Colin Thubron: To a Mountain in Tibet
In the wake of my two recent pilgrimage journeys to Rome and Santiago de Compostela, I was intrigued to learn more about other forms of pilgrimage practised by other religious faiths. I had the good fortune of attending a lecture-presentation given by a couple who had trekked the Buddhist/Hindu encirclement of the base of Mount Kailas, situated at the heart of disputed territory in Tibet. This was a high altitude experience that stretched their sense of fortitude to the limits. Then Colin Thubron, for decades a master travel writer, embarked on the same journey in his 70s, and his recently published To a Mountain in Tibet describes his experiences on his secular pilgrimage.
When pilgrims are asked why they are doing their journeys, many cannot give a straight answer, because they cannot adequately verbalise their prime motivation. If you dig a little deeper, sometimes a significant event or issue in their lives may slowly emerge, like the death of a loved-one, a marital separation or, more joyously, the recovery from an illness. In the case of Colin Thubron, his journey is an attempt to reconcile himself to the recent death of his mother (his last surviving relative) and, along the way, he is forcefully reminded of the death of his 21 year old sister, killed in an avalanche in the Alps when he was only 19 years old.
To a Mountain in Tibet is a simple story of a personal journey to the sacred slopes of Mount Kailas in the Western Himalayas, travelling on foot with a guide, a cook and a horseman. A number of monasteries punctuate this journey through this inaccessible world, and he digs deeply into the rival claims by both Hindus and Buddhists (and their predecessors, the Bon) to the rightful ownership of this most holy, but most challenging of pilgrimage trails. This mountain is never climbed, never features on the lists of intrepid mountaineers, because it is just too holy and too protected. The encirclement, however, takes the pilgrims (the majority of whom are too poor to wear more than flimsy trainers and wrap-around clothing) to a dizzy height of 18,600 feet, where ‘the coffee goes cold before you can drink it’.
The pilgrimage trail around Mount Kailas is well documented elsewhere, but Thubron here gives us a very personal account of his journey, revealing what it is like to be a pilgrim on the most challenging of pilgrimage routes in the world.