To a Mountain in Tibet: A well-travelled writer loses his breath

A Himalayan pilgrimage filled with epiphanic moments unites the exploration of eastern religion with an arduous climb through austere, oxygen-poor altitudes.

Colin Thubron is the author of several respected travel tomes.
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Colin Thubron first attempted to participate in the yearly, sacred circumambulation of Kailas in Tibet - a mountain "holy to one-fifth of the earth's people" - in 2008. He was thwarted: Tibetan protests against the Chinese Olympics caused the Tibet-Nepal border to close. He made it a year later, though the atmosphere was still tense, with a heavy Chinese police presence. Setting out from Simikot, Nepal, with a small party ("a guide, a cook, a horseman, myself"), Thubron managed a journey of several hundred miles round-trip over some of the steepest, roughest and most astonishing terrain on the planet. To a Mountain in Tibet is the spectacular, thoughtful result.

The author of many distinguished travel books (most recently the well-received Shadow of the Silk Road) and a set of good but difficult novels, Thubron is here obviously making a pilgrimage of his own: uniting his old fascination with religion - particularly Buddhism - with an arduous climb through austere, oxygen-poor altitudes. The motives behind the trip are manifold. First is the author's romantic attraction toward the mysterious East and its even more mysterious religions. In this context, Tibet is a key myth to decode: "For years, I had heard of it only as a figment. Isolated beyond the parapet of the central Himalaya, it permeated early Hindu scriptures as the mystic mount Meru, whose origins go back to the dawn of Aryan time."

Second is a personal crisis brought on by the death of his mother, which left him the sole surviving member of his family. Early in the trip the author is asked by a sherpa why he is "travelling alone". He can't reply but later muses, "I am doing this on account of the dead… and to leave a sign of their passage." Indeed, each member of Thubron's deceased family is commemorated in a terse, moving recollection as their memories return to him on the trek. Thurbron summarises the cross-cultural oddity of his quasi-religious quest: "You cannot walk out your grief, I know, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back. You're left with the desire only for things not to be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the Earth's surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage... Am I harrowing myself because the world is mortal? Whose pain am I purging? Not theirs. An old Tibetan monk tells me the soul has no memory. The dead do not feel their past."

It wouldn't be hard, by tactical quotation, to pass To a Mountain in Tibet off as an adventure thriller, albeit slowed to a walking pace. "[T]he journey does not nurture reflection, as I once hoped," Thubron writes. "The going is too hard, too steep." Here he is at 11,000 feet, just outside Tibet: "For long minutes I am slumped on rocks gasping ... I turn my back and stare down at the distant river and flayed hills, calming my heart, wondering why I am doing this ... Then my trekking pole snaps ... I think: if things are like this at 11,000 feet, how will they be at over 18,500, where I am going? ... I wonder for the first time if I will finish this journey." At about 17,000 on the last stretch, he's overtaken by unspiritual physical effort: "I climb no more than 10 paces before stopping again, heaving for air... People die here."

The whole point of travel for the self-effacing Thubron, however, is not how he got there but the destination. His first view of Tibet: "In this rarefied air ... I glimpse with a catch of the heart the violet-tinged steppes of Tibet shelving north-west." There are many such epiphanic moments in the book, and some disillusionment as well. Of Taklakot, the first big town he comes to, he writes: "This is Tibet, I tell myself, I am in Tibet. But the town has a lunar placelessness ... the gutted feel of other Chinese frontier places." He observes by the shop fronts that the "vanguard of a new civilisation is dourly in place".

The visual dimensions of the trip get all the meticulous attention Thubron's high-powered prose can generate. He also sharply observes the physical sensations of being at such high altitudes: "At 15,000 feet the air feels light. My heart is beating harder, but my feet go numbly over the sand. The distances, in this clarified air, are greater than they seem." Throughout, the writing - as in most of his books - is almost too good; his metaphors sometimes take off and never return to earth. Yet he isn't here to revel in egocentric (however eccentric) sensation. For him travel means serving the destination, bringing his thorough research to bear as well as his curiosity about what's still hidden.

And so, alongside the adventure, is a compendium of key Tibetan motifs. Thubron is eloquent on the mystique of the "inaccessible" Tibet that has attracted generations of adventurers, mystics and scholars (plus a fair share of kooks) and given rise to the myth of the lost paradise Shangri-la. He's also good on the basic beliefs of Buddhism, which seem to attract him, especially in their effort to accept "transience".

Also impressive is his very thorough cultural history of the nations, tribes, sects and subsects taking part in the 53km sacred hike around the mountain known as the kora. In explaining the varied motivations of the two main cults that worship on Kailas - Hindu and Buddhist - Thubron draws on earlier legwork done in Nepal on Buddhist links to Hinduism and the relation of Hinduism's principal deities - Shiva and Kali - to the Tibetan deities. He also explains the transformation of Buddhism from its earlier Indian version to the Tibetan form illustrated in the rich iconography of statues and paintings to be found in temples and monasteries (that weren't destroyed by the Chinese).

Thubron explores the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion of Bon and the strata of violent earth spirits and "wrathful deities ... that infiltrate the Tibetan pantheon with terror ... and that haunt every temple like a bitter shadow world." His bias in favour of the older and more primitive layer is amusingly revealed in one episode where he nearly has to coerce a temple monk to unlock a door and let him see the officially disgraced red-faced demon Kangri Latsen.

Also memorable are his reflections on the natural rock formations that are believed by the pilgrims to be "self-manifest" work of the gods. Not just one or two rocks but the whole landscape is full of "anthropomorphic" shapes credited to the work of Buddha or some miracle-working saint. On Kailas itself, the author lights on the idea of a "world mountain" as a pan-Asian concept that links his own destination to such disparate places as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia. He also considers mountain worship as an expression of the ancient belief in a ladder joining heaven and earth.

Finally Thubron never lets you forget that this is lived religious experience, and puts the reader in the middle of it: "You gather empowered earth and pluck healing herbs. You sip divine water. Sin is cleaned like sweat from the body. Your prayers, too, are spoken aloud into the listening air ... And at some time you utter the plea that your pilgrimage may aid the enlightenment of all sentient beings."

Which brings us to the human element. Like all good nonfiction writers, Thubron realises that information alone, no matter how engrossing, won't hold readers for long if it isn't tied to actual human beings. Though he doesn't seem an easy-going extrovert, he talks to a wide range of people, from the Nepali members of his team to monks and lamas and other pilgrims (but only one westerner). A chance conversation with a young monk in exile, an orphan like the author, must have hit home: "My family is this monastery now... My father, my mother, my brothers, they're all here."

If Thubron hasn't quite added to the "adventure" canon in this travel memoir, he has probably done something more important: offered an updated, brilliantly written guide to one of the world's greatest religious ceremonies. He has also drawn attention to one of the world's most politically troubled places and made it harder for China to conceal its long history of oppression in Tibet. One can hope this small but dense tome will thereby inspire others to visit Tibet in the same sensitive, informed spirit.

James Dalglish teaches Creative Nonfiction at UAE University in Al Ain and is a freelance literary journalist, translator and travel writer.