This refusal to bend either to mere sentiment or to reflex skepticism—what locals might call “taking the Middle Way”–allows him to travel through these treacherous (and treacherously myth-haunted) places with rare authority. The passes through which he walks are harsh and cruel settings, he acknowledges; only one in every five people in the Nepali villages he passes can read or write, and most of them are longing to leave Shangri-La. Tibetans, he rightly points out, can be seen as “a people in love with war” and some pilgrims have been known to finance their trips to Kailas with banditry (suffering public mutilation if caught). There are always as many devils as deities in the wildly esoteric paintings that fill Tibetan Buddhist prayer-halls, and when he encounters the Celestial Angel of one valley, Thubron discovers “a demon goddess with a pig’s face and lewd fangs.”
Yet even as he never falls to his knees, he is never inclined to smirk, or simply write off another’s belief. Not long before he left on this trip, he tells us, in another piercingly brief flashback, he lost his mother (his father and his sister are already gone). The solitary air he customarily wears on the page is thus more absolute now. Thubron can never quite tell us why he’s taken off on this “secular pilgrimage,” but we feel that there’s a reason just below the surface, and the feeling grows stronger precisely because he never gives easy voice to it.
It’s almost impossible at such moments not to think of Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard. In that book, too, is a record of a deeply strenuous ascent into the remote Himalaya, past the same worn and weather-beaten huts, and pilgrims in rags, with the same engaging group of local porters, and towards the same rare heights of bracing clarity and elevation. Matthiessen undertook his journey in 1973 because of a death of a woman close to him, too—his young wife, Deborah Love. Yet for him the trip becomes a way of stepping into a deeper understanding of the impermanence and ignorance and reality of suffering that his fledgling Zen studies have started to teach to him.
With Thubron there’s no such clear motivation and he is a decidedly unaffiliated traveler, propelled by reasons “beyond articulation.” Yet death is everywhere he walks in these mountains. He recalls how tantric masters live in cremation grounds along the path; the helicopter that greets him as he reaches the border is bringing down the body of an Indian pilgrim who has just expired on the holy mountain. He sees an old man lying down on the ground, literally practicing for death, and he recalls how corpses are often strewn along the pilgrims’ path like boulders. To Hindus, he notes pointedly, early on, “ `departure for Kailas’ is a metaphor for death.”
This all intensifies the very special tension that beats like a heart underneath the book’s clenched and empirical surface. Thubron has always been drawn to ruins and graveyards—the decline of great empires is one of his themes—but here one feels he is not just observing the historical cycles of others; something deeper is at stake. At one point, reaching 11,000 feet, he starts to lose breath and comes close to fainting—“my breath is rasping sobs”; suddenly, he sees his mother on her hospital bed, calling out for air as her heart begins to fail. At Lake Manarasovar, ”holiest of the world’s lakes—sacred to one fifth of humankind,” he wades into the chill waters just as Hindu pilgrims do, only to recall, with mixed emotions, that the reincarnation they believe in cannot be his.
Like most of the enduring British travelers, from Robert Byron through Patrick Leigh Fermor to Rory Stewart in recent times, Thubron always stays close to the ground, and the moment, in passing on his record of what he sees and does; there is nothing hurried or tricked-up in his delivery, and it is always precise enough to be poetic. As in his previous books, he wastes no times in foreigners’ hangouts and includes no gossip or trivia; the impression is of a rugged solitary traveler who likes to go unofficially—he talks to no experts or officials—and who has an almost Orwellian distaste for luxury (and even society), recoiling from extravagance in any form. He gives us politics and the effects of globalization—Chinese soldiers watch Tibetan pilgrims through telescopic video cameras, nervous after the riots that spread across Tibet a year before, while women whisper offers of massage and Buddhist monks collect donations in a box labeled Budweiser.
But more important, Thubron’s very refusal to be carried away makes for a special power when, as he draws closer to the peak, he describes one face as “awesome and absolute.” Though wary of romance, he is never without feeling, and the result is an even more tightly focused and directed book than most of his recent works of non-fiction, which tend to cover a much wider stretch of ground, some parts of which may engage him more than others do. He dispassionately offers an impeccable explanation of Tibetan sky-burial, and when he enters Buddhist temples he gives as careful and nuanced and judicious a description of their swarming deities and furiously charged symbolism as I can imagine. Indeed, I can’t think of a contemporary traveler who presents a more reliable and diligently researched accounting of a culture that tempts most observers towards opinion or embellishment (even as he frankly registers that what an initiate sees in these walls and landscapes will always be different from what he, as an outsider, can catch).
Towards the end, as he reaches a point where every inch of rock is saturated with meaning or association for the pilgrim, and thousands of deities are said to be hidden in every crevice, Thubron’s level-headedness becomes its own kind of epiphany. “Sky dancers and mountain godlings are only just out of sight,” he writes, and in this stark realm of portent and prophecy, he meets Bon followers circumambulating the mountain in a spooky, counter-clockwise direction and a white-clad Russian evangelist carrying a “monstrous crucifix.” At its most memorable moments, his book registers, and even quietly begins to partake of a kind of hallucinatory intensity that gains from the power of all that’s not being said. His father, Thubron tells us, wanted to be a naturalist and when, at war, he was forbidden to write to his faraway wife about what he was doing or seeing, he filled his letters with accounts of yellowhammers and nightingales and scarlet pimpernels and orchids. It’s hard not to think of that as a piece of autobiography, too.