expands as he intertwines the story of his father, who hunted and served as a soldier in colonial India, and of his recently departed mother, for he must now figure out what to do with their love letters, dithering between destroying them and keeping them, for this is “how once-private things endure: not by intention, but because their extinction is unbearable.” The combination of study, as a rather reticent Englishman, and candor as a tale-teller shows Thubron’s commitment to convey the truth during his own journey inward as well as upward. He makes his own progress as a pilgrim, and his tale spirals as its direction narrows.

Determined to resist a soft-focus look at Tibet, Thubron labors up the trail from Nepal: “the journey does not nurture reflection, as I once hoped. The going is too hard, too steep.” For Hindus, “‘departure for Kailas’ is a metaphor for death.” His gasping high on the slopes, his destination far above, reminds him of his deathbed watch beside his mother, gasping through her oxygen mask. His sister’s sudden death enters later in the story, poignantly spare and eerily appropriate in what Thubron chooses to reveal about her passing away, and that place of her presence, and absence, within him.

His combination of reserve and admission admires as much as it decries in this haunted, barren, vivid wilderness where rivers are littered by Chinese beer bottles and filled with the soil of construction projects by the regime. He knows its beauties offer little sustenance for its impoverished inhabitants, but he shares this dreamlike scenery that stuns jaded tourists. “But now, underfoot, spreads a glaze of delicate flowers I do not know, and the ground-hugging shrubs are starred with lemony blossoms.”

He shuffles by the trampled clothing left behind, the leavings of those pilgrims who have succumbed on the circuit of Kailas, the kora, their bodies given to the vultures on the high plateau. Entering a half-Chinese, half-Tibetan settlement, Taklakot, Thubron walks through a ghost town. “Here and there, as in some surreal dream, a rotted billiards table stands upended in the dust.”

His powers of description demonstrate his mingled compassion and scrutiny: “In this cold, weakened air I stare a little wretched at the heap of rags, which seems to symbolise pure loss: the loss that mourns the tang of all human difference, of a herdsman’s impromptu song, perhaps, the lilt of a laugh in Grindelwald, or the fingers that caress a favourite dog. On the slopes beside me the dressed-up rocks, plucked by the wind, look like dwarfs watching.”

He tells of Sven Hedin and cuckoos, sky burial and evangelists. He follows earlier Europeans into this fastness, and it seems about as far away from the West as one may penetrate. Vast peacock-blue or indigo lakes shimmer as the last remnants of a prehistoric sea. However, even skilled mountaineers such as Reinhold Messner have failed to scale Kailas. Perhaps this represents the power attributed to its home as Mount Meru, the mystical palace of Brahma. It keeps an aura about itself, apart from the highest, now almost too-familiar peaks climbed further east along the fabled ranges. Thubron respects the meaning of this holy setting.

After he inspects the burial site with its trodden and frozen rags of the departed, he cannot tell if mourners, as Buddhists, reject the soul and do not lament aloud, or if, as others report, they stretch out on the cold ground, weeping. Under the moon, he looks up where “constellations multiply and blur together like mist. The orange ones are probably long dead, their light arriving in posthumous and detached rays out of nowhere, while others are being born invisibly in the dark.”

This narrative recalled for me Andrew Harvey’s A Journey to Ladakh and Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard in its combination of mountain trek and subtle insight, if on a more secular scale than those two seekers. Pithily, Thubron notes the non-theism of his hosts: “The gods were only guides to the enlightenment that would erase them.” Bereavement tempers his excitement as he trudges up the summits and around the pyramid of Kailas. “In the minutes before sleep, a shadowy melancholy descends: the bewilderment when something long awaited has gone.”

Thubron efficiently sums up the context of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and of Hindu lore, the Bon religion and Buddhist practices, Chinese invasions and incursions, and the remnants of a monastic culture half-hidden among Nepal’s precarious position, after the Maoists overthrow its monarchy. The erosion of the deforested slopes corresponds to the globalization that even this explorer’s presence represents, at the frontier, the axis mundi, the abode of Shiva where the ancients imagined Heaven meets Earth.

How much of the sacred persists among the profane remains to be pondered. Thubron meets a frail old caretaker of the shrine of the holiest of Tibetan gurus, but “it is hard to know, from his aged face and tortoise movements, or from his brethren chanting in the temple, how wise or indolent these monks are.” Distance remains, even face-to-face.

I found To a Mountain in Tibet a more invigorating read than his previous book, Shadow of the Silk Road, which captured the excitement of the start of his last Asian trek but which also, fairly if dispiritedly, documented the lassitude that followed as he trudged westward. In this new travelogue, taking place in 2009, Thubron’s interest seems restored, and for us restorative. He does not romanticize but he scrutinizes, and allows us to see what he does, recorded meticulously but conveyed freshly in vigorous prose.

RATING 9 / 10