To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

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To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

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Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An intriguing pilgrimage to and around the titular site, but perhaps the book is a little too personal and quietly fractured for all tastes.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099532644

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This must go down as the least apposite indefinite article in a book title yet. Yes, there are many other mountains dotting the plains of Tibet, but calling this one just 'a' mountain, when it is sacred to a fifth of the world's religious people... Hindu and Buddhist faiths alike venerate Mount Kailas, and devotees are supposed to visit and circle round it to cleanse a lifetime's sins. Thubron takes us on his own pilgrimage, from impoverished cliff-side villages in Nepal, through to Chinese-occupied Tibet and to the sacred route around the mountain.

In places like this you don't need to be a believer to report how distinctive the sacred side of this journey gets - prayer flags are seemingly ever-visible, temples (or their remains) almost as prevalent. Thubron has history with mountains, after a sibling died in the Swiss Alps; this journey is part-inspired by his parents' deaths and him being alone of his immediate kin. Still, his western sensibility perfectly reports on the religious aspect of the region, the attitudes of those he meets and travels with, and of the end achievement.

Like all pilgrimages, it is repetitive. We don't hear him say this fact or that detail as often as he puts one foot in front of another, but it might feel like that. Like all good journeys, it is not in a straight line - we flash away to other monks and other conversations. In fact there are several loops involved - his guides are regularly circling manmade structures and items of prayer to pay homage, way before the much larger clockwise trek around what mother nature (or, OK, the gods) has forced us to sanctify with its magnificence.

There is also, as in any decent travelogue, the unexpected - poring over a map one night Thubron realises he is just a Himalayan bird's flight away from the Indian region where his father did his game hunting. Above a sky burial site comes charging along a Western man, with an addled sort of proselytising much counter to the spirit of the pilgrimage officially taking part around him.

All this is in Thubron's rich, evocative descriptions. I noted this was a Radio 4 Book of the Week (or somesuch) in 2011 while in hardback. Of course the pictures are superior on radio than on TV, but it struck me that a travelogue would have to be superlative to convey drama in both events and in scenery to force itself on to the schedules. But reading this, I felt this was only partly true. Yes, the colours of the rocks and the prayer flags, the food and clothing of the locals, and the dingy caverns where statues are held in quiet, dark esteem, all come across, but beyond the achievement and some encounters, the 'plot' as such is merely standard.

Added to that is the sort of subdued fractures Thubron inserts, where we flashback, or even fade to black with a section break only to light up again on the same scene a short time later. This is Thubron's distinctive, authorly concerns showing through, and with his personal elements added to the story the book did become a little too far towards the one he felt he needed to write - and must have done, very successfully - and a little away from the one I wished to read. Still, within the poetic or novelistic approaches Thubron's clarity and engaging, cultured eye and voice are there for all to read, and the special factors of the region - and 'a' mountain - can become as clear as if still in the crisp Himalayan air.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy. We also have a review of Mirror to Damascus by Colin Thubron.

The modern life of Tibetans is covered in A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun. Some more of Thubron's Asian adventures can be found in the Oxfam charity compilation Ox Travels by Michael Palin. You might also appreciate Like a Tramp, Like A Pilgrim: On Foot, Across Europe to Rome by Harry Bucknall.

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