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 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 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.
on 9 February 2011
A superb book full of compassion,ideas and acute insights. He takes us through his narrative camera to places remote austere and beguiling .
This is a short book of just under 220 pages, covering the author,s trek to and around Mount Kailas in Tibet. Kailas is sacred to over 20% of the world population and to trek around the mountain - it has never been climbed- provides merit to Buddhists and to Hindus. Full of information about these faiths, their rituals and sacred places, this is also a splendid piece of travel writing that allow the reader to feel as if they were there with the author.
Tibet comes over as a sad place, where the Buddhist faith is largely repressed, and where poverty, real grinding poverty is a way of life for so many. There is a happiness too in the people who Thubron means and the stoicism with which they face life's challenges.
This is a beautifully written tale of a very arduous journey, undertaken when the author was certainly no longer young. He seems to have found some peace in Tibet, and to have seen some remarkable sights.
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.
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 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.
The jacket endorsements for Colin Thubron's pre-eminent place among travel writers would be pointless to dispute. However, in this rare case, he does not make it easy for the reader to accompany him on his journey to a sacred Himalayan peak, Kailas.
Physically, the terrain challenges his formidable narrative powers: one barren landscape after another takes the language into rarefied exploration. Nor are the people whom he meets along the way, or who travel with him, of lasting interest. The contrast with Thubron's previous book, Shadow of the Silk Road, is inescapable.
A spiritual element runs strongly throughout In To a Mountain in Tibet. In part this emerges in memories of his deceased parents. Above all, any journey to Tibet is inextricably bound up with that country's religious life. Here, the reader needs either a developed interest in Buddhism, Hinduism and Tantric beliefs or a remarkable ability to grasp instantly the philosophies they embody. "Tantric initiates," Thubron writes, "discover in the chorten an eidolen of the seated Buddha, and see its central axis - most chortens enclose a vertical beam -as a symbol of Meru-Kailas, or a male archetype infusing a female body." Now there's a text for discussion at your next book club meeting.
on 20 March 2013
This is travel writing of a high order and anyone who has been in or near this part of the world will relish what amounts to a pilgrimage. The account of what proved to be a taxing journey is beautifully told, although some may find it a touch self-indulgent.