Photo: Monastery near Mount Kailas in Tibet

To a Mountain in Tibet traces the author's journey to Mount Kailas, a peak that is sacred to almost one-fifth of humankind.

Photograph by reurinkjan, Getty Images

By Don George

Book of the Month:

To a Mountain in Tibet, by Colin Thubron

One of the greatest contemporary travel writers, Colin Thubron has written nearly a dozen travel accounts, many of which are classics, including Among the Russians, Behind the Wall, The Lost Heart of Asia, and Shadow of the Silk Road. The arduous journeys, meticulous scholarship, penetrating empathy, and precise descriptions that distinguish these earlier works abound in his new book as well. But while in his earlier works Thubron scrupulously keeps himself out of the narrative, in his new book he interweaves his own poignant pilgrimage—and raises his achievement to an even higher level.

To a Mountain in Tibet traces Thubron’s journey to Mount Kailas, a peak that is sacred to almost one-fifth of humankind and an ancient pilgrimage site for Buddhist, Hindu, Bon, and Jain believers. Thubron undertakes this journey as an act of reverence to mark the recent passing of his mother, an exploration of the role of solitude in his own life, and an investigation of this venerable rite.

Along the way, Thubron conjures a multi-layered portrait of the pilgrimage: the stark and soaring landscape; the history and myth underlying it; the colorful pageantry of the pilgrims themselves. He evokes the “icy winds and dust storms that sandpaper the land,” the trailside presence of rocks “carved with prayers… faded, like a lost language,” the nighttime sky “dense with stars” whose “constellations multiply and blur together like mist,” the monks who “move in shambling pomp, puffing horns and conch shells, clashing cymbals… in a jostle of wizardish red hats.”

As he guides us along these braiding trails, Thubron’s moving evocation makes for an unforgettably enlightening journey.

New-Book Roundups:

Storied Lands Illuminated

In River of Darkness, Buddy Levy reconstructs the harrowing 1541 journey by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana down the Amazon, the first European to explore the entire length of the world’s largest river. Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt authoritatively covers the country’s history from before the rise of the first kings to the fall of Cleopatra, and illuminates the underpinnings of contemporary Egypt as well.

Mysteries Abroad

Two new novels set in exotic lands have a mystery driving the plot but are at heart entertaining portraits of lesser-known cultures. Moondogs, by Alexander Yates, involves the search for the protagonist’s kidnapped father in the Philippines. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, by Alexander McCall Smith, is the latest (#12) in the popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In it, Mma Ramotswe investigates a case of cattle-maiming in Botswana.

Post-Grad Leaps

Recent grads might appreciate two new memoirs about globetrotting adventures after college. To Timbuktu, written by Casey Scieszka with whimsical drawings by Steven Weinberg, recounts the couple’s meeting in Morocco and subsequent travels to China and Mali. The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost tells how Rachel Friedman went from high-achieving student to footloose backpacker traipsing through Ireland, then Australia and South America.

One Last Thing:

At a Crossroads

As an adventurous traveler and travel writer, I’m acutely aware of the cultural collisions that can ensue when I venture well off the beaten path. This is one reason why I feel a kinship with Eugene Linden, who has been writing about off-the-grid places and the effects of modern encroachments on them since his first journalistic foray into Vietnam in 1971. In the course of his research, Linden has roamed the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, Papua New Guinea to the Congo, Cuba to Easter Island. In The Ragged Edge of the World, his thoughtful and compelling new book, he revisits these adventures and assesses the world-reshaping intersections of wildness, tradition, and modernity that he has witnessed over the course of his 40-year career.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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