To a Mountain in Tibet
tells two stories. One is the great travel writer’s observations along his trek to a significant physical and religious site. The other is his inner journey of coming to terms with the death of his mother, whose passing prompted this adventure. The sights, smells and sounds of this arduous walk into a remote, mountainous retreat capture his senses. But it is the local culture and sundry religious views of death that capture his imagination as he treks to the holiest mountain in the world. Four great Indian rivers—the Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra—Have their sources on or near the mountain Kailas. To a fifth of the world’s population, this peak is the center of everything, to Buddhists and Hindus, and to believers of other religions before those. In Chinese-controlled Tibet, the mountain has never been scaled, but pilgrims walk around it as an act of devotion, and to seek favor from their gods.
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…The sun and the planets orbit it. The Pole Star hangs immutable above. The continents of the world radiate from its centre like lotus petals on a precious sea (Humans occupy the southern petal) and its slopes are heady with the gardens of paradise.
But the God of Death dwells on the mountain. Nothing is total, nothing permanent—not even he. All is flux.
He catalogs a series of religious beliefs as he encounters monasteries destroyed by the Chinese, and remnant shrines and relics, noting the historic interactions of ancient religions, merging, absorbing each other. It would be a good idea to keep a dictionary handy as there are sundry new words to learn. And while it is not necessary to be familiar with eastern religions, it wouldn’t hurt, as Thubron tosses around quite a few names that are unfamiliar to those of us largely innocent of those belief systems.
When he writes about the death of his mother, it is not so much about her physical passing, but how her death affected him. Thubron is trying to cope with her death, and as we learn late in the book, the death at a young age of his sister. But he tells us almost nothing of his relationship with either person. It is their passing that is significant here.
With the death of a last parent, material things—old correspondence, a dilapidated house, a pair of slippers—emerge like orphans to enshrine the dead. My mother threw away nothing. Her drawers spilt out letters, diaries, documents, photos, fifty, seventy, eighty years old, with the stacked correspondence of my father, my dead sister, my nurse, even my nurse’s mother. For months the papers lie piled, waiting. They grow huge with delayed sadness. How to decide what is to survive, what is to perish? The value of things no longer belongs to cost or beauty, but only to memory. The chipped and faded teacup is more precious than the silver tray that nobody used. And the letters bring confusion. Sometimes what was written for a day echoes in your head as if forever. Every one discarded sounds a tiny knell of loss. The past drops away into the waste-paper basket and oblivion, and in this monstrous disburdening, grief returns you to a kind of childish dependence. You sift and preserve (for whom?) and cling to trivia. You have become the guardian of their past, even its recreator.
The themes of connectedness to both the sacred and the real permeate his musings.
As they [a group of passing monks] walk on, I wonder at them, their lightness, their lack of need. They have already passed through a painless, premature death. They have shed what others shed in dying. They will leave nothing material behind them to be divided, claimed or loved. Their dispossession strikes me at once as freedom, and a poignant depletion. Their buoyant laughter follows me up the valley, but I do not quite envy them. I only wonder with a muffled pang what it would be in the West to step outside the chain of bequeathal and inheritance, as they do, until human artifacts mean nothing at all.
It is a relatively short book, but it is not a fast read. This is a book you will want to read at the speed of speech. I found myself frequently re-reading passages, paragraphs, pages, only in part to assure that I had gotten what had just crossed my eyes. Mostly it was to savor the writing, the feeling, chewing a morsel very slowly in order to extract all possible deliciousness. Thubron has a great talent for describing not just what he sees, but the impact of what he sees. His dual career as a travel writer par excellence and a novelist has left us with incomparable writing.
In fact the Times of London publishes a list of the greatest British writers of the post war era, and Thubron continues to be included. It is no shock that he is considered one of the best travel writers ever. Perhaps with ancestors like Dryden and Samuel Morse he has a natural gift for words. Whether for the information imparted here about a very remote place and people or for the more spiritual contemplation of permanence To a Mountain in Tibet
is a trek worth taking.
PS - about a week after posting this review, I came across the following on PBS. If you want to see the mountain for yourself, it figures prominently in this edition of Myths and Heroes