To a Mountain in Tibet
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This is the account of a journey to the holiest mountain on earth, the solitary peak of Kailas in Tibet, sacred to one-fifth of humankind. To both Buddhists and Hindus it is the mystic heart of the world and an ancient site of pilgrimage. It has never been climbed. Even today, under Chinese domination, the people of four religions circle the mountain in devotion to different gods.
Colin Thubron reached it by foot along the Karnali River, the highest source of the Ganges. His journey is an entry into the culture of today's Tibet, and a pilgrimage in the wake his mother's death and the loss of his family. He undertakes it in order to mark the event, to leave a sign of their passage. He also explores his own need for solitude, which has shaped his career as a writer—one who travels to places beyond his own history and culture, writing about them and about the journey. To a Mountain in Tibet is at once a powerful travelogue, a fascinated encounter with alien faith, and an intimate personal voyage.
It is a haunting and beautiful book, a rare mix of discovery and loss. In its evocation of landscape and variety of exotic peoples, of mythic and spiritual traditions foreign to our own, it is a spectacular achievement from our greatest living travel writer, an artist of formidable literary gifts, uncanny intuition, and wondrous insight.
adoptive son of a north Indian king, and attains enlightenment in exile, haunting the cremation grounds dear to tantric yogis. In Tibet he is tutored by the dakini sky-dancers. He traverses the mountains converting kings, war gods and devils alike. Twice he escapes immolation on pyres by turning them to water or sesame oil, appearing in the flames enthroned on a calm lake. The outsize hand-and footprints of his passing cover the land. An emanation, at last, of the Amitabha Buddha, he becomes
young monk, praying. I watch from the dark in fascinated estrangement, until they file away. Perhaps these raucous local gods–lords of the wind and the avalanche–are easier to comprehend than the otherworldly Buddhas, and more prudent to propitiate on this hardest of all pilgrimages. The Lha Chu, the River of the Spirits, guides us for five miles more along a corridor of paling sandstone. For 3,000 feet on either side its walls unfurl in towering curtains of pink and copper red. Some softness
fostering Bon communities–he had become a holy figure to them–or his year in a Chinese prison. In 1961 he had tried to escape Tibet with a group of lamas from his monastery, carrying sacred texts and relics. ‘Yes, it was very dangerous. Chinese soldiers found us, and many of our blessed ones were killed. I was shot myself…’ Wounded, he was left for dead. But a nearby family hid him, and he crossed the border to Mustang after twenty-two days, walking by night. He dismissed all this as long ago.
and–do you know?–we never felt it cold, but quite warm, because of its sanctity.’ She smiles to herself. ‘At least we had that.’ Then she resumes the long descent of the valley, wrapping her arms around herself, not looking back. I walk on with vague foreboding, listening to my body. Hindu pilgrims seem to have reached Kailas pitifully ill-prepared ever since ragged Shaivite renunciates straggled here in the nineteenth century, begging. In the 1930s the pilgrim numbers mushroomed, and every year
deposit a garment of their beloved dead, even a photograph or a pinch of funerary ash, and pray for them in whatever incarnation they survive. Yet the Buddhist living cannot help the deceased, whose souls do not exist. Such hopes fly in the face of karmic law, and flower through some inchoate instinct, comforting the mourner, not the mourned. For nothing cherished or even recognisable endures. In this cold, weakened air I stare a little wretched at the heap of rags, which seems to symbolise pure