Written in stone
Of course this is a pilgrimage. Colin Thubron walks two weeks from remote western Nepal to the Tibet border, is carried by SUV to the foot of Mt Kailash and then performs the kora or circumambulation of that holy mountain. He says he is impelled by a cold secular fact — the recent death of his mother, his last living relative — rather than religious awe and a desire to gain merit. He is a travel writer, one of the very best; so, add professional curiosity. What is unusual about multiple motives?
But Thubron, now in his 70s, appears to struggle with the idea. His other books are travel narratives and novels. In 2000 he told the Guardian, “When I finish a travel book I want to write some fiction. Equally, after writing a novel I want to go out, meet a billion Chinese people or something like that.” So each completed work is the cause of the next, from travel to fiction and back again.
Here, by contrast, Thubron is stumped on page 9 by a question from his Nepali porter. Iswor, a young man of 27, has just told Thubron he works to earn enough to marry, even if it will take years. “And you?” Iswor asks, “Why are you doing this, travelling alone?”
“I am doing this on account of the dead,” Thubron writes, though at the time he didn’t know what answer to make. In his other books Thubron says next to nothing about himself or the motives, other than professional and intellectual, that propel him. He has written about Damascus, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Istanbul, the Venetians, Brezhnev’s Russia, Deng’s China, Central Asia, the countries along the ancient Silk Road, post-Soviet Siberia. This pilgrimage to Mt Kailash is, comparatively, a mere outing, though he is old to be making this trek.
His first trip to China, for example, which resulted in Behind the Wall (1987), happened because the country had begun to open to the West.
Thubron went because he wanted to understand the Cultural Revolution and its impact on China’s people. He was rattling those skeletons even before his aeroplane touched down in Beijing.
That is a clear motive. Here in To a Mountain in Tibet, however, Thubron cannot be just observer. He is also participant. As in all pilgrimages, the more important journey takes place inside the pilgrim’s mind.
In Nepal, Thubron stops at the isolated monastery of Yalbang. Monasteries and monks are a recurring feature in his travel writing. He talks to Yalbang’s abbot, asking about his family and how the tiny community of monks holds together. Family is another theme, particularly in this book. Thubron meets monks who have left their homes behind and given themselves to their teacher or spiritual path. He reflects on “their lightness, their lack of need”, and then writes about the sad task of sorting through the possessions of his dead mother. (His father died years before.)
He found his parents’ love letters, and not without hesitation read them. They reveal a couple he had not quite known; they sharpen his sense of loss, and the photographs blur his sense of linear time. He is at this point passing through the high, empty borderlands where hard work barely guarantees survival. Thubron’s sentences grow tight and freighted, as if the body’s fight against altitude and misery manifests in his words.
This happens again, more spectacularly, on the very flanks of Mt Kailash. Here Thubron abandons descriptiveness altogether; instead he moves like a religious pilgrim through a landscape filled with meaning. A steep rock face here is described in an old guide book he carries as being like “the north wall of the Eiger from Grindelwald”, in the Alps.
He writes: “Grindelwald was where my sister died, killed by an avalanche at the age of twenty-one. Between rock and snow, skiing.” And once more his sentences grow short and sheer. “We are climbing into near-darkness.” He has always been precise and economical, but this is not native Thubron. It is astonishing that he hits such notes.
The weary conflictedness of the author — orphaned, adrift, alone — shapes this sharp, sorrowful book. Every great book on the Himalayas shares its aspect of pilgrimage. But not every writer is as comfortable with an absence of conclusion. The immediate comparison is with Peter Matthiessen‘s immortal but less bleak The Snow Leopard (1978), about another pilgrimage after loss where the objective was not attained. That book took me a year to read. Every moment seemed important. Thubron’s book is less generous, and reveals perhaps the greater vulnerability, but like Matthiessen’s it is written to last.