“Perhaps, as some say, the Tibetans’ is a death-haunted culture,” writes Colin Thubron (150). It is fitting, then, that he has chosen to hike to Mt. Kailas, a mountain that is a site of pilgrimage to both Buddhists and Hindus, to mark the death of the last of his family. His journey, chronicled in To a Mountain in Tibet, is itself haunted by death, although the degree to which he is thinking about death does not become clear to the reader for much of the book.
Thubron meets many people as he hikes through Nepal towards Tibet, among them a monk who is certain of reincarnation. This certainty disarms the Westerner: “He is focused on spiritual continuance while I am overborne by individual death” (45). He knows he has come on this trip in order to make sense of his own personal sadness, but he cannot let go of his culturally-borne focus on individual life.
Throughout the book, Thubron works to reconcile the holiness of what he encounters with his own rootedness in the physical world. He describes a temple he encounters and the monks who care for it: “I am not seeing the shrine as they are, I know. For them this derelict barn is a place of redemption, cleansed by its crossfire of gazing Buddhas” (65). He is aware of and reflective upon the fact that, although he is making an important emotional journey, he remains a spiritual tourist.
This is a personal pilgrimage, not a spiritual or a cultural one as it is for others who journey to Kailas. Thubron is experiencing this trip as an individual, not a member of a culture, and nothing makes that more clear than the day he walks alone around a holy lake. Although he says, “I walk like a pilgrim clockwise along the shore,” he is not a pilgrim. He describes the feeling of being completely alone in this setting brilliantly, so it seems he is a Thoreau alone with nature. Then, he does encounter signs of others being here, and it is all the more striking. “At my feet slabs of stone have been prised upright and etched with prayers. What monks or pilgrims did this is impossible to know” (120-1). He knows through every step of his journey that, while he is going to the same places others come for spiritual reasons, he is having a completely different experience. Running throughout is the understanding that when we step outside of our comfort zones, we may learn from others but we’ll never be able to see as they do.
This self-awareness is striking also in the moments he calls attention to himself as a writer, which he does sparingly. Just a few times, he makes reference to taking notes, thus undercutting his use of present tense. “I stop to write these notes,” he acknowledges. “Now, as I try to read it, I see only words blurring like cuneiform into the damp from sleet or streaming nostrils. A pilgrim beside me cries out something, but whatever meaning I understood has faded illegibly from the page” (208). The tense shift in the word understood jolts into the current writing for just a moment. His notes are formed in the present and then reflected upon in tranquility, as the poet suggested, but he is aware of the loss of immediacy.
As he approaches the mountain, Thubron’s well-researched dips into history take on a more immediate meaning. He is crossing into Tibet, a place where Tibetans themselves often cannot go because of the Chinese who control the border, the land, and the sacred mountain. The Chinese police are also mired in the logistics of life, scanning the valley they patrol with walkie-talkies while all around them the faithful are circuiting the mountain that is so holy to them. Thubron may appreciate the spirituality of the pilgrims and he may be making the same journey they are, but he calls into question his own place as he delves into the logistics, how many circuits equal how much redemption: “These mathematics weigh the mountain’s magic against the pilgrim’s spirit” (158). Is he coming closer to being like the pilgrims as he makes his journey, or is he more like the police with the walkie-talkies? He seems to be asking himself this question time and again.
Thubron repeats certain words, which at first I thought was a sort of lazy tic. However, the words are strong and meaningful to the story. “Derelict” and “delicate” come up time and again in different forms to describe people, places, and situations. When he uses “indelicacy,” it is outlined against his former repetition of “delicate,” rendering it stronger. I couldn’t quite figure out why the word “girlish” repeats several times. I leave that for greater minds than mine.
Near the end, Thubron comes upon a hermitage where pilgrims bow and pray. “I watch from the dark in fascinated estrangement,” Thubron writes, now seemingly at peace with his place as an outsider using someone else’s religious pilgrimage for his own personal reasons.
Only near the end does he begin to hint of the danger of the mountain. People die up there, it turns out. Although the journey has been about mourning his family, the reader doesn’t really understand the significance until he explains that his sister died on a mountain (189). Although he explains history beautifully and makes detailed observations and writes with crystalline accuracy (getting always just the right word), in the end this is for him not an intellectual exercise. He is mourning the loss of his family and the sister who died young.
“Little of this touches the pilgrims overtaking me. Their world is close at hand, more sensory” (193), he writes near the end. Thubron is an intellectual, the only writer I’ve read in some time who sent me scrambling for a dictionary (rumbustious, in case you were wondering). He is also deeply sensitive, and he makes it clear that he knows a life of the mind and reflection comes at the loss of something more immediate, more sensory, and more basic.
To a Mountain in Tibet, like the mountain itself, is not easy. Yet it’s a privilege to join him for this painstaking self-reflection, stunning description, and incredible honesty.