Colin Thubron’s new book will disappoint those of his readers who admire him for his reserve. He is the last and perhaps the best of the gentleman travellers of the old school, his books distinguished by scholarship, rigour and that extraordinary ability that he has made his own: the capacity to immerse himself in someone else’s culture and yet remain utterly detached. Those same readers may also be disappointed by the slimness of the present volume, which occupies days rather than months and encompasses a mere province rather than the usual continent. But they would be wrong to dismiss To a Mountain in Tibet as lightweight. Nothing Thubron writes cannot but be taken seriously, and this same book may come to be seen not only as the most revealing he has ever published but also the most profound.
To a Mountain in Tibet is a first-person account of a short trek over the Central Himalayan chain from Nepal to the Chang Tang plateau of far western Tibet, followed by a circumambulation of the sacred peak of Mount Kailas. The Kailas kora is now a feature of every Himalayan trekking company’s brochure and to Thubron’s evident irritation the cat that specialises in walking by himself is forced by the Chinese authorities to travel as part of an organised tour. He sulks Achilles-like as far as he can and, as soon as the Tibet border formalities are done with, reverts to his accustomed status of solitary traveller; solitary, that is, but for the necessary company of a local guide and cook (not Sherpas but less sophisticated Tamangs, for centuries oppressed by their more powerful Hindu neighbours but now, in Thubron’s words, ‘touched by an urban gloss’), and the occasional ponyman.
At the southern foot of Mount Kailas he joins a crowd of Tibetan pilgrims to witness the shamanistic ritual of the raising of the great flag-draped earth-sky pole that takes place annually at the full moon of the fourth month, tut-tutting at the heavy-handed policing of the event by the authorities (who, if Thubron’s observations are accurate, grow increasingly oppressive with each passing year). He then climbs to the nearby plateau to witness the grim rites of sky- burial before descending to follow the pilgrims into the great howling cleft that marks the start of the Kailas circuit.
From beginning to end the Kailas pilgrimage is tough going, but no great hardship for a 70-year-old traveller in good health. Indeed, I have myself witnessed the senior wife of a very senior American academic breasting with the aid of crutches the 18,600ft Dolma La pass that marks the high point of the Kailas circuit. Since Sven Hedin in 1907, a great many westerners have completed the circuit and gone home to write about it. It is what Thubron makes of it that matters — and where he draws away from the rest of us.
So here is a deceptively simple account of a journey told in the classic form of a double helix: an outer and an inner journey intertwined. The telling of the outer journey is masterly, with that sharp poetic eye for detail that is Thubron at his best. ‘We are entering the mountains as if following a jagged knife thrust,’ he writes in describing that timor montorum that is both the delight and terror of the high mountain traveller. ‘The smallest earth tremor, I feel, will snuff us out. Rather than making height, we are going deep. Whenever the valley walls part, the pinnacles of ice-bound mountains gleam beyond, and razor-sharp palisades, scarred with snow melt, steam up into powder-puff clouds.’
His human contacts along the way are caught in equally sharp detail, whether they be children newly released from a village school — ‘A tribe of leprechauns might be running amok there. But they are dressed in pink jumpsuits stamped with Mickey Mouse or blazoned “Going It” or “The Vogue Current”. Under their bobble hats their cheeks are flushed crimson and their hair coerced into pigtails or pageboy crops. They seem insanely happy’ — or the Tibetan Buddhist abbot of Yalbang who relates the ‘strange sacred history’ of his monastery and its reincarnate tulku lamas while Thubron stares at him ‘across a deep divide’.
It is through such encounters, chiefly with those who, like the abbot, have suffered displacement and found accommodation in one form or another, that we become aware that Thubron’s inner journey is in the nature of a quest. To be fair, he lets the reader know almost from the start that he is grieving for his lost family: his parents and an elder sister, drowned when he himself was a teenager. ‘I am doing this on account of the dead,’ he writes. ‘Sometimes journeys begin long before their first step is taken. Mine, without my knowing, starts not long ago, in a hospital ward, as the last of my family dies … I need to leave a sign of their passage’.
So his journey through the Himalayas and round the sacred mountain becomes more than a pilgrimage; a time for remembrances of things past and gone for ever — including flashbacks of Thubron’s early childhood with his parents in India and memories of the (relatively) nearby hill station of Naini Tal: ‘Time is unsteady here. Sometimes I am a boy again, trying to grasp the words Never, never again.’ Grief unhealed leads on to meditations on the nature of suffering, death and the human condition, deftly woven into the narrative by stages. This in turn expands into an examination of the means by which the locals come to terms with these same phenomena, chiefly in the forms of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism and the earlier shamanism with which the holy mountain is so closely bound.
Whatever Thubron writes has something of the driven about it, something lurking in the hinterland that requires the reader to tread lightly for fear of missing something. Here Thubron peers into those hidden corners more directly than he has ever done before, perhaps revealing more of his inner demons than he might have wished. For a moment I feared the worst: that he would come down from the holy mountain declaring himself shriven, purged and enlightened, having found the Blavatskyan Wisdom of the East in Shangri-La. But I should have known better. Thubron re-emerges onto the bleak Tibetan plain shaken but not stirred, unwavering in his stoicism.