The View From a Train to Tibet, Part Two


When the morning came and I woke up I got right back to my task of trying to write down the scenery. At the time I think I hoped that the brief project would help me understand how to describe complex sights in an understandable way. Now, feeling I may not get a chance to go back and see the same sights, I hope it worked like taking notes in class, each word helping me remember a mountain carried away from my memory by time and space.

The mountains on one side take on a reddish hue. The wide grassy plains look torn from the American West. On the other side bits of shredded white glaze the stony grey or dark yellow mountainsides. Sometimes we pass a truly impressive peak far out in the distance. The huge, awe inspiring peaks strike out from the ground like a massive white tooth. I could see the peak clearly, except for where a veil of clouds covered it. It seemed straight out of a fantasy book.

Power lines trace our progress, sometimes skating alongside the train. No one seems to live beneath us. On the Tibetan plateau near the railroad, the houses sit in isolation. Each one is wide apart from another with herds of livestock between the next home. Sometimes a village comes along full of squatting, single level houses fenced in by short brick walls. Each house looks modest and brown, some have been painted splotchy white.

For a brief moment we reached a high point where I could see a lot of what we passed. Where the mountains swooped down and reached their base formed up great dips and clefts. The light and smooth grassy slopes encircled the mountains. Far off I can see even more clearly the land of pure white peaks that tower above us even still. They form up in a wide range, the white of their peaks pushing toward the white of the clouds. Though today there’s nearly no clouds across the sweeping blue sky.

Not a cloud in the sky to block out the light!
Not a cloud in the sky to block out the light!

The sun beams down on a set of small white houses. The houses sit atop a hill lording over a flat area where a bunch of shaggy yaks graze. On the other side not so far away is a huge grey industrial park full of black bricked factories or warehouses. A dusty fog accrues around the streets surrounding the industry. The mountains rise up behind the park, obscured by a lingering film of smoke. The smoke sits stout and low over the factories, allowing me to only catch the white tips of the distant mountains, gleaming beneath the sunlight all but unfettered by clouds.

The park was at a station we arrived in for a moment. A crowd of people line up at a small shed, maybe to get a ticket to board.

On the side away from the park the sky glows the brightest shade of blue I have ever seen. The park looks empty, but it is still very early in the morning. Only a couple hours have passed since sunrise. I was only half awake to catch the early morning hours. What morning scenery I do remember was beautiful.

A slight crest of light crept over the edge of the mountains. A rim of casual, almost dull light ran across the top outlines of the mountain range until it gradually started to tumble down the slope and illuminate everything else.

Apologies for the odd tilt!
Sunlight’s tint over red mountains

When I woke up fully the sun had risen fully with me. I beheld so many frozen lakes and rivers. Thin layers of icy frost covered some streams entirely. In other areas the sparkling white ice crusted at spots around the shore. The lakes and rivers stretched for a while, some with a darker blue haze of ice over them. They all glinted in the daylight.

Now we leave the station and the factory. The eerie industrial mists contrasted the incredible clarity of the streams and the sky.

Large red mountains miles off in the distance look over great grassland. Little black dots mark out some sort of grazing animal, maybe yaks or goats. Small brown and white houses dot the plains as well. Far beyond the red slopes and grassy flatland, another epic icy peak pierces up toward the sky. Even though it is so distant it sticks out so clearly. A truck runs along an empty road. Gradually a thin trickle of car traffic populates some few roads crisscrossing plains.

The train pulled in close to a small bunch of houses. Most have a nice white sheen of paint on them, though some are brown. None have two stories, but they are longer than I had thought looking at them from a distance. Some rooftops have solar panels on them, and most have a rope decorated with multi-colored triangular flags that leads from the roof to the ground. One area had two small clusters of houses, one with about five and the other about ten. A frozen lake sat dead between them. The houses all had the multi-colored flags, some ropes of them linking one house to another. I also caught sight of some hefty tents and practical motorcycles and mopeds too.

An example of the flags on the bigger buildings in Lhasa
An example of the flags on the bigger buildings in Lhasa

The train leads us near a swathe of behemoths, the icy peaked mountains I saw before only in the very far distance. They are mostly blanketed in snow, the but the grey of their rocky sides show in some places and yellow green grass grows in some flat areas along their base. Even though we are close to the mountain ranges, it is mostly grassy right around the train.

