Thubron’s short 2011 book is an account of a trek from Nepal, through mountain passes heading north east and into Tibet. His ultimate destination is Mount Kailas, a mountain which is (according to the blurb of this book) “holy to one fifth of humanity”. The goal for pilgrims there (mainly Hindu and Bhuddist) is to circle the mountain.
I don’t think Thubron is either a Hindu or a Bhuddist, so why is he on this journey? “I am doing on account of the dead”, he writes early on. Following the death of his mother, he finds himself the last one living of his immediate family, and feels the need to go on a journey, which seems part of his way of trying to overcome (or at least come to an accommodation with) the sense of grief. Why Mount Kailas? “In the end,” he continues later in the same passage, “you come to rest at a mountain that is holy to others. The reason for this is beyond articulation. A journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at best a spartan comfort.”
The book is all the better for being realtively short, I think. I found it to be at its best when he is describing the journey itself and touching on his recollections of his family. There are no very lengthy passages of autobiography in this book, however, and I think that this is something of a shame, since it is at these points that Thubron’s writing is at its most poignant and resonant. For instance, one memorable passage sees him describing going through his mother’s possessions after her death, particularly old letters. There is also a very brief passage alluding to his sister’s early death at the age of 21 which is very affecting and raw.
I would have liked more of these personal reflections threaded all the way through the book. However, I got the feeling that they petered out somewhat from about halfway in, as he neared Mount Kailas. I think that this makes the book is slightly uneven,since the personal angle gradually gives way to the more familiar travel writing template of quoting choice bits of conversation from people met along the way, as well as descriptions of the journey, picking a particular thing seen or told about, and then going into wider contextual detail that may touch on religion, folklore, politics, history and the like.
This is all very well, and have no doubt that Thubron is a master of this style of travel writing. However, it is (dare I say) a tad dry and journalistic compared to the more personal (and hence engaging) aspects of the book where he writes about his personal history and the complex inter-relationship this has with this particular flight into the unknown. Normally his precise descriptions and lightly-worn erudition would be more than enough on their own (see his book In Siberia for instance for a masterclass of this style of travel writing). It is just that in the case of To a Mountain in Tibet he gets onto a different level of insight altogether for my money, ironically by writing about personal matters closer to home, and juxtaposing these with the foreign physical and spiritual climes in which he finds himself.
However, this remains a very worthwhile book and one I would highly recommend.