Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Travel as Ascetic Discipline

Travel can be exhilarating and enriching. For Colin Thubron it also provides a path to a deeper understanding of a culture. His latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet, takes him to Mount Kailas(h), one of the most sacred places in Asia.

A reviewer for The Economist writes, "The mountain itself is an important site of pilgrimage for Hindus, Buddhists and followers of ancient Tibetan faiths. The goal is to seek purification by trudging round the mountain on a route that is physically demanding but brings spiritual reward. Some die from the effort, others give up, all are possessed by the sense that they are living close to a divine presence.

In the midst of all this Mr Thubron acts like a kind of secular shaman, allowing himself to be possessed by the many spirits of the place without succumbing to their power. He respects what it is that drives pilgrims to Mount Kailas, and follows them round it, but he does not pretend that he is at one with them."

Furthermore, unlike other travellers from the West who find spiritual connection in Eastern religions, "Thubron’s particular quest is to find out how different individuals and different cultures confront the fact of mortality. This book is autobiographical in a way that his others are not. He is mourning his mother’s recent death and throughout he is haunted by memories of her and of his dead sister and father."

Finally, most people like to indulge themselves on vacation, but for Mr Thubron it is a kind of "ascetic discipline. He takes the reader to high places, literally and metaphorically, and to an understanding of how people from other cultures somehow get by in an unpredictable world."

His experience sounds like a kind of pilgrimage, an opportunity to understand oneself and others more deeply.