Celebrated travel writer Colin Thubron on his life-changing walk atop Mt. Kailash.

For 30 years now, Colin Thubron has made a living writing of travels to “places half-acknowledged by maps”. While his love for words began as a poet, a road accident in 1975 urged him to explore places his British upbringing had led him to fear — countries of the former Soviet Union and China. Several travel memoirs later, Colin embarked on a markedly personal journey to Mt Kailash — to come to terms with the death of his mother, the last living member of his family. “You cannot walk out of your grief,” he says, “You cannot bring someone back. So you chose a place of meaning on Earth, and walk to place beyond your history.” This story of introspection and discovery makes his book To A Mountain in Tibet.

History and mythology had taught Colin that Mt. Kailash was perceived as the “source of the world. Four great rivers originated from it; Shiva made his home there; and it was the dreaded ‘gateway to the God of Death’, Yam. Yet Colin chose to walk his way up, for “walking brought you closer to the earth, to what life itself is made of — dust.” The journey, taken with a Sherpa for company, seemed like a shedding of personal burdens, each step of ascent “approaching divinity”. The trail itself would wind past sycamore trees 150 ft. high, past homes of Nepalese Hindus and onward to more arid land, signposted by prayer flags and prayer walls, and finally across a border peppered with Chinese guards into Buddhist Tibet.

Through a narrative which upturns Western beliefs of a “mystical Tibet” and stereotypical notions of meditating monks, Colin traced his trek up to Manasarovar Lake — a “land of sudden and strange peace”. Legends of the lake abound beside tales of yogis amidst nirvana; life around, however, revealed pilgrims prostrated across the mountain, on a trip said to relieve one of a lifetime’s sins. But at 18,000 ft. above sea level, not many live to see an atoned life. “Eight people died on the mountain while I was there,” says Colin. The mountain, though, houses a cemetery of sorts — where people leave a bit of themselves (blood, hair or teeth) before the descent — to ease themselves into the afterlife. At the summit are shouts of jubilation, for having survived the climb; for Colin, the joy remained quieter — in a moment’s realisation that it’s not about the individual’s triumph at the peak, but “about the abstract weight of good and evil”.