All across the land water floods and freezes over in little divots and streams. Less people live beneath these large white peaks. Still, I saw a large spacious looking town of at least twenty houses beside the flat land running next to the train. When I looked hard enough I caught another pretty large town close to the foot of a mountain. The snow around these villages flakes off before the glow of the sun so that even the village near the mountain has a sea of dry, yellow grass around them.

Some houses seem dirty, somewhat shabby and rundown. The white sheen of these houses cracks and muddies, the multi-colored flags are dulled by stains. Others have a cleaner, fresher veneer, with the white of the paint and the colors of the flags marking their houses brightly out beneath the shining sun. Most houses have at least one motorcycle, maybe as an automated way to stay mobile and keep track of pastoral animals, if not just to cross vast distances like anyone else would. The kinds of motorcycles they have are plenty popular in China’s dense, sprawling cityscapes.

I saw some Yaks up close as well. They look kind of goofy, like big shaky, shaggy masses of messy fur loafing around. They seemed like a cross between a St Bernard and a cow. A Tibetan herded them along, dressed in a dark blue shawl with grey scarves. What looked like a white dog ran next to him or her, helping manage the herd.

Not quite the same site as the sun peaking over the mountains, but its close.
Everything seems a little endless from up so high

I had trouble keeping an eye on the houses and plains since the mountains to both sides of me caught my eye the most. The soft red slopes returned and out of them erupted the sharp, craggy brilliance of those snowy peaks that reflected the sun’s rays. They stretched and stretched until they filled the whole horizon to the brim. The snow caps on top looked so picturesque. One ran like the edge of a serrated sword, curving until it formed a semicircular ring atop a mountain.

Not a shred of air separated the image from my eye. The contrast between that and smoggy Beijing was striking. But the air here seems clear compared to the States too.

It ends abruptly there. If I had my eyes set on putting these little accounts online when I started writing them, I may have written a more satisfying conclusion. The whole trip to Tibet still sticks out distinctly in my memory. Maybe later I will drag my recollections back out into the air and collage them into another article. It could do me good to get some words down before time stretches them even further from the little things they once described.

Looking back at what I focused on, I think I betrayed my own background more than Tibet’s. Growing up in the flat American Midwest, mountains have always impressed me. Seeing something natural go up that high is just plain unusual where I came from. The mixture of snow and grass, cold and less cold, was just as novel to me. Most of all, after spending near all of my life living in cities I have always liked looking out on long rides and seeing some of the countryside.

When I wrote for my journal I was just a step away from glorifying it all over the steel jungles I have come to love and call my own. As lovely as the view to Tibet was, my image could never be honest to it. The literal high points of the landscape probably stuck out too much, as did all the things I made of its rustic nature. Cities wear you down after a while with all their bustle and no cities I had yet seen had the bustle of Beijing. After my tour through the endless modern oddities that are Chinese cities I perhaps saw too much of what I really wanted in Tibet: a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively.

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The View from a Train to Tibet, Part One


Towards the end of a semester spent abroad in China, our class went on some study trips. After weaving through most of the mainland we got on a day long train ride to Lhasa, Tibet. Trying to pass the time on a long train ride to Tibet, I turned to my journal. However, as I tried to get my thoughts on paper, the scenery got my complete attention. So I chose to write about that instead.

The writing became pretty consuming, and I did not take any pictures. The window’s reflection would have made most of them look pretty bad anyways. Still, to give some idea of what I am describing I interlaced some pictures of the Tibetan Plateau I took when off the train into the article.

The sky looks crystal clear. I did not think any patch of sky could look so clear and empty. White clouds drift in immaterial puffs over towering mountains. The soft trails of white from broken clouds melt into the light blue sky. All around the train a mile or so of flat land spans out into the distance. Scattered settlements dot the landscape and herds of sheep graze at the start of distant slopes. Winding roads punctuate the wide, flat, empty terrain.

At points the grass yields to small streams of translucent water creating dark green swamps marked with little ferns. The water is so clear that brings bits of the sky to earth in form of reflections. The clouds come to the earth in small puddles. Three billboards drift by, the first I had seen so far, though more would come here and there.

I wonder if the CCP will give me 99 cents for posting this picture
Some of the clearest sky I had ever seen

The train started to pass by massive lake Qinghai. The lake spread out for miles alongside us, and encompassed the setting sun. The lake shimmered on endlessly into the distance. The sunlight ran in long golden stretches across the earth. It sat cut in half by the ground, like a sparkling orange mountain rising up from a massive lake. Lake Qinghai carried the sun’s gleam to the shore right near the train. The brilliance of the light bouncing off the water shined so brightly that I could not stare straight into it. I stared instead at the way the bulbous conglomeration of sheer light broke off in pieces at the side. I tracked the light of the lake the same way I would try to look at a burning star.

