There’s an expression that Stephen King seemingly likes to use when describing the rapture of writing or reading, the feeling of concentrating on the task at hand so much that we end up being oblivious to the passing of time and to the world outside. He calls it ‘finding a hole in the pages’ and sinking into it. It’s a figure of speech that I love, for there are few things better than experience this feeling over and over again, mostly as a reader but, also, as a writer.
Colin Thubron’s work is usually a guarantee if one wishes to pass many happy moments in complete oblivion of the world around himself, blissfully missing train stops or forgetting to check on the cooking time of the turkey. So, as you could imagine, I was expecting more of the same on this book, one of his latest chronicles of his trek to the sacred mount Kailas in Tibet, an untouched peak sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists.
Unfortunately, though, this isn’t the case, at least for me. Whereas, in other books – Shadow of the Silk Road or In Siberia, for example – the narrative flows in a never-ending, fascinating stream rich of vivid descriptions, here’s not the case. Thubron’s famous writing style, capable of making the read picture in his mind every single landscape and every single encounter, here is devoid of much of its usual richness. I found myself stumbling on the pages, much like he sure has done on pebbles and stones along his road, losing my track and then finding it again, times and times over. Normally, Colin’s books are to me like a rich, colourful photography; To a Mountain in Tibet, instead, resembles a rather desaturated and slightly out-of-focus snapshot.
This erratic reading proved to be at times frustrating, and that’s a pity for To a Mountain in Tibet promises to be a brilliant read: the chronicle of Colin’s voyage from Nepal to the sacred mount Kailas in the reclusive and riotous Chinese province, where pilgrims circle the mighty mount clockwise, praying for the remission of their sins.
This is, let’s be honest, no small feat. Walking for days on end, all whilst negotiating 15,000ft passes and under the oppressive gaze of the Chinese military (Thubron made his journey one year after the riots that rocked Tibet in 2008, right before the Olympics, when the situation was still very tense), especially if accomplished at the ripe age of 70 as he was at the time. But Thubron, in this book, is not only a weary traveller, hiking on the world’s roof while his peers usually pass time looking at road works; he’s also a grieving man and that, perhaps, explains the different style of this book.
Before leaving for this trip, indeed, Thubron’s mother – his last surviving family member – had unexpectedly passed away, leaving him in a situation that I’ve grown familiar in the past months: pain, sense of loss, sadness and a general disposition to ask oneself those timeless questions that humans have pondered on for ages, such as whether there is anything after life.
It is in this particular frame of mind, then, that Thubron leaves for Asia and four mount Kailas. Not the best mood to get a marvel of a travel book out of, rest assure. But, still, an interesting read and a honest account of what goes through the mind of a man who has been recently touched by death.