Colin Thubron’s To a Mountain in Tibet

By Rob Packer

To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

The pyramidal Mount Kailas (Mount Meru of mythology) stands in Tibet supernaturally close to the source of India’s greatest rivers—the Indus, the Sutlej, the Brahmaputra and a major Ganges tributary—and for this reason, Hindu and Buddhist cosmology places it at the centre of the world. In his latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet, Colin Thubron says “the concept of a world mountain pervaded Asia” and extends its influence as far as Babylonian ziggurats. Indeed, its shape is repeated in the temples of Angkor and Ellora, and constructed on a grand and allegorical scale at Borobudur (see photos).

Travel writing is sometimes (unfairly) treated as literature’s embarrassing relative: talking about himself, often male, showing off about his latest trip, perhaps a little uncouth. While thinking about this blog, I tried to come up with a personal definition but couldn’t get beyond a rather vague “first-person narrative telling a true story away from home”. With this woolliness, it’s no surprise that the genre ranges from the truly execrable (Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul by John Malathronas, for example) to the sublimely wonderful To a Mountain in Tibet.

The book is a travelogue of Thubron’s 2009 “pilgrimage” to through the Nepali Himalayas to Mount Kailas after “the last of my family dies”. Understandably, the author’s grief permeates the book and he also reflects on the conception of death in Hinduism and Buddhism, as he walks towards Kailas through a landscape ever more barren and physically marked by the Buddha’s footprints.

Mandala on the hand of a Nepali bodhisattva

He also examines “the fantasy of Tibet as an exalted sanctuary”, where even Tibetan exiles “depict a remembered country”, “a land that never existed at all”, and the more Western equation of Tibet with its fictional alter ego, Shangri-La (fictional despite recent renamings in Yunnan Province). But the Himalayas of the imagination are quickly disappearing in a world and “Arcadia is falling to bits as he speaks”, where even Nepali peasant farmers have daughters studying in Alabama and Tibetan monks anger over the refereeing of a Manchester United-Barcelona game: the abbot rationalizes it as “a kind of meditation. They concentrate on the ball and the rest of the world goes away…”

To a Mountain in Tibet is a joy to read with its cinematic flashbacks, its fascinating insights into Tibetan and Nepali culture, and Thubron’s exploration of his own and his family’s past. And above all, the book is written in fantastically lyrical prose, and the opening paragraph is just a taste of things to come:

The sun is rising to its zenith. Silver-grey boulders lie tumbled along the track among mattresses of thorns and smoke-blue flowers. The storm clouds that hang on the farther mountains do not move. There is no sound but the scrunch of our boots and the clink of the sherpa’s trekking pole. Underfoot the stones glisten with quartz.

I feel I owe a particular debt to Colin Thubron as one of the first people to introduce me to Central Asia with The Lost Heart of Asia (left on a Ukrainian train in 1998 and rediscovered when I lived in Kyrgyzstan). To a Mountain in Tibet surpasses that earlier work and is, without a doubt, one of the most engrossing and intelligent pieces of recent writing that I’ve read.

Colin Thubron, To a Mountain in Tibet, Chatto & Windus 2011

Kailas depicted at Angkor, Cambodia

Part of the Kailasa Temple at Ellora, Maharashtra, India

Borobudur, Java, Indonesia

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2 Responses to Colin Thubron’s To a Mountain in Tibet

  1. Another book to add to my list. Thank you! The close-up shot of the hand is exquisite. So are Thubron’s lines: “There is no sound but the scrunch of our boots and the clink of the sherpa’s trekking pole. Underfoot the stones glisten with quartz.” Perfect word construction. Try reading them out loud! Theadora

    • robpacker says:

      So true! It really is amazing writing: that opening paragraph was going round and round in my head after I read it.
      Glad you like the photo too.

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