On the Sacred Mountain

A powerful, unexpected scene suddenly surfaces near the beginning of Colin Thubron’s characteristically beautiful, though uncharacteristically haunted, new book of travel. As he walks through the mountains of Nepal, toward the holy peak of Mount Kailas in Tibet, he abruptly realizes that he’s only 140 miles from Naini Tal, the Indian hill station whose name rang across his home as a boy, in his father’s reminiscences. His father had been a British soldier in India, he tells us, and the accounts, recently found by the son, of the father’s hunting trips from Naini Tal “are as detailed and exact as if he were on campaign.” His father’s hand-drawn maps “are meticulous, even beautiful, and his observations sometimes have the near-scientific exactitude of a Victorian explorer’s.” Maybe, Thubron writes in a typically brief but resonant phrase, his father on these trips “became solitary, perhaps himself.”

This is a startling moment for those of us who have followed this patient explorer on his majestic series of rigorous and soulful accounts of travels across the great land mass that links the Middle East, Central Asia, China, and Russia. For Thubron renders these often forbidding places transparently, and with rare immediacy, precisely by keeping himself mostly out of the picture. Coming across as a model of the elegant, reticent, and selfless British traveler of old, he offers records of foreign places at the other extreme from the richly subjective torrent of judgments, sexual confessions, digressions, and pop-cultural references we find in a modern American traveler such as Paul Theroux. Thubron all but erases himself in order to give us full and meticulous observations we can trust.

Yet every phrase of his description of his father could, in fact, refer to himself; it may be the best (though still fleeting) evocation of him we’ve had in his works of nonfiction (in his seven novels Thubron is correspondingly passionate and unguarded). The passage reminds us that, in another age, he might have been exactly the kind of person—part explorer, part uncomplaining soldier, part exquisitely learned civil servant—who helped imperial Britain control and administer such a large part of the globe. It also tells us that, beyond just undertaking a strenuous, life-challenging trip to the 22,000-foot peak that is sacred to Tibetans, Hindus, Jains, and followers of Tibet’s pre-Buddhist Bon tradition—both animist and shamanistic—he is attempting something else in this brief, late work: a coming to terms with his inheritance and a facing of those questions, however obscurely formulated, he finds buried in himself.

* * *

Those who have read Thubron’s memorable works of travel will know something of what to expect in To a Mountain in Tibet (recently excerpted in these pages*). After four short books—on Damascus, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus—culminating in 1975, he began his epic sequence of comprehensive and attentive excavations of the heart of Asia with Among the Russians (1983) and continued through Behind the Wall (about China, 1987), The Lost Heart of Asia (1994), In Siberia (1999), and, most recently, Shadow of the Silk Road (2006). Each work reflects the special gifts of this uncannily observant and self-effacing wanderer. He immerses himself in the history and culture of the places he visits; he is ready to put himself through anything to get where he needs to go (he learns Russian and Mandarin); he travels rough, with no one and nothing but a rucksack; and in Shadow of the Silk Road, he endures both a Chinese quarantine compound during the SARS epidemic and a root canal operation, in rural Iran, without anesthetic. Most impressive of all, he has a rare ability to draw out those modest souls he meets along the way, whose plights—of displacement, material need, and restlessness—he catches with intuitive sympathy.

In his prose, likewise, there’s a refusal of all shortcuts and a craftsman’s chiseled devotion: verbs are as carefully chosen as adjectives. That you’re in the company of a preternaturally evocative writer is evident in the first paragraph of the new book:

There is no sound but the scrunch of our boots and the clink of the sherpa’s trekking pole.

Sentence after sentence rings out, to bring us onto the path he’s walking:

Our boots dislodge cascades of shale or rustle over beds of pine needles. Giant firs and pines surge up between prickly oak and hemlock, and spruce trees hang their pink cones a hundred feet above.

Later, in a scrappy Nepali settlement,

the alleys are twilit ravines. All around us long ladders climb and descend to aerial yards and terraces, and the voices of invisible people sound from the sky.

Thubron begins his journey, in this new book, in Nepal, in May 2009—during the Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa—accompanied by a guide, a cook, and (to be discarded at the Tibetan border) a horse man. The first half of the narrative describes his often heart-stopping ascent through the mountains of Nepal to the frontier with Tibet; the second takes us into the spirit-filled reaches of Mount Kailas, where Thubron is “entering a zone of such charged sanctity that any penance, or any crime, trembles with heightened force.” Seamlessly woven through the day-to-day record are brief flashbacks to his family’s story and verbal snapshots of monks he’s met in Kathmandu before embarking on the trip.

It takes a rare soul to describe Kailas in calm and unhyperbolic tones. Hindus believe it to be the haunt of their god Shiva, who sits in eternal meditation there; Tibetans hold that the Buddha visited, and that their first kings descended from the sky there. Even the palaces of far-off Burma and the temples of Angkor are modeled on its shape. Each of its sides faces a cardinal compass point and four great rivers flow down from within seventy miles of its summit—the Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej, and the Brahmaputra. To complete a circumambulation of it, many believe, is to expiate the sins of a lifetime.

