To a Mountain in Tibet

Christopher Tayler writes:

With Thubron’s growing inwardness comes a deeper consideration of the myth-making surrounding his destinations. Siberia, he writes, ‘seems less a country than a region in people’s minds’, and he re-uses the phrase in To a Mountain in Tibet, a short, uncharacteristically confessional coda to his accounts of his Central Asian travels. Thubron’s attitude to Tibet is alternately hard-headed and wistful, which serves his writerly purposes well without at all seeming to have been determined by them. Early on, he provides a gently dismissive rundown of Western fantasies about the country from Madame Blavatsky to Lost Horizon, the novel (filmed twice) that gave the world the term ‘Shangri-La’. Tibet was ‘born in violence’, he says, ‘and for centuries it waged aggressive war against itself and others. In this bitter land and climate the people were prey to disease and earthquake, and within living memory worked as indentured labour for an often callous monkhood.’ Yet he isn’t speaking only of others when he writes of a ‘sense of a miraculously preserved past’ at the centre of outsiders’ dreams of the country. ‘Travellers might feel themselves re-entering childhood, or an innocent and unruly unconscious. Others likened the journey through Tibet, for all its mountain fastness, to a descent into the underworld.’

(LRB 14 July 2011)

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