“To a Mountain in Tibet,” by Colin Thubron

April 1, 2011

Noted travel writer Colin Thubron says he undertook the journey that is the subject of this book “on account of the dead”: his mother, father and sister (the latter gone at the age of only 21). Feeling a “need to leave a sign of their passage,” he decided to visit Mt. Kailas, “the most sacred of the world’s mountains — holy to one fifth of the earth’s people.” The mountain is held to be the “heart of the world,” in part because each of the four great Indian rivers (the Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra) rises “near a cardinal point of Kailas.”

So much loftiness — and not a little stealth, too. Kailas is located in western Tibet, and Thubron had to feign membership in a group of British hikers in order to circumvent the Chinese rule against entering the region alone. At one point while on the mountain, he came across a passage in his guidebook that made him tremble. It compared the western face, on which he was gazing, to “the ‘north wall of the Eiger from Grindelwald.’ ” Grindelwald, Switzerland, it so happens, was “where [his] sister died, killed by an avalanche.”


"To a Mountain in Tibet," by Colin Thubron (Harper. 227 pp. $24.99)

Toward the end of his travels, Thubron joined some local pilgrims, many of whom had undoubtedly been victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And yet, he reports, as they hiked toward their goal, they appeared “unquenchably happy.”

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