Thubron is impressively restrained before what he likens to “a pious illusion,” even as he remains acutely aware of the mountain’s chill magnetism (it has never been climbed to the top). He is far from cynical or opposed to belief—if anything, the opposite; yet he is businesslike and efficient in dispensing with all wishfulness and fancy. “We have entered holy land,” he writes at one important moment, as he sets eyes on Kailas for the first time, Lake Manasarovar before it; but in the very next sentence, opening a new paragraph, he coolly notes, “Yet the lake is only precariously sacred.”

This refusal to bend either to mere sentiment or to reflex skepticism—what locals might call “taking the Middle Way”—allows him to travel through these treacherous (and treacherously myth-haunted) places with rare authority. The passes through which he walks are harsh and cruel settings, he acknowledges; only one in every five people in the Nepali villages he visits can read or write, and most of them are longing to leave Shangri-La. Tibetans, he rightly points out, can be seen as “a people in love with war” and some pilgrims have been known to finance their trips to Kailas with banditry (suffering public mutilation if caught). There are always as many devils as deities in the wildly esoteric paintings that fill Tibetan Buddhist prayer halls, and when he encounters a painting of the Celestial Angel of one valley, Thubron discovers “a demon goddess with a pig’s face and lewd fangs.”

Yet even as he never falls to his knees, he is never inclined to smirk or simply write off another’s belief. Not long before he left on this trip, he tells us, in another piercingly brief flashback, he lost his mother (his father and his sister are already gone). The solitary air he customarily wears on the page is thus more absolute now. Thubron can never quite tell us why he’s taken off on this “secular pilgrimage,” but we feel that there’s a reason just below the surface, and the feeling grows stronger precisely because he never gives easy voice to it.

* * *

It’s almost impossible at such moments not to think of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. In that book, too, is a record of a deeply strenuous ascent into the remote Himalaya, past the same worn and weather-beaten huts and pilgrims in rags, with the same engaging group of local porters, and toward the same rare heights of bracing clarity and elevation. Matthiessen undertook his journey in 1973 because of the death of a woman close to him, too—his young wife, Deborah Love. Yet for him the trip becomes a way of stepping into a deeper understanding of the impermanence and ignorance and reality of suffering that his fledgling Zen studies have started to teach to him.

With Thubron there’s no such clear motivation and he is a decidedly unaffiliated traveler, propelled by reasons “beyond articulation.” Yet death is everywhere he walks in these mountains. He recalls how tantric masters live in cremation grounds along the path; the helicopter that greets him as he reaches the border is bringing down the body of an Indian pilgrim who has just expired on the holy mountain. He sees an old man lying down on the ground, literally practicing for death, and he recalls how corpses are often strewn along the pilgrims’ path like boulders. To Hindus, he notes pointedly, “‘departure for Kailas’ is a metaphor for death.”

This all intensifies the very special tension that beats like a heart underneath the book’s clenched and empirical surface. Thubron has always been drawn to ruins and graveyards—the decline of great empires is one of his themes—but here one feels he is not just observing the historical cycles of others; something deeper is at stake. At one point, reaching 11,000 feet, he starts to lose breath and comes close to fainting—“my breath is rasping sobs.” Suddenly, he sees his mother on her hospital bed, calling out for air as her heart begins to fail. At Lake Manasarovar, “holiest of the world’s lakes—sacred to one fifth of humankind,” he wades into the chill waters just as Hindu pilgrims do, only to recall, with mixed emotion, that the reincarnation they believe in cannot be his.

Like most of the enduring British travelers, from Robert Byron through Patrick Leigh Fermor to Rory Stewart in recent times, Thubron always stays close to the ground, and the moment; there is nothing hurried or tricked-up in his account, and it is always precise enough to be poetic. As in his previous books, he wastes no time in foreigners’ hangouts and includes no gossip or trivia. The impression is of a rugged solitary traveler who likes to go privately—he talks to no experts or officials—and who has an almost Orwellian distaste for luxury (and even society), recoiling from extravagance in any form. He gives us politics and the effects of globalization—Chinese soldiers watch Tibetan pilgrims through telescopic video cameras, nervous after the riots that spread across Tibet a year before, while women whisper offers of massage and Buddhist monks collect donations in a box labeled Budweiser.

But more important, Thubron’s very refusal to be carried away makes for a special power when, as he draws closer to the peak, he describes one face of the mountain as “awesome and absolute.” Though wary of romance, he is never without feeling, and the result is an even more tightly focused and directed book than most of his recent works of nonfiction, which tend to cover a much wider stretch of ground, some parts of which may engage him more than others do. He dispassionately offers an impeccable explanation of Tibetan sky-burial (included in the excerpt in these pages); and when he enters Buddhist temples he gives as careful and nuanced and judicious a description of their swarming deities and furiously charged symbolism as I can imagine. Indeed, I can’t think of a contemporary traveler who presents a more reliable and diligently researched accounting of a culture that tempts most observers toward opinion or embellishment (even as he frankly registers that what an initiate sees in these walls and landscapes will always be different from what he, as an outsider, can catch).

