March 31, 2011

TIBET: How different cultures confront the fact of death

LONDON, England / The Economist / Culture / Travel / March 31, 2011

Travel in Tibet
In pursuit of understanding
How different cultures confront the fact of death 

A pilgrimage not to be taken lightly

To a Mountain in Tibet
By Colin Thubron

THE physical journeys that Colin Thubron makes in his travel writing are also intellectual and emotional quests of particular intensity. His latest book, which tells the story of his journey to one of the great sacred places in the world, Mount Kailas in southern Tibet, is no exception.

The book begins with him crossing the Tibetan border from Nepal on his way to the mountain. This is a land dense with sacred associations and mythical stories. Stones are carved with ritual incantations, prayer flags blow in the high mountain winds and devoted chanting comes from the numerous monasteries along the way.

The mountain itself is an important site of pilgrimage for Hindus, Buddhists and followers of ancient Tibetan faiths. The goal is to seek purification by trudging round the mountain on a route that is physically demanding but brings spiritual reward. Some die from the effort, others give up, all are possessed by the sense that they are living close to a divine presence.

In the midst of all this Mr Thubron acts like a kind of secular shaman, allowing himself to be possessed by the many spirits of the place without succumbing to their power. He respects what it is that drives pilgrims to Mount Kailas, and follows them round it, but he does not pretend that he is at one with them.

This is not the familiar story of a traveller from the West finding spiritual consolation in Eastern religions. Mr Thubron’s particular quest is to find out how different individuals and different cultures confront the fact of mortality. This book is autobiographical in a way that his others are not. He is mourning his mother’s recent death and throughout he is haunted by memories of her and of his dead sister and father.

Their words, looks and gestures come back to him as he climbs a mountain path or talks to a Hindu pilgrim or Buddhist monk. The beliefs about reincarnation and the journeys of dead souls that he sees being enacted all round him do not assuage his own sense of loss. Instead his grief becomes one of the multitude of emotions and stories that have brought people over many centuries to Mount Kailas.

Like his earlier work, the book reminds us that for Mr Thubron travel is a kind of ascetic discipline. He takes the reader to high places, literally and metaphorically, and to an understanding of how people from other cultures somehow get by in an unpredictable world.

Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2011

To a Mountain in Tibet

By Colin Thubron.
240 pages;
$24.99. Chatto &
Windus; £16.99.
Buy from

Colin Gerald Dryden Thubron, CBE is a British travel writer and novelist. He was born in London on June 14, 1939 and educated at Eton College. Before becoming a writer, he worked for a short time in publishing and film-making. His first travel book, Mirror to Damascus, was published in 1967...

In many ways, Thubron's work harks back to an earlier age of travel writing. He is one of the last of the "gentlemen-travellers" - Eton-educated, erudite and willing to immerse himself in the countries in question for a long period of time. “Modern travel writing has always been created with a certain amount of gimmickry,” he told The Times, “which surprises me because I don’t really understand why you have to do that. The world abroad seems sufficiently extraordinary and peculiar without my having to resort to all that.”

Colin Thubron in Tibet. Courtesy: LonelyPlanet