A Himalayan pilgrimage

Mount Kailas, Wikipedia Commons
Mount Kailas, Wikipedia Commons

Colin Thubron  To a Mountain in Tibet Vintage 2012 (2011)

I came across To a Mountain in Tibet while searching unsuccessfully for Charles Allen’s The Search for Shangri-La: a Journey into Tibetan History (1999) which a while ago I’d had to return to the library before completing. I nevertheless found Thubron’s account of his journey fascinating, all the more inspiring as it was accomplished by a man in his seventies. Despite privations and cold and altitude, most of which he refers to but never with any sense of self-pity, he undertakes a voyage largely on foot up to and around Mount Kailas or Kailash in Tibet, the sacred mountain of Eastern traditions and legendary source of four sacred rivers (the Ganges, the Indus, the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej); and in straightforward but poetic language he describes for us the landscape he sees, the peoples he meets, the traditions that imbue every physical feature he negotiates, in such a way that we feel we are there with him.

‘Pilgrimage’ is not quite adequate a word for his trek. He sympathetically outlines Buddhist and Hindu and primitive beliefs without subscribing to them, so it is not a spiritual pilgrimage as such. Nor is it a trip undertaken to find himself, as it were: he has recently lost the last of his immediate family, but it is not a journey to come to terms with personal grief, though he does meditate on the memories of his father, his mother, his sister. Nor does it feel like a mercenary voyage, something to provide material for another of his travel writings or to justify his presidency of the Royal Society of Literature.

Rather, I think, this is a journey that he has to do because that is what he does. It seems to be an imperative, this constant travelling in distant lands, imbibing the culture, making temporary connections with locals, becoming one with the physical geography. I picked up the book to read because I wanted to share the experience of encountering one of world’s archetypical mountains. I came away having briefly met a very private man who paradoxically happens to share some of his thoughts very publicly.

4 thoughts on “A Himalayan pilgrimage

  1. When I was a practicing Buddhist I read many accounts of travelers who felt compelled to visit Tibet. I came away with the feeling that Tibet is a place one does not find oneself, rather it is a place to lose oneself. The culture is so alien to the west that most travelers either absorbed Tibetan culture or could not accept what they found. I haven’t read an account of someone who simply viewed the experience as just another holiday. Hum..I might have to look into this book.


    1. “A place to lose oneself…” This sounds about right.
      So much of the world is pretty nearly homogenised, even (or maybe especially) for those on the backpack trail, that it must be hard to find a culture that doesn’t reflect back a global sameness. I suppose that’s why really good fantasy and SF (such as Ursula Le Guin’s) can help us partake in that sense of strange otherness without leaving our armchairs.

      If you do read this I’d be interested in your view of it. It might help to counteract one very xenophobic reader who couldn’t get past the ‘snobby’ British approach (she was listening to an audiobook edition) and damned it out of hand.


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