Colin Thubron’s 220-page account of his pilgrimage, or kora, to the sacred mountain of Kailas in Tibet is told by a reasonably practical man. It is indeed a story very much rooted in the sweep of history, both recent and remote. But, as the book progresses, a ravishing sense of the other-worldly begins to occupy centre stage, as the author becomes acutely enveloped in the spiritual dimension.
He is mourning the recent passing of his elderly mother and remembering too his sister, who died tragically in her early twenties on a Swiss mountain. So he is searching, and trying to make sense of it all. The celebrated English travel writer is interested not just in Buddhism but in the religion which it usurped - though not totally - its ancient predecessor, the Tibetan Bon faith. Bon still has its adherents, who for centuries past, have made their pilgrimage to a nearby mountain, although Kailas was once their venerated place.
These Bon believers walk and clamber anti-clockwise around their mountain, while the Buddhists struggle clock-wise around the lower reaches of Kailas. Freezing and rough-going in the extreme, people suffer oxygen deprivation on Kailas. Elderly Hindus, from the South of India in particular, are particlularly challenged by the pilgrimage, and Thubron meets them returning, disconsolate and depressed. There are regular fatalaties among old people and children.
But, despite its bitter cold and pitiless shale, Kailas is a fertile place in the imaginations of believers and profoundly bound up in the reality of their lives, like Mecca to Islam, like Lourdes for Irish Catholics.
Despite its sanctified status, Mount Kailas has attracted sacriligeous Western climbers in the past, who wouldn't, of course, let something like respect for Buddha get in the way of their adventuring. Yet none have yet succeeded in scaling the snow-covered mountain, which stands in splendid isolation, positioned at some remove from the sierras of the central Himalayas.
The Hindu God Shiva resides on Kailas, but swarms of deities flit and leap about the region, which encompasses the point where Nepal, India and Tibet meet. Close by are the beginnings of four great rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej, sources which were obsessively sought by intrepid explorers in the past.
In fact, a nineteenth century governor was summarily beheaded because of one such explorer's insensitive investigations along a sacred waterway. Was the governor executed because he turned a blind eye? Had he been bribed, or did he inadvertantly let the incursion happen? Thubron does't perhaps have an answer to that one.
In between telling of the poverty-stricken places and dilapidated temples he visits, en route, Thubron places before us, as simply as he can, his careful understanding of the Buddhist faith system, with its spirits (tsen in Tibetan), monks, abbots, lamas and yogis. He is fascinating on death and reincarnation, and devotes an occasional, cautious few paragraphs to the hated Chinese occupation.
Yet he observes too the impeccable courtesy of Chinese border police as he enters from Nepal, while all around him he is conscious of the evidence of Chinese intolerance where religious practice is concerned.
Thubron is a veteran of many remote places and one of the Western world’s most distinguished and respected writers. But, as most of his readers, presumably, will also do, he quietly marvels at the innocent certitude of the Tibetan monks he meets. He examines their faces closely, registering their reactions as they attempt to answer his mildly awkward questions about their unwavering faith.
The author visits a charnel ground where sacred vultures swoop away with the remains of corpses whose bones and skulls have been pummeled and hacked at, in so-called 'sky burials.' He finds knives and and implements lying about, and then, to some feelings of disgust, two human arm bones, with flesh still attached.
He notices a young woman crawling for what will presumably be days on end, by way of her pilgrimage to Kailas. “Along the wide, pebbled valley ahead of us, a figure is inching forward, levelling its length in the dust, rising, advancing three paces, falling again, arms stretched ahead, “ he writes, with modulated precision. “Out of the dust, she turns a blackened face to me, and smiles.”
Thubron's Nepalese guide Iswor is as bemused as he is by the sight of this young pilgrim, who is preceded by two old crones, urging her along, too old themselves to labour in the mire. “Perhaps she has done something,” says Iswor. Whatever they may have done or believed, all are now within sight of the pyramid-like mountain, and this neophyte Westerner's final destination.
Just in case you think the Tibet is all about studied holiness, Thubron is told too about the group of TV-watching monks who were hugely disappointed when their beloved Manchester United were defeated by Barcelona some years ago. A loud argument with the referee's decision followed in the wake of the Red Devils' defeat. But Manchester United also has a certain gift of reincarnation, and their Tibetan devotees should be reasonably content as I write.