Once a book is published, it seems to take on a life of its own. As its author, you lose control over it. It's a bit like a grown-up child. What will happen to it? How will it make its way? Will anyone love it?
My book on a journey to Tibet (just published) had a strange beginning. Most of my travel books have started in fascination with distant regions of Asia. Sometimes the writing has proved unintentionally healing, since I've traveled in the countries that I was brought up to fear — the old Soviet Union, China — and experience of them has made them human to me.
But To a Mountain in Tibet was different. I started the journey trekking up the valley of the Karnali river in Nepal — the highest source of the Ganges — then over the frontier to the sacred mountain of Kailas in Tibet. I was unsure if I would write about it. By my standards the journey was short and very intense — and it followed the death of my mother — the last of my family to survive. I'd imagined the walk a kind of meditation.
Then, it grew on me strangely. The mountain has been a focus of Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage for perhaps a thousand years. Devotees circle it clockwise for 32 miles (it has never been climbed) and the pilgrimage at one point involves a ritual death, or shedding of the past. Tibet is a death-haunted culture, at least in Western eyes (the only Tibetan text that you're likely to have read is The Tibetan Book of the Dead).
All this might suggest a neat, cathartic journey. But mine wasn't quite like that. Rather I was witnessing beliefs about the afterlife — alien faiths in action — from the position of a reluctant agnostic. And the Buddhist afterlife doesn't bring much comfort to anyone from a Christian culture — there's no individual survival.
So when people ask me: Did this journey change you? — I answer "Yes." But I don't know how or why. The arid splendor of the Tibetans' land and the spacious certainty of their beliefs — despite all that they have suffered — have affected me in some way I cannot quite name.