Rating: 4 & 1/2 Stars
Colin Thubron does not indulge in the sort of travel spiels intended to lure in unsuspecting vacationers. For example, reading ‘To a Mountain in Tibet’ is hardly likely to send anyone careening up the Himalayan slopes with the idea that a jaunt to Tibet would be just the ticket. At no point does he understate the remoteness and inaccessibility of this land. That would leave the armchair traveler wondering as to the mysterious allure of mountains. What is it that men seek there that they can’t find elsewhere? Adventure, perhaps? Or, maybe, is it the desire for solitude, a quest for the meaning of life, or, a chance to confront one’s own mortality?
Thubron is too reticent and subtle a writer to offer us any facile explanations. We do learn a few things, however. Thubron is in bereavement over the recent demise of his mother. He had lost his father several years earlier, and his sister had died in a tragic accident at the age of twenty-one. That leaves him now the sole survivor of his family, an unenviable position for anyone to be in. Rather than a mere description of exotic people and places, this is a meditation on family, love, loss, and, grief.
You cannot walk out on your grief, I know, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back. You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth’s surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage. Yet the meaning is not your own. Then you go on a journey (it’s my profession, after all), walking to a place beyond your own history, to the sound of the river flowing the other way. In the end you come to rest at a mountain that is holy to others.
The book is not all philosophizing, by any means. The mountain in question is Mount Kailas, sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, and the Bon religion of Tibet. The route taken is through the Karnali valley in Nepal, with Thubron being accompanied by three Sherpa who serve as guide, cook, and porter. The author tells us about the lives of the various ethnic groups inhabiting the regions he passes through. He treads lightly on the geopolitics of the region, though he does not shy away from bleak references to the Chinese government’s ongoing efforts to obliterate Tibetan identity. The picture we get of the country’s urbanized landscape is an unattractive, homogenized drabness.
So much for the shabby towns; yet, his prose is exquisite when he speaks of the natural backdrop of his travels. His limning of plant, animal and mineral life is delicate as feather strokes, leaving echoes of beauty in the memory. Whether he’s describing the pristine loveliness of Lake Manasarovar, or the stark majesty of Kailas, we’re awe-struck at the splendor that still graces our ravaged planet.
Though he does debunk a lot of the myths that shroud this land of legendary mysticism, he also listens to and narrates fabulous tales of miracle and wonder, as in perhaps, his wistful reference to the lamas of the ‘rainbow body’. This refers to the passing away of an enlightened lama, who upon the death of his corporeal body, dematerializes in a spray of iridescent light. Thubron is well-read in the Eastern faiths, but throughout the book, he wavers between the scholar’s instinctive skepticism, and the lonely wanderer’s yearning to believe. Even as he accomplishes his goal of completing the kora - the circumambulation of Mt. Kailas - he wonders at the thin line that delineates superstition from faith.
He had me wondering too. It seems to me that doubt is a precious gift, no less so than belief; the un-dissuaded pilgrim is enriched by both. Tentatively, I would suggest that superstition is the groping in the dark, immured in the blindness of our own mind. As for faith…it must be that which can discern the Rainbow Body.