on 13 March 2011
That Colin Thubron is a writer out of the top drawer is beyond dispute, but I do not think this is one of his best books. Always an author who deploys a rich descriptive vocabulary, in this book I feel Thubron overdoes it. The descriptive vocabulary is often so dense and the use of simile so frequent that, instead of helping me picture the landscape through which the author was trekking, I was often stopped in my tracks part way through a sentence trying to work out what he was saying, and finding myself floundering in a soup of colourful language and imagery. In the book "In Siberia", Thubron's intense descriptive palette is offset by a deep exploration of and insight into the character of people he encounters on his journey, including his own character. In this book the narrative lacks depth and I don't feel we really learn much about anyone beyond the superficial, and not enough to make me really care deeply about anyone. I found the book heavy going - meandering and without a clear sense of purpose, even though there are some allusions to Thubron seeing the journey as an opportunity to reflect on life following the death of the last member of his immediate family. It is only in the final couple of chapters, where the author and other travellers climb very high into the mountains to go over a pass of spiritual significance that the book comes focused and sparks into life.
on 1 February 2011
Travel writer extraordinaire Colin Thubron is back. If you're familiar with his rich, mellifluous prose and empathetic exploration of non-western culture, religion and history, then this is a must-read piece of work.
To a Mountain in Tibet describes the author's journey as embarks on a pilgrimage to sacred Mount Kailas, encountering on his way a fascinating cross-section of Nepalese and Tibetan society.
Shorter than usual but movingly personal, profound and highly evocative, this is a book (like all of Thubron's) which deserves to be read again and again.
on 10 October 2011
Another magnificent book from one of the very finest travel writers. It's a shorter book than usual for this author, about a journey he made round the sacred Mount Kailas to mark the passing of the last of his family apart from himself. Most of the usual aspects that mark Thubron's travel writing so distinctly are here - meticulous research into the history, religion and politics of the remote areas he visits, a razor sharp eye for detail, the air of reflective melancholy, and especially the lyrical prose he uses to clothe his thoughts and observations.
This time however something is added and something taken away. The addition is of moving thoughts on the death of loved ones that will strike a chord with many. As you might expect with this author these are understated, which gives them all the more power. The missing bit is the usual level of interactions with people he meets on his travels, gaining insights into their lives and circumstances. There are some in this book but they do seem less deep than usual. Some of this may be the circumstances of the walk - physical tiredness and oxygen depletion don't lend themselves to deep conversation, but I think it is likely to be because he has chosen to keep the focus more firmly on himself for once. My guess is that has not been easy for this writer, who is so used to keeping himself in the background. I had a real sense of almost doing the pilgrimage along with Thubron, so vivid were his descriptions, and was sad when it was over.
on 11 May 2012
I rather like Colin Thubron. He can take a while to get going at times, but he had me gripped from the start with his latest book in which he treks into Tibet to join the faithful of four different religions on the pilgrimage to the sacred Mount Kailas. Although he never quite explains why he, a lapsed Anglican, opted to undertake this highly spiritual yet physically very arduous journey (there are autobiographical snippets woven into the text which offer some clues), what is clear is that he is in his element, combining his travelogue with asides about Nepalese and Tibetan society and descriptions of why this mountain his held sacred by so many people. Thubron has been described as one of the last of the gentleman-travellers - his educational background (Eton) and his obvious erudition are factors here, but there's much more to him than that. He's made his name by going to out-of-the-way places and providing the reader, who is frankly unlikely to visit such parts of the world, with vivid descriptions of the terrain and the people he meets. What's more fascinating with this particular adventure is that he did this trek, which is not for the faint-hearted as several fellow-walkers discovered, when he was seventy; there are people half his age who wouldn't have lasted five minutes.
on 6 April 2011
This book has really lifted my spirits! I have not read Colin Thubron before and my purchasing this book was due to my personal interest in Tibetan Buddhism & Mandala's, Bon culture and also a long and ongoing desire to visit Lake Manasarovar at some point before I die.
I enjoyed the focus of the book being about the landscape and its references to Tibet's culture and beliefs and it has helped me realise that if I am to go, I should study even more beforehand so I can really SEE the symbolism surrounding Mount Kailas.
A previous reviewer didn't like the lack of human relationship in the book, but for me this was liberating - I often get put off going to a place when a travel book focuses on connecting with the locals - this doesn't really happen much for the passer by and when it does it is a deep shared moment often made lightweight when shared in the pages of such a spiritual landscape.
