To A Mountain In Tibet by Colin Thubron
Chatto & Windus $37.99
The earlier books which saw Colin Thubron hailed as one of the great travel writers were notable for their sparse writing style, keen observation of telling detail and insightful exploration of grand geographic themes.
For instance, Thubron's previous work, Shadow of the Silk Road - my favourite travel book - is both a brilliant evocation of the ancient trade route, past and present, and a devastating analysis of the absurdity of imposing modern borders across the mingled cultures and religions of ancient lands.
His latest work, To A Mountain In Tibet, retains all those qualities but adds a more personal, emotional aspect, so that it is not only the superbly told story of a sharp-eyed yet sympathetic agnostic performing the great pilgrimage around Mt Kaila in Tibet, it is also about Thubron's need to come to terms with the death of the last member of his immediate family, his mother.
It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate place for a pilgrimage than Mt Kaila; hard to reach and even harder to get permission to visit; sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Tibet's ancient faiths, as well as the source of India's four great rivers; stunningly beautiful to look at yet surrounded by dangers (among them altitude, weather, avalanches and Chinese soldiers); shrouded with the stories of holy men and gods and ringed with ancient temples destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and painfully rebuilt by poverty-stricken believers.
Like the other pilgrims making the demanding circuit of the peak in the thin and icy air, Thubron finds the experience triggers unexpected visions. But where they see the shapes of demons or fingerprints left in the stone by holy men, his are more worldly.
The discovery of a bag of rice, an empty noodle packet and a torch without a battery in an abandoned yogi's cave above the sacred lake of Manasarovar has him imagining a meeting with the monk who came to this sacred place seeking a "lone and rigorous self-transformation".
The precipice of Mt Kaila looming above reminds him of the long ago day when his sister failed to return from skiing the north wall of the Eiger. "My mother asks some strangers to pray for us," he recalls, and it was only then he felt afraid. "My mother," he explains, "never importuned anyone."
By the end of his journey, Thubron has brought the reader to a greater understanding of how their many gods help the people of this challenging land cope in an unpredictable world.
As for himself, he has the harsh consolation offered by a monk who reminds him of the Buddhist saying, "From all that he loves, man must part."
Jim Eagles is the Herald travel editor.