There is a telling moment in one of Colin Thubron’s early films. He is travelling with a BBC crew along the Silk Road in China when he professes that he is tired of filming and needs to be alone. He turns aside and enters the desert for a moment of meditation; a moment that is recorded by the film crew, who are presumably still beside him.
The tensions between Thubron’s natural tendency to solitude and the travel writer’s need to communicate and share experience are what give his books their strength. He is never garrulous and when he does reveal something about himself, the reader feels that these are confidences hard won.
To a Mountain in Tibet is one of his most personal books. He sets off towards Mount Kailas, the mystical peak in Tibet close to the borders with Nepal and India. For centuries, Hindus, Buddhists and their predecessors, the Bon, have worshipped this mountain, which lies remarkably close to the sources of all four major rivers of the subcontinent: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Indus. Emerging abruptly from the flat western Tibetan plateau, over 1,000 miles from Lhasa, it is an iconic mountain of spiritual purity.
No one has ever climbed it – although Reinhold Messner made an attempt in the Eighties but was frustrated by Chinese intransigence. Instead, the devotees who come here circle around the mountain in what must be one of the toughest pilgrimages in the world, crossing a pass at 18,600ft and often enduring severe altitude sickness.
Those who come from lowland southern India are often the worst affected, sold cheap trekking tickets by unscrupulous tour operators who make no attempt to give them the time to acclimatise properly. Thubron has a moving passage in which he describes meeting a group of these frustrated Hindu pilgrims turning back in disappointment and despair from their failed attempt.
Just as with his earlier In Siberia, Thubron’s sparse, lean prose is admirably suited for describing the barren landscape around Kailas, lit up only by prayer flags. A few monasteries still survive after the Cultural Revolution; the Chinese now allow a limited number of pilgrims access to the mountain, but by no means make it easy.
Thubron is also the perfect guide to the complexities of Tibetan Buddhism and is honest enough to admit that its elaborate numerology and pantheon of demons can baffle the spiritual seeker from the West.
Like Robert Byron in the Thirties, who complained about the dirt and autocracy of Tibetan monasteries long before the Chinese invasion made such criticism less politically correct, Thubron is candid about the conditions he finds: what he describes as “the fantasy of Tibet” is not for him.
His own sympathy for solitude means he is well suited to meet the monks and isolated farmers who live in the valleys on the high approaches to Kailas. He draws them out with tact: the slow lives of those on the very edge of subsistence living in Himalayan villages “whose idyll is a mirage”.
Much of the history of Kailas has already been told by Charles Allen in his pioneering A Mountain in Tibet, whose title Thubron echoes. What this book adds is a vivid sense of what it is actually like to be a pilgrim on the route – a journey that Thubron characteristically makes mainly on his own.
Thubron is now in his seventies and undertakes this arduous trek in a quintessentially English way, with few complaints and much tolerant good humour.
This is above all a story in which the author movingly reveals his reasons – indeed his need – to make the pilgrimage after deaths in his family have left him the only surviving member. Given that Thubron has shown himself over a lifetime’s work to be our finest modern chronicler of Asia, having covered great sweeps of it from China to Russia, it seems fitting that what is as much memoir as travel book should have as its setting the greatest spiritual pilgrimage the East has to offer.