I think the journey in this book reflects well the understanding that all things are transient. I also felt the author seeing the amplification of beauty within landscape that one can only experience if or when one has lost a parent, sibling or partner. A beautiful inspiring book.
Colin Thubron is probably the best known living British travel writer. Regrettably, I have only heard of him recently - when this book was offered via the Amazon Vine program - and I did not punch the "Please Send" button quickly enough. Still, I kept my eye out for it, and when it was literally placed in my hands in a second-hand bookstore in nearby Santa Fe, I knew now was the time to get acquainted with the author's writing. The book pushed those "hot buttons" for me: hiking, and in remote places. It is a rich, well-written prose, with the subject quote being an example. That said, I'll get my criticism out of the way early. It took both deduction, as well as Wikipedia, to obtain some key information that Thubron omitted: he did the hike in 2009, and he was an (inspiring) 70 years old then.
The objective of the hike is Mt. Kailas, a uniquely shaped pinnacle of a mountain, which reaches more than 22,000 ft., located in western Tibet. The mountain is the source of the four great rivers of India. It is considered a sacred mountain by a fifth of humanity, both Buddhists and Hindus, and is therefore a strenuous pilgrimage destination. At the time of the hike, Thubron was very much alone in the world, having lost all of his family over the years (he has subsequently married for the first time, apparently finding his true love late in life, and I say bravo for that). The book is far more than a travelogue: there is a deep spiritual dimension to it, as well as anecdotes from his family's history. Regarding the latter, his father used to hunt tigers, not that far from the author's hike, in northern India, during the `20's of the Raj. His father was in WW II, and due to wartime censorship, would write of the flowers and the birds inside the Anzio beachhead, and later, would describe the anemones and sorrels whitening in the Austrian woods.
The hike commenced in far northwestern Nepal, from the airfield at Simikot. Thubron hikes with porters, but is not in a group of other Westerners. Within the relatively short distance to Tibet, some 80-100 km. (there is a good map at the beginning of the book), he describes how Tibetian Buddhism becomes much more prominent. The author' timing for the hike was fortuitous: only three years before, Maoist insurgents dominated the area, destroying many of the monasteries. Then there is also the physical challenge of the hike. As he reached 11, 000 ft., he said: "Slowly I am invaded by a different, profound tiredness, less muscular fatigue than an overwhelming longing to sleep." Old injuries "acted up," and he reflected on the difficulties of medical evacuation. Fortunately, he did manage to acclimatize, so that when he was later at 15,000 ft., he was far more comfortable with the altitude.
Thubron has travelled extensively, for years, in central Asia, and has studied the culture. His erudition is a steady guide once he crosses the border into Tibet. The "Maoists" are long gone, but the Chinese troop presence is heavy, due to demonstrations the previous year in Lhasa. The author seeks "the cover" of another trekking party, as he crosses the border, since lone travelers are always "suspect" by the authorities in politically sensitive regions. He manages to successfully circumambulate the mountain, including crossing an 18,000 ft. pass, and relates in painful details the many, particularly low-lander Hindus who literally die trying.
The author tells us that the Assyrian word meaning "to die" also meant "to clutch the mountain." He saved it for the end of the book - and I will not relate it - but he explained why he also knew that the mountains can kill, and why he avoided them for numerous years of his youth. His revelation hit me like a sledgehammer. In terms of the author's spiritual beliefs, they seem to be heavily influenced by Buddhism. He clarified with his "teacher" in Katmandu about reincarnation: can a person remember anything at all from a previous life? The answer is NO. It is only the rather abstract concept of "merit" that is transferred to the next life. If so, the author should have a good "balance sheet" going forward, and certainly for this book, and the corresponding inspiration, 5-stars, plus.
on 6 March 2012
Thubron travels on foot from Simikot in the borderlands of Nepal, across the high passes and into Tibet, en route to the holy mountain of Kailas, sacred to Hindus, Jains and Buddhist. His aim, to complete the kora, the circumambulation of the mountain. As Thubron's journey progresses, from remote villages in Nepal to the foot of Kailas, he meets and engages with a wide range of locals, monks and ordinary people. At the same time, he is increasingly drawn into an introspective and reflective state of mind as he considers his position as the last in his family following the passing of his mother.
