To a Mountain in Tibet is famed travel writer Colin Thubron’s latest travel memoir, which takes Thubron deep into western Tibet to visit Mount Kailas. Though the mountain itself has never been climbed–it is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and therefore off limits–thousands of Hindus and Buddhists make the physically rigorous trek there every year to circle the mountain in religious pilgrimage. At the age of 70, Thubron visited Kailas on a pilgrimage of his own, spurred to action following the death of his mother.
There is no doubt that Thubron is a gifted writer; his vocabulary is incredible (David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody, two writers whose vocabularies I envy, often came to mind), and his lengthy descriptions almost always go beyond the visual:
[Kailas] was a site of astral beauty, separated from its companion Himalayas as if by divine intent. To the pious, the mountain radiates gold or refracts like crystal. It is the source of the universe, created from cosmic waters and the mind of Brahma…But the God of Death dwells on the mountain. Nothing is total, nothing permanent–not even he. All is flux.
I also appreciated that Thubron delved into the religious and cultural history of Kailas (and the bloody history of Tibet in general). The people of Tibet still suffers under Chinese occupation; most Tibetans live in poverty and are uneducated and are at the mercy of the land to yield their food. Many travel far from home to find work — Thubron encountered several Tibetan men who had left their families behind in order to work as sherpas and tour guides — and families frequently send their sons off to monasteries to become monks. Centuries of invasion and colonization have left their indelible marks.
So in theory, Thubron’s beautiful writing and his ability to put everything he sees into different contexts should mean that the book is a winner, right? Unfortunately, I didn’t find that to be the case.
To start with, I couldn’t get past the uneasy feeling that Thubron’s presence there as a tourist/pilgrim was ethically questionable. I don’t think that cultural/environmental tourism necessarily has to be a bad thing, but doing it in a country that is still under occupation — and whose citizens are still extremely disenfranchised — is questionable, especially when you have plans to write (and profit from) a book about a pilgrimage to a holy place that was done not for religious reasons, but for your own edification.
Another thing that made me uneasy were certain scenes that reflected the caste/education divides among Tibetans. This is one scene where Thubron and his guide debate where to stay one night:
We sit on rocks to eat, while I wonder aloud if a family in Yalbang will take us in.
Iswor says grimly, in his troubled English: ‘You will die here.’
A faint alarm. ‘Die here? Who will kill me?’
He laughs curtly. ‘Not “die here”. I said “you will diarrhoea.” These people dirty.’
Dhabu laughs too, from habit. His hazel eyes glitter in a swarthy face. Some unspoken divide exists between him and Iswor and Ram, not of caste (for he is Thakuri) but of education. Born in these wild valleys, he never went to school. Now he sits on a rock apart to stare at me, his eyes divided by a twitch of puzzlement. He always eats last and out of sight, and when I offer him anything — a slice of apple or a sweet — he accepts it with surprise and mute confusion, extending both hands to receive it.
In another scene, the group crosses paths with a Tibetan traveler who stops and gapes open-mouthed at Thubron; Iswor (Thubron’s guide) comments that the man had never seen a Westerner before. It wasn’t so much that these scenes were included, because it was interesting to see how Tibetans perceived each other, but it often felt like Thubron was Othering/exoticizing the people he encountered in the way that he described them.
Furthermore, Thubron’s trip to Kailas was allegedly spurred by his mother’s death, and to a lesser extent, the deaths of his father and sister, but save for a few hazy flashbacks, his family is rarely mentioned. The handful of scenes discussing his family feels like an afterthought, even though his family is supposed to be the impetus of his journey.
And above all of this, I regret to say that the book was boring. I love Thubron’s ability to describe his journey, but without a proper balance between descriptions of scenery, descriptions of historical events, descriptions of the people he encounters, and some kind of…action? interaction? something that doesn’t involve aesthetic description?…the book becomes overbearing.
I wouldn’t mind giving Thubron another shot in the future because he is a really good writer. To a Mountain in Tibet just had too many missteps. The book wasn’t for me, but I can see why people like Thubron’s work.
To a Mountain in Tibet was released on March 1, 2011 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.