THE HEART OF THE MATTER
This is an unusual book from Colin Thubron, regarded by many as the world’s greatest travel writer. It’s short – just 218 pages – and less dense than his other books, which often involve rambling journeys through the world’s forgotten places. Think Russia, Siberia, Central Asia or 1980s China, their history, architecture and people, and you’ve got an idea of the size of canvas he usually likes to paint. Thubron is a writer who can roll out acres of description at a time, yet somehow you never tire of it, in the same way the eye never tires of certain landscapes.
The circumstances make this journey different. For one thing, the destination is heavily controlled. Kailas, a sacred mountain in western Tibet, can only be reached by certain routes and with permission from Chinese authorities. Thubron walks in from Simikot in Nepal, camps by a sacred lake, circumambulates the mountain, and that’s it. The whole journey takes perhaps two weeks – not a lot of material for a book, even for a writer of genius in one of the world’s epic landscapes.
But there’s something else. Thubron makes the trek after the death of his mother, the last of the family, an event that looms over the narrative like a thunder cloud. There are ruminations, too, on the long ago death of his sister, aged 21. Thubron is not an author who usually shares much of himself with the reader, and the book is an inversion of form, a tunnel into an inner landscape. The destination fits the theme as black fits white, yin fits yang, sun fits moon.
Sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, Kailas is an icy pyramid thrusting dramatically from the Tibetan plateau. Twin tourquoise lakes sparkle at its foot and four rivers – the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Karnali – have their sources nearby, flowing in different directions to fertilise South Asia. Windswept and barren, it is a place almost beyond the world, studded with hermitages and mani walls, where every cliff and rock has a sacred association. Devotees have dragged themselves here for millennia.
Thubron immerses himself in the myths, symbols and holy sites, pilgrim-like, scepticism suspended. Flashes of philosophy illuminate the path like lightning on a dark night, but there is a weariness in the writing, as if all this is window dressing. More heartfelt are his descriptions of a sky burial ground, of meetings with pilgrims on the edge of death. He seems not to be seeking knowledge, or even understanding, but something else, and this time there is no word for it. Nor are there words to convey the unearthly beauty of the mountainscape. ‘We are gazing on a country of planetary strangeness… Void of any life, the whole region might have survived from some sacred prehistory, shorn of human complication.’
As the western face of Kailas pushes into view, he comes to the heart of the matter. His guidebook likens this forbidding wall to the north face of the Eiger, where his sister died in an avalanche. “For years my stricken mother could not speak of her, her memory under silence. We are climbing into near-darkness. The temperature has dropped far below freezing. I am shivering as if my padded anorak and thermal layers are muslin. Buddhists discern on the north scarp of Kailas a devil leading a pig, and the palace of a serpent king. But I have stopped looking.” For years after his sister’s death, Thubron could not travel among mountains.
For those with an interest in the area this book is essential reading, for others, perhaps not. Fans looking for some classic Thubron might be disappointed, but that would be unfair. The man has given us a string of classics, and this time he walks into Tibet to confront headlong the greatest mystery of all. He leaves us facing a wall of black rock. The mystery deepens.