Embarking on a pilgrimage is the most archetypal of human journeys.
Generations have walked well-worn footpaths, striding forth toward distant temples, aiming to attain enlightenment or inch closer to God.
Colin Thubron’s quest isn’t religious, but the spiritual aspects of his wandering loom large.
Thubron, for 40 years, has made a splendid writing career out of exploring a range of ancient holy lands – in Asia, South America, and Russia – inviting his devoted readers to join him as voyeurs. Rightfully, he has attracted an audience because in addition to an ability to construct eloquent narratives, Thubron has an aura of honesty and trustworthiness – the kind of thing that can only be earned over time.
Thubron’s latest travelogue, an autumnal memoir titled To A Mountain In Tibet, happens to be one of his most revealing and personally intimate.
The back story goes like this: Following the death of his aged mother, the eccentric Englishman, now a septuagenarian, goes back to Central Asia (the site of his bestselling “Shadow of the Silk Road”) and sets out to scale a mountain on what Buddhists call a quest, or kora. Not just any massif, but Mt. Kailas, a formidable fortress of rock, an extension of the Himalayas in western Tibet, that notoriously has turned back plenty of intrepid alpinists.
To the best of Thubron’s knowledge, Kailas has never been scaled by Westerners. The allure is both cultural and topographical. Kailas is considered sacred to one fifth of the world’s human population (a power spot for Buddhists and Hindus), and its melting glaciers and snowfields are a tributary source to the mighty Ganges.
Thubron carries the memories of his parents and long departed sister into the airy heights, where stone monasteries were erected by monks centuries ago, then torn down by Chinese invaders during the Cultural Revolution, and subsequently rebuilt as a form of peaceable protest. Somewhere out there, too, is the mythical kingdom of Shambala.
Even harder to conquer than the land are the pilgrims who arrive faithfully and have their own inner thoughts laid bare by the stark majesty of the terrain. At one point, Thubron writes while pushing past 22,000 feet in elevation: “We are entering a zone of such charged sanctity that any penance, or any crime, trembles with heightened force. Its only inhabitants, mostly monks, exist in a force field of intensified holiness, for their past incarnations have led them here.”
Thubron’s book is a trek of discovery layered richly with his trademark attention to the numerous, overlapping onion layers of history, but one thing it’s not is a conceit.
He doesn’t pretend to be marching along with any profound purpose beyond trying to come to terms with a grief involving the loss of his mother – a pain that has not been ameliorated by time.
The higher he climbs into thin air, ascending lightheadedly past shrines where earlier pilgrims had visions, Thubron at last seems to grasp what it means, for him, to be coming into the final stretch of his own life.
“To A Mountain In Tibet” does not deliver a pat, sentimental revelation in its final pages; rather, much like life itself, it is in recollecting the previous chapters that deeper meaning is derived.
Very early on in the book, Thubron muses: “To ask of a journey WHY? is to hear only my own silence. It is the wrong question (although there seems no other).”
Riffing, he continues: “Am I harrowing myself because the world is mortal? Whose pain am I purging? Not theirs. An old Tibetan monk tells me the soul has no memory. The dead do not feel their past.”
That may be true, but Thubron feels his past and wants to own it so that he can set it free. He’s been called one of the world’s greatest living travel writers. Few will doubt it, after they accompany him on this search for earthly sanctity.