What is it with me and travel writers? Writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ian Frazier, Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron; perhaps I shouldn't refer to them as "travel" writers per se, because, in point of fact, they are the poets who didn't sit still, who haven't, can't, won't. They are writers of place; and place, like any philosophy, has its value in a person's internal cosmogony, the book of ourselves.
Each of these writers has made me feel sentimental for times and locations to which I've never been; they use language in a way that sets a wreath around some beautiful, holy artifact that I suspected existed but didn't know how to describe.
|(Clockwise from top left- Pico Iyer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy, Colin|
Thubron, Jan Morris, Ian Frazier, Freya Stark, Barry Lopez)
They bring out emotions and psychologies that are as comfortable on the page as they are in the author's mind, as they might have been in the air, the river, the sunlight that he or she digested and found meaning in as a prelude to setting it to record.
I have been of late thrilled by To a Mountain in Tibet, Colin Thubron's 2011 book. His prose, like the things he sees, is often "elegiac" (in the words of Sara Wheeler), lyrical, reflective to the point of profound sadness.
To a Mountain in Tibet is Thubron's story of his grueling trek through Nepal and southwestern Tibet. His pilgrimage is to the most sacred of the world's mountains, Mount Kailas, also known as Mount Meru. It is bordered by the Himalayas and patrolled by the Chinese Army. It stands high on the Tibetan Plateau, once part of the Tethys Sea, that now vanished 150-million-year old body of water that flourished before the supercontinents, groaning in their evolution, collided, split apart, and collided again.
And so I give you selections from To a Mountain in Tibet---
"We are through the village almost without knowing. Granite boulders overshadow dwellings frailer than they: cottages of dry-stone walls and bleached timbers sunk among the igneous rocks. They look half deserted, mellow and pastoral above their fields, so that as we go on high above the river, past rice paddies and a little shrine to Shiva, I imagine this a valley of Arcadian quiet."
"When the sherpa cries back, 'Mount Kailas!' the name echoes down the river like a broken secret. The farmer does not hear it. It is the noise of somewhere imagined or hopelessly far away."
"But the God of Death dwells on the mountain. Nothing is total, nothing permanent--not even he. All is flux. In the oceans around Kailas-Meru, beyond a ring of iron mountains, countless embodiments of Meru, each identical to the last, multiply and repeat themselves, dying and resurrecting into eternity."
"...You cannot walk out your grief."
After an extensive reflection on the deaths in succession his mother, his father, and his sister (in reverse order)....
Such an odd place for the sad reckoning of the past, memories of his father's excursions in India as a soldier of the British Empire before the Second World War. Fascinating reading, I'm telling you.
Talking of his parents' love letters that came into his possession, as the only one left of his family.... "I tie them with new rubber bands--the old ones have corroded over the envelopes--and stack them away, I do not know for what. This, I suppose, is how once-private things endure: not by intention, but because their extinction is unbearable. So I dither between keeping and destroying--both seem like betrayal--and I store the letters, in all their devotion, their longing and sometimes loneliness, until another time."
"Sometimes the darkened world and wasted years seem only a tunnel to the dream light of reunion. But their mutual danger went on haunting them. During the Blitz, my mother had driven trucks in the the London docks. Then my father begins to mention the Russian advance,...."
But, back in Tibet...
"...misting away through gullies dense with deciduous forest. The water sounds below like smothered talking. Files of solitary pines patrol the hilltops above. And the last horizon to which the river points--far away under high cirrus cloud--seals the sky in a glistening, snow-lit wall to which we are unimaginably going. ...the horse is laden with rope-lashed tents and ground-sheets and blackened kitchen ware, and we are moving into the dawn. This is the hour of elation. You fancy you are walking into a pristine land."
"You go as if dreaming. Rock pigeons are flitting between cliff crevices below, and the sun climbs warm behind you. The terrain looks thin-covered, yet wherever the valley sides ease out of sheer rock, tremendous trees take hold. First and hundred-foot blue pines bank up with cypress and poplar in precipitous tiers, and weeping spruces thrust along the middle slopes. Soon we are among them, ascending in their shadow. As we toil up close to 10,000 feet, the heights that circle round us darken, crows croak from the pine tops and we are tramping among powder-grey boulders."