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After mother’s death, pilgrimage to Tibet

Remote and inhospitable Mount Kailas, a holy place for Buddhists and Hindus, seems an unlikely goal for Colin Thubron, nearly 70, a city dweller, and neither Buddhist nor Hindu. Remote and inhospitable Mount Kailas, a holy place for Buddhists and Hindus, seems an unlikely goal for Colin Thubron, nearly 70, a city dweller, and neither Buddhist nor Hindu. (Getty Images)
By Bob Shacochis
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2011

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For those who believe that sacredness can reside in a place, pilgrimage is not just a duty but an unquenchable passion, and, depending on your religion, certainly not a terrible hardship in the modern world.

Three of the world’s great religions claim cities as their most holy of venues. Christianity and Judaism have Jerusalem; Islam has Mecca; the Catholics, of course, have Rome. Make your reservations online, pack your rollerboard and go. Travel-wise, the other two major religions — Buddhism and Hinduism — are not so fortunate. Their most sacred point on the map is a mountain — Mount Kailas — a solitary peak rising around 22,000 feet out of the bitterly cold dust of a plateau in western Tibet, one of the most inaccessible, inhospitable environments on the planet.

Yet it’s not just the fascinating narrative of spirituality that makes the mountain a compelling destination; the challenge of reaching the mystical peak, isolated in a brutally harsh but staggeringly beautiful wilderness of snow-bonneted summits and glacier-mauled steppes, has made Kailas a target for hot-blooded adventurers as well.

Still, when a reader first encounters Colin Thubron in his 10th and most recent travelogue, “To a Mountain in Tibet,’’ the author struggling to keep from plunging off a cliffside path into the abyss, it’s not entirely unfair to begin to question Thubron’s impulse to trek through the Himalayas across Nepal’s border with China to Kailas. He is almost 70 years old. He is a city-dweller — in London — where he presides over the Royal Society of Literature. He is not a Buddhist or a Hindu or ostensibly anything else. He is accompanied by two guides hired in Kathmandu who are loyal but relatively inexperienced. Thubron is considered by critics to be one of the last, and greatest, of the “gentlemen-travelers,’’ erudite and sympathetic, reliably stoic in the face of difficulty and risk, but on this high-elevation expedition his state of mind seems fragile, fixated on mortality — “The mountain path is the road of the dead,’’ he writes — as if Kailas and its dangers are drawing him toward his own end.

That impression jumps out in the book’s opening pages, the first day of Thubron’s journey described with a perfect match between style and content, which in this instance doesn’t quite qualify as a literary virtue. The pilgrimage begins in the most remote highlands of western Nepal, with Thubron and his guides flying from sea level to 8,000 feet, the nearest paved road hundreds of miles to the south, Mount Kailas a hundred miles to the north, a 10-day trek through the gorge and valleys of the Karnali River, the highest source of the Ganges. As the gorge deepens, the path carved across its rugged shoulders ascends relentlessly into thin air — 10,000 feet, 12,000, 14,000 — and like Thubron himself, his prose has trouble acclimating. The sentences lack oxygen, are short-winded, gasping, elementary, with the observational powers of a yak — What is that shrub? — and for a moment I was tempted to turn away from the book and its illusion of depleted energy, which would have been a grievous mistake, considering the overwhelming feeling of gratitude I felt toward the author by the time the two of us had completed Thubron’s clockwise circling of the sacred mountain.

Soon enough, the prose catches its breath and pumps with an extraordinarily full heart and uncommon grace, settling into a well-paced narrative that elegantly divides its ambitions and then divides them again, one half of the text dedicated to the trip itself. The other half splits evenly between the dense and intermingling mythologies of Kailas’s sacredness and the author’s memoirish response to the reader’s original question, a question the author must confront again and again on his pilgrimage — “Why are you doing this?’’ Thubron’s reply is profound and haunting.

“I cannot answer,’’ he writes.

“I am doing this on account of the dead.’’

“Sometimes journeys begin long before their first step is taken. Mine, without my knowing, starts not long ago, in a hospital ward, as the last of my family dies. There is nothing strange in this, the state of being alone. The death of parents may bring a resigned sadness, even a guilty freedom. Instead I need to leave a sign of their passage. My mother died just now, it seems, not in the way she wished; my father before her; my sister before that, at the age of twenty-one.’’

“The reason for this is beyond articulation,’’ Thubron concludes. “A journey is not a cure.’’

Yet ultimately death, should it propel you beyond the boundaries of civilization, might be one of the better reasons to travel.

After Peter Matthiessen buried his wife, he exiled himself into the wilds of Nepal in quest of the elusive snow leopard and whatever solace could be found by wandering the Himalaya. And so it was for me, roaming the bleak horizons of Patagonia after the death of my own parents, finding respite from my world by immersing myself in another, faraway, its desolation rivaling my own.

Not for catharsis, I think Colin Thubron would agree, but for a measure of what Thubron calls “spartan comfort’’ in a rugged pilgrimage that is fundamentally a confirmation, a salute to the seasons of existence, a deliberate juxtaposing of one’s sense of impermanence and loss against the timeless truth of a mountain’s magnificent indifference.

Thubron walks for the dead and writes for the living, and I can’t remember when I have been so thoroughly and deeply moved by an author’s outward journey inward.

Bob Shacochis, author of “The Immaculate Invastion,’’ writes frequently about the Himalayas for Outside magazine. He can be reached at rzshacochis@ gmail.com.

TO A MOUNTAIN IN TIBET
By Colin Thubron
HarperCollins, 224 pp., $24.99