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To a Mountain in Tibet
22.12.10 | Alice O'Keeffe
Ask any reader to list their favourite travel writers and chances are Colin Thubron will be mentioned. Fellow travel writer Jan Morris describes him as "one of the two or three best living travel writers". Born in 1939, his first book, Mirror to Damascus, was published in 1967 and he has since written about the Middle East, Russia and Asia to great acclaim. In his latest travel book, To a Mountain in Tibet (February, Chatto), he walks the pilgrimage route to Mount Kailas, a remote mountain little-known in the West that is holy to Buddhists and Hindus, one-fifth of the world's population.
The whole journey, Thubron says, was "terribly short by my standards, about five weeks" but, after his previous travel book Shadows of the Silk Road, in which he undertook an epic nine-month journey beginning in Xian, China through Central Asia and the former Soviet Union to Antakya in Turkey, the idea of a relatively "short, sharp" journey had a certain appeal.
Thubron also had a deeply personal reason for undertaking the journey—his mother, his last family member, had recently died and "being agnostic, the idea of going to a sacred object like a mountain was in a way more appealing than going to a specifically Christian place".
Before his arrival Thubron spent eight months researching his planned journey at the British Library and SOAS, seeking to understand the complex nature of Tibetan Buddhism. It was less research than usual he says because he didn't learn a language—"usually I struggle to recuperate either Russian or Mandarin but in this case I wasn't going to learn Tibetan" he says with a chuckle.
into thin air
It was the most physically challenging journey he has ever undertaken, largely down to the altitude. He didn't do any particular training—"I'm used to being fit, so perhaps rather hubristically I seem to expect my body to do more or less do what I want it to do.
"It did it this time, I didn't feel that I was in trouble muscularly, the trouble was all in the lungs and oxygen." Indeed, at one point in the book, terrifying to read and so probably a thousand times more terrifying to experience, he vividly describes a feeling of acute breathlessness, of "air too thin to sustain me" at 11,000 ft and an ensuing panic. But he says the real tension came in the last couple of days approaching the highest pass on Mt Kailas (18,600 ft) when he started to worry seriously about altitude sickness: "You feel terribly tired with every physical effort you make but it's not the same as getting a terrible headache like my sherpa was starting to get. If that happens and increases there's nothing you can do with altitude sickness except just 'go down', they say, as if there's nice little escalator going down to Tibet" and he guffaws at the thought.
Thubron uses the same notebooks for each trip—"you get so superstitious about these things"—and made notes during stops rather than at the end of the day when he would often just "fall into the tent" too exhausted to write. He then takes the notebooks back home to London to turn into the book: "There's an energy in them but they're sort of impressionistic, they're not really in sentences . . . I splurge down everything with great enthusiasm but it's not coherent and the writing is appalling."
To A Mountain in Tibet is also his most personal book. In earlier books he kept himself removed from the narrative but here snippets of his own history—his childhood, the lives of his parents and the death of his mother—are woven into the main narrative as he remembered them on the journey. It was, he says, unpremeditated: "I expected something like that to happen, but where and what I was pretty unsure. I think if you go in a certain frame of mind, thinking about, as I was, the dead, then things happen. You're reminded by things which come out of the blue."
He also comments on the "oddity of walking as an agnostic through a Buddhist world" and says he found no consolation on the journey. "Christianity is a great consolation to Christians in regards to the afterlife but that's something I can't feel and Buddhism can't supply anything similar." He found it quite harsh: "walking through a landscape of belief as, if you like, the representative of one faith which I've lost, looking at another which I can't assume."
I wonder if he found writing the book a comfort after the death of his mother? He answers slowly and thoughtfully. "I know I'm going to get asked this, and it would be so pleasant for the narrative to say it was cathartic in some way but I can't say so, no. It was just something I had to do."