Book review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

“The most sacred of the world’s mountains — holy to one fifth of the earth’s people — remains withdrawn on its plateau like a pious illusion. For years I had heard of it only as a figment. Isolated beyond the parapet of the central Himalaya, it permeated early Hindu scriptures as the mystic Mount Meru, whose origins go back to the dawn of Aryan time. In this incarnation it rotates a spindle at the axis of all creation, ascending immeasurable miles to the palace of Brahma, greatest and most remote of the gods, and plunging as deep beneath the earth. From its foot flow the four rivers that nourish the world, and everything created — trees, rocks, humans — finds its blueprint here. In time the mystical Meru and the earthly Kailas merged in people’s minds. Early wanderers to the source of the four great Indian rivers — the Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra — found to their wonder that each one rose near a cardinal point of Kailas. So people discovered the heart of the world.”

At the end of the world, the center of the world

So Mt. Kailas stands, from its isolated home in western Tibet, along the roof of the world. Getting there is difficult physically, politically and geographically. The air is thin, the ever-ascending terrain rough and unforgiving. Gaining entry to Tibet itself can be difficult and fraught with red tape, but even more so can be access to remote regions of the country. Poverty surrounds the mountain, and the author’s journey takes us to the homes and hardships of Nepalis and Tibetans. Tucked away in remote southwestern Tibet, Kailas is near no major cities or roads or train stations or airports. There is no weekend jaunt to the mountain.

The center of our world is as remote as another world.

Yet pilgrims of various faiths come here every year, to walk over the fractious, rocky terrain, scrabbling for breath in the thin, oxygen-deficient air, all for the goal of gaining merit in this life and in lives to come. Kailas (or Kailash) is holy for Buddhists, Hindus, and even practitioners of the Bon religion, which permeated much of this region prior to the rise of Buddhism in Asia. The power of the faith behind it equals the faith that sends faithful from all corners of the world to Mecca, the Vatican, Jerusalem.

To go to Kailas is to walk the kora, or the holy circuit, around the mountain. This 54-mile trek takes days, and ascends over 18,000 feet. The air is thin and freezing; the rocks sharp and unforgiving. Holy relics and caves are everywhere, and so too are the faithful, seeking forgiveness, seeking merit, seeking hope.

But why go to Kailas, then, when you are not of a faith? What draws a person to torment their body with the physical toil of oxygen deprivation, with trekking over ever-higher, ever-rockier, ever-more-vertical treacherous yet beautiful terrain from Nepal to Tibet? What is to be gained from a pilgrimage to a holy mountain when at your heart you do not find it holy? How do you take in such a powerful symbol of faith, when at every step you fight for a decent breath?

What draws a non-pilgrim to a holy mountain?

Colin Thubron, reknown British author, is considered one of the most admired travel writers of our time. He does not go to Kailas out of faith or religion. Yet even in the heart of a non-believer, there can arise a need to see, a need to understand, a need to have closure and continuance.

After laying to rest his sister, his mother, his father, Thubron is without family. He is alone. So he treks to Kailas, to the end of the world and the center of the world. He wants to push his body and mind. He wants to know what is there. He wants to try to understand why so many make the treacherous trip, and what it may do to assuage his grief, to help him continue on.

What does Thubron seek? In his own heart, he seeks an acceptance of the losses he has suffered. But Thubron  also seeks to show the many aspects of this place: its harshness and beauty, the faith, the futility, the poverty, the ancient beliefs that have mingled and changed each other for centuries. His prose matches the landscape; he weaves his personal story, mythology, facts, and a travel narrative in a compelling tale that combines one man’s journey and the complex story of Tibet, religion and politics.

No transcendental melodrama on this trek

This sparsely written yet beautiful book encapsulates the contradiction of Kailas. Rooted deep in earth and faith, rising to 22,027 feet from some of the most remote, desolate country in the world, Kailas for many is the center of life, faith, gods, humans, and existence.

What truly stands out about Thubron’s 218-page tale, though, is the starkness with which he shows the reader this world through his eyes. In encounters with locals along the way, or conversations with his guides, Thubron doesn’t fall into the Westerner’s trap of exoticism and sprout-tinged New-Agey hokiness. He is not looking under every rock for enlightenment; he is on a path, to see something he must see, and that is all. He weaves his experiences with history and legend, with political facts and current events. He introduces us to Nepalis, Tibetans, Indians, all on their way to the mountain. We see a sliver of their lives, and of the culture and faith that has brought them to their decision to make the trek to Kailas.

Thubron does not leave out the harshness of economy, culture or politics. He forces the reader to confront them, and the contradiction they embody: that so much hardship and loss is encountered on the way to something so holy and powerful. Poverty grows best in harsh country, and the way to Kailas is surrounded by poor food yields, lack of education, and villages increasingly left to the elderly by younger generations who want more out of their lives than the sparse mountain villages can provide.

So too, though, is Kailas surrounded by deep faith and spirituality, by believers of many faiths and nationalities who accept the hardships of life by their beliefs. There are smiles here, easy laughs and hope, amidst difficult conditions and heartbreak of day after day after day.

Life goes on

There is no aha moment of this book. Thubron does not meet Brahma or Shiva or Buddha or Jehovah and pass along secret messages about the enlightenment of the world. He does not come to an epiphany of life and faith and belief. He just goes, just as those around him go. The goal is not ephiphany; the goal is life, and acceptance, and continuing on, to whatever there is to continue on to, for that person’s life.

If anything, there is a message here that life and faith are too complex for sitcom morality and split-second transcendence. At the end of a pilgrimage, life’s path continues. Who you are as you go to the next part of the path depends on you, and what you believe, who you are, what has happened to you, and what you believe you have accomplished by visiting the holiest mountain in the center of the world, at the end of the world, at the beginning of this next part of whatever your life may bring.

Get yours: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

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