HE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
An agnostic pilgrim
ARTHUR J PAIS
It is not easy to pick one discovery from Colin Thubron’s compelling, vivid and elegiac memoir
To a Mountain in Tibet
and yet the following passage keeps coming back.
‘Along the wide, pebbled valley ahead of us, a figure is
inching forward, leveling its length in the dust, rising,
advancing three paces, falling again, arms stretched ahead,’
Thubron writes almost at the end of his five-week long
journey, when he finds himself in an area where the Lha
river wanders alongside and Mount Kailash looms to the
north-east. ‘Even when we draw alongside, I cannot at first
tell if this is a youth or a girl. By these painful means, the
body touching every span of the path, a pilgrim may circle
the mountain in three weeks, returning each dawn to the
spot abandoned, marked with a stone.’
When the figure rises, Thubron sees it is wearing a
leather apron; and the hands are strapped with wooden
boards, ‘while two bent women, too old to perform this rite
themselves precede the near child with a thermos of tea,
crouching in the dust before her and willing her on.’ One of
his helpers, Iswor, Thubron realizes, is as bemused as he.
He says only, ‘Perhaps she has done something.’
Surely the most personal book from the traveler, who
writer Jan Morris has called a ‘transcendentally gifted
To a Mountain in Tibet
HarperCollins in America), is a travelogue, memoir, and a
meditation on daily life in Buddhist Nepal and the Western
part of Tibet. Thubron, who has been going to places most
travel writers shun, was 70 when he took up this physically
and, at times, emotionally-draining journey.
In just about 240 pages, the man who has been ranked
among the 50 greatest postwar British writers by
, London, distills religious, political, cultural and
geographical history of Kailash, a mountain sacred to
Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bons, perhaps the first
believers in Tibet.
A long time agnostic, Thubron started his pilgrimage
through some of the roughest terrain in the world, follow-
ing his mother’s death a few years ago. She was the last of
his family. His only sibling, a sister, had died at age 21 in an
avalanche, and his father a few years ago.
His research in his home town London acquainted him
with writers who had been fascinated by Tibet, including
the 10th century Arab geographer Masudi, who wrote ‘of a
people beyond the Himalayas who laughed even in
bereavement.’ That thought probably fuelled his determi-
nation to walk ‘to a place beyond your own history, to the
sound of the river flowing the other way.’
‘I am doing this on account of the dead,’ he writes.
‘Sometimes journeys begin long before their first step is
taken. Mine, without my knowing, starts not long ago, in a
hospital ward, as the last of my family dies... I need to leave
a sign of their passage.’
Though Thubron had travelled across India four decades
ago, he had not heard much about Tibet and Mount
Kailash. ‘For years I had heard of it only as a figment,’ he
writes. ‘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 in Kailas.’
People circle the mountain, but it has not been climbed.
Thubron gives examples of a handful of efforts to climb the
treacherous mountain decades ago, but concludes that the
faithful would want it unconquered. Instead, pilgrims walk
around the base of the mountain, clockwise or anti-clock-
wise, depending on their ritual allegiances.
Thubron’s interest is to find some serenity and detach-
ment; he is not interested in the exotica. But he offers brief
accounts of how Tibet has fired the imagination of those
looking for the elusive Shangrila, an Eden-like region, the
occultists and writers. The founder of Theosophical
Society, Madame Blavatsky, he writes, claimed guidance
from a lost Atlantean kingdom in Tibet, a brother later
exposed as non-existent.
‘Soon Tibet was rumored a laboratory for occult miracles,’
he writes, ‘where the paranormal was studied as science. Its
monks performed prodigies of telepathy and sonic power,
moving rocks by their voices alone. Its yogic levitated and
flew. Its statues spoke’.
Thubron, who makes the journey with ‘a guide, a cook, a
horse, myself,’ often hikes in altitudes ranging from 15,000
to 18,000 feet, observing not only faith in action, but also
the repression unleashed by Tibet’s Chinese rulers. As he
reaches it by foot along the Karnali River, the highest
source of the Ganga, we get insights into Tibet’s ‘death-
haunted culture’ from a watchful pilgrim, who chooses to
remain an outsider through the secular pilgrimage into a
culture dominated by religion and rituals.
He watches pilgrims fighting for breath, but while he too
suffers from altitude sickness, he is able to continue on his
journey. He bemoans the destruction of temples during
Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
In a ghost town, he comes across houses ‘derelict, their
rooms guttered beyond, their windows blocked,’ and asks
the Tibetans what has happened. The summer market has
not worked for two years, they say, banned by the Chinese.
Living on a spartan diet of boiled rice and vegetables on
several occasions, Thubron absorbs the stark beauty as well
as the ghastly sights of Tibetan sky burials. ‘The corpse’s
back is broken and it is folded into a fetal bundle,’ he writes.
‘They remove the organs, amputate the limbs and cut the
flesh into small pieces... Finally the skull too is smashed
and becomes a morsel with its brains... the vultures crowd
He admits feeling ‘a wrenching revulsion, and a shamed
excitement at the forbidden.’
He remembers a Buddhist monk telling him at the start
of the journey that ‘it will clarify your mind, give you
power… You will dedicate your pilgrimage to those who
The thoughts of his parents and sister often come to his
mind; at one point he realizes that he is ‘only a hand’s
breadth away’ from Nainital, the Indian hill station where
his soldier-father hunted big game during the Raj.
Thubron, whose travel writing has taken him through the
Middle East — Damascus, Lebanon and Cyprus — the erst-
while Soviet Union (where he was pursued by the KGB)
and China, returns from Tibet still very much an agnostic.
But not before asking many questions about the Eastern
beliefs of life, karma and death. ;
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