To A Mountain In Tibet by Colin Thubron

It’s been a while since I read anything by torchlight. Mostly because few writers tempt me to, when the sleepy family scolds me for leaving the bedside lamp on. But Colin Thubron’s journey to Mount Kailas (To A Mountain In Tibet) was unputdownable. Trekking up the high mountains of Nepal, crossing over to Tibet, he talks of a land that’s shrouded in mystique today, as it was a century ago. Few Westerners have recorded their passage to the country; fewer still the journey to the sacred mountain, near which four great rivers sprang to life (Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej). But ‘humbler travellers’ Thubron notes, ‘have been entering the country for centuries: pilgrims who left no record’. Interestingly, Thubron’s beautifully recorded journey is also a pilgrimage of sorts, stretching beyond being just a lyrical ode to the landscape, touching upon memories close to his heart (he lost the last surviving member of his family before the trip). Here, he talks of the mountains, where divinity ‘wears a smile of compassion and a garland of skulls’. It’s on this harsh terrain that he meets an abbot who ironically tells him ‘it is you who can go to Kailas’; not the Tibetans, but only the Westerner. As he takes you higher, towards that holy mountain, the air thins, but lore — ideologies and customs — thickens. But it is close to Mount Kailas itself, by the shores of Manasarovar, that religion, Nature and writing — as lofty and sharp as jagged mountains — come together to make the reader, just like it did the writer, feel ‘oddly elated, unreal’.

It works because…

If you can neither whisk yourself to Tibet, nor walk besides its great arc of mountains, these pages might be your best bet to experience ‘that heart-stopping moment pilgrims burst into tears and prayers’ when they see the shining cone of Mount Kailas. But this land, drenched in ‘ancient silence’ and studded with ‘violent peacock blue lakes’ also bears the scars of the Chinese invasion. And it is this dichotomy that Thubron captures. ‘There is Tibet’ he tells himself, ‘I am in Tibet’, but the next instant, the exultation dissolves in a lament — ‘but the town has a lunar placelessness’; what was, a millennium ago ‘the capital of an independent Tibetan kingdom’ (Taklakot) had, when the author visited, ‘the gutted feel of other Chinese frontier places’. Poverty, he says, is the common thread that binds the villages in the high Himalayas, adding that the perceived ‘idyll is a mirage’. As I read on about Thubron completing the external and internal journey, the torch shone on the page, the seven white bulbs glinting like diamonds on writing that was as polished and reflective as the gemstone. It takes thousands of tortuous years to transform carbon into diamond. But all it takes a really good writer is 218 pages.

And this one stays with you…

The first glimpse of Mount Kailas — ‘There seem no colours left in the world but this bare earth-brown, the snow’s white, and the sheen of mirrored sky. Everything else has been distilled away. The south face of Kailas is fluted with the illusion of a long, vertical stairway, as is for spirits to climb by. It shines fifty miles away in unearthly solitude. Void of any life, the whole region might have survived from some sacred pre-history, shorn of human complication. We have entered holy land.’