Toward the end, as he reaches a point where every inch of rock is saturated with meaning or association for the pilgrim, and thousands of deities are said to be hidden in every crevice, Thubron’s levelheadedness becomes its own kind of epiphany. “Sky-dancers and mountain godlings are only just out of sight,” he writes, and in this stark realm of portent and prophecy, he meets Bon followers circumambulating the mountain in a spooky, counterclockwise path and a white-clad Russian evangelist carrying a “monstrous crucifix.” At its most memorable moments, his book registers and even quietly begins to partake of a kind of hallucinatory intensity that gains from the power of all that’s not being said. His father, Thubron tells us, wanted to be a naturalist and when, at war, he was forbidden to write to his faraway wife about what he was doing or seeing, he filled his letters with accounts of yellowhammers and nightingales and scarlet pimpernels and orchids. It’s hard not to think of that as a piece of autobiography, too.

* * *

In his previous book, describing his eight-month-long, war-haunted journey across seven thousand miles of the Silk Road, Thubron’s most intriguing stylistic innovation was to give us five interpolated passages, in italics, in which an imaginary old merchant of the area cross-questions the contemporary traveler about his intentions and real feelings. “I’m afraid of nothing happening,” the narrator explains, in answer to the first such question, “of experiencing nothing. That is what the modern traveller fears (forgive me). Emptiness.”

Later, like a baleful prophet, the make-believe merchant says, “Looking back, you will see the cities become a long procession leading to nothing,” and ascends to a fearful vision of what a traveler’s life can amount to if he merely goes on collecting moments and moves further and further from a simple belief in any one truth. Asked “What is this fascination with foreign religions? Is it because you’ve lost your own?” the Thubron figure admits:

Now there are too many dead. Those you love take away a part of you, the self you were with them. So the Pure Land seems beautiful in its way, as if it were a place we once had, but was lost.

Time is passing, he suggests, and he longs somehow to preserve or sustain hope for all the people that he’s lost.

The five passages were short, taking up barely a page each of the book’s 344 pages, and delivered with typical discretion. But they seemed to be taking the author into new territory as he began to challenge himself as searchingly and intensely on the nonfictional page as he had done in his novels. He was sharing a kind of difficulty different from the physical kind that is so modestly worn across his pages, and it suggested a new kind of restlessness, even with the form he’d taken on and mastered.

There has always been an undertow of wistfulness, perhaps melancholy in Thubron’s works of nonfiction, and even as he has now completed a near-definitive evocation of the world that stretches between Beirut and Vladivostok, he has never really told himself (or us) why exactly he made all his journeys. When V.S. Naipaul returns, again and again, to Africa or India, we can feel that he is trying to sort out some question and tension in himself, between, perhaps, the person who was once ruled by European colonizers and the England of which he’s long been a part. When Thubron takes off, we’re sometimes tempted to ask (as the imaginary merchant does) why he is putting himself through such hard travel, deep into his sixties, and taking himself to places of such difficulty and remoteness. Travel is no mere lark or adventure for him, clearly, and for so serious and scrupulous a wanderer even curiosity does not seem explanation enough.

In many of his books, the people he meets along the way, often historical orphans in some form, ask him a variation of the questions he’s asking them, about love or religion or a larger sense of purpose. He often dodges them, he confesses, or suggests that he himself wishes the answers were not so hard to put down. “I want to go unquestioned,” he writes on the second page of Shadow of the Silk Road, as he passes himself off among Chinese pilgrims as a teacher (a highly plausible cover) and begins to make up a “family back home” to deflect insistent questioners. Yet soon, of course, he begins giving us those passages in italics in which he asks the same questions of himself.

In To a Mountain in Tibet, this most private of scholar-gypsies brings these mysteries even closer to home. In his last book, he tunneled unsparingly into the empty spaces and small abysses in his own motivations, putting Colin Thubron through a kind of interrogation. In this small pendant to it he writes briefly of each of his family members in turn, as he climbs higher on Kailas, which traditionally represents a new life for believers. Thirty pages before the end, as he prepares for the final ascent to an 18,600-foot pass—the climax of the journey, which leaves many travelers light-headed and some dead—suddenly Thubron sees the 5,000-foot “near-vertical precipice” of the mountain likened in a guidebook to the “north wall of the Eiger from Grindelwald.”

It was in Grindelwald, he tells us, in three swift, penetrating sentences, that his sister died, in an avalanche, while skiing at the age of twenty-one. For years thereafter Thubron could not bear to climb in mountains; with her he’d lost something of himself. It is characteristic of him that, even at this most revelatory of moments, he is delicate and subtle, refusing to distract us from the larger dramas all around him. But this, the final of his flashbacks—meted out across the narrative with perfect artistry—tells us something of what has been pulsing beneath the book’s surface all along. To a Mountain in Tibet belongs on a very small shelf of works that offer a clear-eyed and compendious version of Tibet and what it’s like to travel there these days. It also, in the end, becomes a superb account of a pilgrimage that is never quite as vicarious as it seems.

  1. "On Tibet's Holy Mountain," The New York Review, March 10, 2011.
Politics, Religion
Nepal, Tibet, Travel