Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book: Colin Thubron's "To A Mountain In Tibet"

Since we will be going to Tibet this summer, I thought I would read a book about Tibet. Having read Colin Thubron before, and liking what I read, I figured his new book,"To a Mountain in Tibet", would be a good choice.  It was not what I expected.

The book is about Thubron's trip from Kathmandu, Nepal across the border into Tibet on the way to Mount Kailas, the mountain in the title.  Mount Kailas is a sacred mountain for several religions including Buddhism and Hinduism.  As I learned the mountain is the destination of a pilgrimage called the Kora where pilgrims circumambulate the base of the mountain.  Climbing to the top of the mountain, supposed home to Shiva, is strictly forbidden and has officially never been attempted.  It figures that I would chose a random book about Tibet and end up with a book about a pilgrimage.

The Kora is done at a very high altitude.  By walking around the mountain your worldly sins are forgiven.  This is not a simple walk around the mountain.  It really isn't that long (32 miles - 52km) but the altitude is a killer ... literally.  Many Indians, coming from low lying areas of India lose their life during their Kora, not being able to handle the exertion at high altitude.  The Indian government requires a detailed health assessment to all Indian pilgrims before they are permitted to cross the border into China to do the Kora.

Soon after starting reading this book I realized that it was going to be different from his other China book.  The book was written about a trip taken shortly after the death of his mother, his last living parent.  It became obvious to me that this trip was just as much a personal journey of contemplation and mourning as it was a journey to a mountain in Tibet.

As Thubron and his guides approach the Mount Kailas, the writing becomes more muddled in describing the various religious pilgrims and how they saw the Kora.  How every stone had a meaning or a story behind it.  This stone represents this god.  That impression in the stone is the footprint of Buddha.  On and on.  It became less of a learning than of a monotonous litany.  It felt like the author was more lost in his thoughts than engaged with the world around him.  Then when he reaches the highest part of the Kora, instead of praying for his lost mother, he instead delivers prayers from some monks that he had briefly met earlier and who had asked him to take their prayers to the mountain.  It was like he was disconnected and somewhat above what was around him.

To add to this strange image he was portraying for himself, several things he does or doesn't do portrays him in a terrible light.  For example, when a horseman who was taking some of the load leaves, the load is distributed between the already loaded guide and cook.  There is no suggestion that Thubron is carrying anything.  I realize that Thubron is not acclimatized to the high altitudes they were in (the guide also has altitude problems) he could at least have tried to take some of the load.  Kind of sad.

While there were some interesting things in this book, there are not enough for me to give it a strong recommendation.  This is unfortunate as I loved his other book I'd read.  I guess they all can't be winners.

P.S.  Just for the record, I have no intention of doing the Kora.

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