Although I have read many travel writers in the past, somehow I had never got round to reading any Thubron, one of the "greats" of modern travelogue. I was drawn to this book as Kailas and Tibet fascinate me, and I was hoping to find such a well respected writer bringing the stark landscapes and beautiful vistas to life. Even more so when I realised that there were no photographs in the book, and only a very simple sketch map of Thubron's route. In general, the book did not disappoint, and Thubron's metaphysical and emotional journey mirrors the physical transformations as increasingly more and more is laid bare. Thubron writes best though describing the lives and struggles of the ordinary people of this extraordinary place, in particular, I felt his early sections through Nepal were very affecting. When Kailas is reached, the book takes a different tone, and becomes almost reverential, as Thubron narrates the difficult circuit of the passes of Kailas. In an oxygen deficient state, Thubron is drawn close to hallucinatory reflection on the death of his sister in an avalanche in the Alps, and through Thubron's reactions, we are given a glimpse of the mystical and holy nature of Kailas. Overall, whilst I enjoyed the book, I felt I wanted more from Thubron, and could have quite happily read another 100 pages, something I seem to find myself saying the opposite of with most books these days! Thubron never really gets inside the minds and motivations of the many pilgrims he meets, and tends to retain a rather simplistic (and at that disappointing) view of the mysteries of the Eastern religions / philosophies that seem to underpin these people's lives so deeply. For me, that represented a missed opportunity, and rendered what might have been a stunning book into simply a good one.
The book describes Thubron's pilgrimage to the sacred Mount Kailas (Meru) in Tibet. He undertakes it in memory of his mother who has recently died - though he cannot really explain the connection. For the Hindus the mountain is the seat of Shiva; it was the abode of the pre-Buddhist god Shenrab; the Buddha himself was said to have nailed the mountain to earth with his footprints before it could be carted off by a demon, while Demchog, one of his emanations, also made it his home.
The story of his trek on foot from Northeastern Nepal into Tibet will be interrupted with episodes he experienced in Kathmandu, many miles from where he began his trek. In one place a sign-post pointing to a hill station 140 miles to the south, in India. This triggers memories of his father who had been stationed there. As his trek climbs steadily and the air becomes thinner, his initial gasping for breath makes him think of his dying mother under an oxygen mask.
Nepal is a country of Hindus and Buddhists. He contrasts the local Hindus sacrificing animals to Kali with the Buddhist reverence for all life. In Tibetan monasteries in Nepal, he learns about Tibetan Buddhism - in many ways so different from the Buddhism of India. Many of the Buddhist ideas he comes across trigger memories of his family - often because these are so different. For example, Buddhist monks have no property to leave behind when they die: that triggers in Thubron thoughts of all the things - letters, photographs - that he found, carefully hoarded, after the deaths of his parents.
Intermittently and unsystematically we learn of the history of Tibet: its once war-like past; its religious life; its legends (especially those relating to the area round Mount Kailas and those associated with the Tibetan Book of the Dead); how the country had been perceived and later explored by the West; what the Chinese occupation has meant for its people.
His descriptions of the scenery through which he travels and of the lives of the people are, as in all his writings, excellent. He wonderfully conveys the mystic beauty of the two great sacred lakes fifty miles south of the shining conical mountain. He arrives there at the time of the Saga Dawa, the month during which each year devout Hindus and Buddhists make their kora (pilgrimage) and circumambulate the sacred mountain which has never been climbed. One circuit (32 miles) is said to dispel the defilement of a life time. Every stone pinnacle, every cave, every anthropomorphic or animal-shaped rock on this circuit is associated with supernatural beings and invokes a prayer from the pilgrims. There are memorable descriptions of ceremonies along the trek: he witnesses a tighter circuit round the raising of an eighty-foot pole. This is near a "sky burial site"; and he describes, but does not witness, the gruesome dismemberment of privileged corpses, their pieces then thrown onto platforms from which the vultures seize them.
The path rises ever higher, to more than 18,600 feet (some 3,500 feet above its starting point) as it skirts the north side of the mountain. The air becomes ever thinner, the temperature ever lower, and many pilgrims from warmer, lower climes have to give up at these cold altitudes. The descent on the East side is sheer and knee-jarring, but is swiftly disposed of, and the book ends rather abruptly.
