Colin Thubron may come to regret having written To a Mountain in Tibet, now in paperback. It concerns a journey to, and the ritual circling of, Mount Kailash in Western Tibet, and is already on the Top 10 bestseller list in the UK. It’s certain to increase Western tourism to this most revered of the world’s mountains, and could even result, God help us, in a film. Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air on the deaths on Everest the previous year was, after all, made into a TV feature within months of its publication. Should Kailash receive that kind of publicity, its nature could be changed for ever.
Kailash (Thubron prefers the spelling Kailas) has been seen as the world’s navel, and is certainly the source of India’s four greatest rivers. To circle it along a 32-mile (51km) trail is considered by Buddhists to be the ultimate pilgrimage, and to wipe out the sins of a lifetime. Hindus view it with equal reverence, as do the followers of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion of Bon (who circle it, unlike other pilgrims, counter-clockwise). Most devotees take three days on the circumnavigation, or “kora”, though some manage it in 24 hours, while others, prostrating themselves after every step, can take weeks. To achieve the kora 108 times is said to propel you into instant Nirvana.
Thubron, now 73, undertook the journey in May and June 2009. He flew from Kathmandu to the earth airstrip of Simikot in the extreme west of Nepal, then made his way to the Hilsa crossing-post into Tibet. He was accompanied by a porter, a cook, and a horse man; this last and his animals had to drop out of the expedition while still in Nepal. The other three continued on foot, except for a spell in a Land Cruiser in the company of seven middle-aged British trekkers with whom Thubron had had to team up in order to enter Tibet as a member of a group, as required by the Chinese authorities.
To a Mountain in Tibet
By Colin Thubron
Thubron’s method, like that of many travel writers before him, is, like a good pastry-cook, to fold digressions into his descriptions of the journey. These fall into two groups — those on Buddhist and other legends as suggested by his peeps into religious houses along the route, and memories of his family, notably his father, mother and young sister, all of whom have died by the time he undertakes his expedition.
The legendary background takes up most space, but it’s his family members that make for his most unsettling passages. This is clearly intended, so much so that you quickly understand that it’s the tragic death of his sister, aged only 21, in a mountaineering accident in Europe that’s going to augment the book’s culminating kora of the sacred mountain. And so it proves. He was unable to travel among mountains, he relates, for long after her death near the north face of the Eiger, and in one light-headed moment at high altitude it’s almost as if he’s about to view her ghost, though he stops short of what would clearly be an over-melodramatic effect.
But Kailash, and Tibetan life as a whole, represents in many ways a culture of death. Eight people had already died attempting the kora that year, we’re told, and great swathes of Tibetan lore are constructed to prepare devotees for their passing. Thubron is aware of this, and of the contrast between the Oriental belief-systems that make light of mortality, seeing all things as transient, and the Western inability to do much in the face of death other than grieve and remember. Thubron can’t change his Western nature, he says, despite the presence on all sides of people and beliefs that would have him do so. But this contrast, and the family memories that fuel it, make for the internal drama that lies at the heart of the book.