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Book Review: 'To a Mountain in Tibet' by Colin Thubron

The author goes beyond the customary traveler's tale and shares the grief he is experiencing from the recent deaths of his mother and sister.

May 23, 2011|By Seth Faison, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Colin Thubron, the acclaimed British travel writer, has ventured through Russia, China and Central Asia. With restrained, spare prose, Thubron is a versatile painter of place, capturing the look and the language of locales.

His "To a Mountain in Tibet" reads more like an elegy than a traditional story of travels. His trek takes him toward the "lonely peak" of Mt. Kailash, considered by Tibetans to be the holiest mountain in their highly elevated desert. Following an itinerary through a remote section of western Nepal, passing tiny, impoverished villages, on foot and by Jeep, ordinarily would offer a firm framework for his story.

On this journey, however, Thubron reaches beyond his customary traveler's tale. He cannot quite contain the grief of recently losing his mother and his sister, whose deaths have made him the last surviving member of his family. He refers to it with understatement and discretion, yet his grief undulates through the narrative and gives it an emotional rawness that fits with the forbidding landscape.

"We clamber down towards the frontier by slopes already fractured and slippery," Thubron writes. "Torrents of shale oversweep the track. The colours around us are pastel grey and shell pink."

His eyes are alive, but his mind muses on mortality. In places, he slips easily into distracted thought. He trusts the strange intuitive path of unprompted memory recall. He admits the ultimate pointlessness of a tough journey, and he does not waste our time searching for any artificial sense of resolution. In his mental disorientation, made worse by the thinning air, we sense a softly beating human heart.

Thubron is an expert guide for the region's complex topography of Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu practices and the deities and spirits of the Bon religion, which preceded and then informed Buddhism in Tibet. He is refreshingly clear and unintimidated in his descriptions of the temples and prayer practices of pilgrims he meets along the way.

Tibetans look death in the face as bluntly as any culture. Monks have been known to use human skulls to sip tea as a daily reminder of the darkness that awaits. "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" is a classic, and Thubron traces its belief that a dead person's spirit takes a well-defined journey of its own in the days after a last breath. He also describes the traditional and still common practice of "sky burial," in which Tibetans take a dead body, chop it into small pieces and let a pack of vultures devour it.

All along, Mt. Kailash looms as Thubron's destination. Stunningly beautiful, remote and austere, the mountain stands alone, to the west of the Himalayan chain of more famous peaks. It has been a spiritual target for Tibetan pilgrims for longer than any recorded history can recall. India's four great rivers find their source at its foot. Mt. Kailash has never been climbed to the summit. Like other pilgrims, Thubron aims only to get to a path that circles the mountain, which is journey enough.

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