One reader deplores the lack of photographs, but many of these can be found on Google Images (highly recommended). But I always feel the need to follow a narrative on a map; and I should have realized that I should not have bought the Kindle edition of this book. There is only one map which is so small as to be practically illegible, and is only of the area round Mount Kailas in Tibet; but in any case it is tedious on a Kindle to go back to it, and book-marking does not take you straight to it. There is no map of the Nepal part of his journey, which takes up the first eight of the fifteen chapters of the book. However brilliant the verbal descriptions are in a travel book, I feel cheated if it does not have adequate maps. That is the only reason why I give this vivid book only four stars.
on 3 January 2012
This book tells the author's trek from Simikot in Nepal to Mount Kailash in Tibet for Saga Dawa in 2009, undertaken to commemorate the recent death of his mother. The first half of the book follows Colin as he treks up the Karnali River from Simkot to Tibet. Colin describes the landscape, his small crew and the villages, villagers, and Buddhist monasteries he encounters. He also reflects on his father and mother along the way.
After entering Tibet they drive to Thalladong Pass for his first view of Lake Manasarovar and Kailash: "we are gazing on a country of planetary strangeness. Beneath us, in a crescent of depthless silence, a huge lake curves empty out of sight. It is utterly still. In the plateau's barren smoothness it makes a hard purity, like some elemental carving, and its colour is almost shocking, a violent peacock blue. There is no bird or wind touched shrub to start a sound. And in the cleansed stillness high above, floating on foothills so faded that it seems isolated in the sky, shines the cone of Mount Kailas. In this heart-stopping moment pilgrims burst into cries and prayer. Even our seasoned trekkers spill from their Land Cruisers to gaze. There seems no colours left in the world but this bare earth-brown, the snow's white, and the sheen of mirrored sky. Everything else has been distilled away. The south face of Kailas is fluted with the illusion of a long, vertical stairway, as if for spirits to climb by. It shines fifty miles away in unearthly solitude. Void of any life, the whole region might have survived from some sacred pre-history, shorn of human complications. We have entered holy land."
He travels to Lake Manasarovar and experiences the Saga Dawa ceremony, with all the pilgrims, the monks and the raising of the Tarboche Pole. He then treks around Mount Kailash, visiting Chuku Gompa and Dirapuk Gompa, describing their statues, and meeting some Hindus who were finding the Kailash parikrama extremely difficult. He passes Shiva Tsal and climbs to the Dolma La. "Now hoarse cries sound above us in the wind, and a hillock of brilliant colour bursts from the gap above. I climb on a wave of relief. The slopes ease apart under a porcelain sky. A few minutes later I am walking through a blaze of prayer flags. They are festooned so thick on everything around that only at their top does the double summit of the boulder sacred to Tara - the Flaming Rock - break free in a surge of granite." He continues the kora down the Eastern Valley to Zutulpuk Gompa and out to the Barkha Plain, where the book ends abruptly.
I enjoyed reading the story once it got to Tibet and to Mount Kailash; the trek in Nepal was a little too long. There is an excellent description of Saga Dawa and the kora around Kailash, but only a basic review of Buddhism and the Tibetan deities. Photos would have helped me visualize the story.
There's little doubt that Colin Thubron is one the very best travel writers around. His prose is worth reading for it's beauty and sense of atmosphere, and combined with that he's produced a series of books that explore regions most of us won't ever get to see, and they still retain that sense of being off the beaten track.
"To A Mountain in Tibet" is perhaps his most personal journey, as it combines travel to sacred and holy territory in this remote part of the world with Thubron's own sense of loss and mortality after the death of his mother. Indeed, it's the parts of the book where he reflects on this, his childhood, and other scenes from his own life that really bring the book to life, and for me were the most interesting sections to read.
Such is bleakness of the landscape that Thubron describes, that at times it is hard going. Wide, sun-blasted plains with little going on can only sustain interest over so many pages, and at times the language and description do seem out of kilter with the lunar-like landscape that Thubron is travelling through. Without photographs or many maps to accompany the text, the book can be a little dry in places, but haunting and reflective in others.
I'd agree with the comments of other reviewers here that this may not be Thubron's finest work, but it's still miles better than the televised pap that passes for travel documentaries these days. Thubron gets under the skin of places and shows interest and respect for them in a way that shames the more superficial travel exploits of the likes of Michael Palin and co. A thoughtful book from a skilled practitioner of the craft - but it is hard work at times.