Lonely Planet Writer

Hiking in Tibet: an interview with Colin Thubron

Acclaimed British travel writer Colin Thubron has long been recognised for his intrepid journeys, most recently to Mount Kailas in Tibet. We got to quiz Colin on his various expeditions as well as his life in travel and views on life on the road.

Colin Thubron in Tibet

Of the many journeys you’ve made, which would you describe as your most challenging and why? Similarly, which was the most memorable and why?

The most challenging was the journey I made through China in 1985. China had only recently opened up to lone travellers, and I had no idea how accessible it would really be. I had spent the previous two years researching the country and learning a colloquial spoken Mandarin, and desperately wanted to chat with people - but I did not know how people would respond.

The most memorable journey: that’s hard to say. But while researching on the Silk Road I went through little-travelled regions of north-west China, fringing the southern Taklamakan desert, and through a fascinating post-war Afghanistan.

Before visiting Russia and China, you made an effort to learn the languages. Is this something that you do for all your journeys?

Knowing the language gives you an almost instinctive empathy with the sensibility of its speakers. Certainly it’s the only way to connect to the strata of society often ignored in Asia: the ordinary farmer and worker. But I did not learn Tibetan for this journey. I was simply too impatient to go. I hired a Nepalese guide whose language, Tamang, is close to Tibetan. But he could no more understand the people we met in remote Tibet than I could.

Because of my longer involvement with Russia and China, I’ve tried to learn Russian and Mandarin. Neither has reached beyond the stage of day-to-day conversation (and Mandarin I cannot read or write), but they have both been essential to my journeys.

Can you tell us about your most memorable Tibetan experience, and why was it so?

My first view of Mount Kailas, shining above its sacred lakes. The mountain stands separate from the true Himalaya, isolated on the Tibetan plateau. In this austerity – in its surreal beauty - you understand at once why it is held sacred.

Tibetan people are often described as some of the most likeable in the world. Would you agree, based on the Tibetans you met along your way?

In this harsh land, after their grim history, they remain astonishingly cheerful and outgoing, and this has always been their reputation. A thousand years ago an Arab geographer told of a people beyond the Himalaya who laughed even in their grief. Well, they need that resilience now. But of course this happy view is in part a fantasy. Tibetan life is rife with superstition, and with some brutality.

Where are you travelling to next?

I’m writing a novel, and staying put…for now.

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- We review To a Mountain in Tibet, the book is available to purchase now.

- Lonely Planet's latest edition Tibet guidebook is available to buy mid-March