The bright and endlessly wide, shimmering blue salt lake still haunts me as I write now. Looking at Qinghai felt like staring a deity straight in the iris. Not even words by the thousands can capture the magnificent way the Qinghai reflected the sun’s final blast of light.

The sun looks to visit other parts of the world. It leaves a sublime goodbye through dark orange rays illuminating less and less of the rising and falling knolls, and the stretches of flat lands. Herds of furry yak look to graze on into the late evening. One yak sped off from the herd. The yak’s heavy, legless body bounded across the flat land spread out before the slight slopes of nearby hills. Its fur bounced with each bound.

The mountains in the distance grew dark, and human settlements become more spread out. The splotchy green sides of the not so steep but still tall mountains form up in the distance. Earlier the sun lit up the far distance. In it, I could see steep sloped, towering mountains capped with snow. It looked like a scene wrapped around a bottle of water.

A perfectly lucid gloom surrounds the far spread of land now. Past the mild slopes a massive brown plateau shoots violently up from the undulating earth. It recedes and the land turns back to the rise and fall of gently sloping hills. Some sharply steepen up and form strange crags. We are now so high that the clouds flirt with the mountain tops. My breath shortens as I look at the mountains climb to meet the sky.

IMG_2603

Now the slopes rose sharply and widely up, but still in great circular bulges of earth like smooth waves of dirt. They roll up to the cliff sides that shoot up to touch wispy grey clouds. One hill jaggedly broke into a shorter altitude. The cliff ran along the hill until it pushed into the smoothness of it, creating a corridor of flatter, lower earth within the grassy knoll. The pattern of the cliffs almost looked like a pagoda, wide at the base and rising up thin into the side of the hill. It even had sides that splintered inward, looking like the way the roof of a pagoda pushes out at each floor.

I wish my pen could grab hold of all the wondrous landscapes around me. Some images must slip through. I do not have the time to do all of it justice; I do not have the ability to do any of it justice. The progress I made will have to do fine enough. The night comes soon and the thin light turns all the distant mountains into only rising shadows. The darkness blurs the lines and the mountains all blend into the back of one massive and shifting form. In one big poof the low and high lands merged together. They rise and fall, waving goodbye as night covered the train windows up completely.

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~Austin R Ryan

Work


Sorry for the not posting in so long! I spent a while working on this poem. It took up a lot of my free time. I tended up a voice and a source of frustrations. I wrote it so it alternates between trochee tetrameter and iambic tetrameter. Try and read it for the jaunty rhythms, or the indecent words! Whatever you prefer.

Work Work Work Work
Breath between your breaks by measure
Work Work Work Work
Measure Meter into pace quick
Work Work Work Work
Haste up pace to stay in high place

Recall all the things you dodged
While with open eyes you dozed
Stalk the single moments missed out
Which one had it hit you should have

Could have torn you up from slumber
Answered your steep midnight hunger
Stomach twists as mad as ever
Did I duck a curing tonic?

I will stand at the assembly
Until I produce the part to
Make me feel entirely me and
Bury regret beneath papers

Work Work Work Work
Get close to heaven holy snug
Work Work Work Work
So angels sing your deeds well done
Work Work Work Work
Salvation too comes costing much

Like protestants on nailing stints
Addressing grievance toppling Popes
Corrupt and people’s steeple tropes
for sake of something greater than

it could end equal or off worse
but only trying leads to change
the devil’s in the details so
on grand schemes lean and hold out hope
that captured gains provide in net

intentions good breeds folk much loved
and time in tiny measure metes
out their ends like all mortal men
a bad word from so smart accounts
can sentence a soul to disdain
so rig the records to keep clean
these acts you own through ink and sweat

Work Work Work Work
Pump out to be completely full
Work Work Work Work
Devour each hour, end empty lulls
Work Work Work Work
Pull in to be swollenly whole

Baby please earn me ring money
Accolades to stay in spade full
Win those “make me messy” metals
Get your sick spouse sweating to the
rhythmic licks that flick along to
Soundtracks of your competence porn

Churn out butter for the little
monster me I slaving made at
someone else’s burning hot stove
Scratch off “make us fat cats” cheddar

Steep your spoils on kids and kinfolk
Spend the rest for stress relief and
Bid a mistress sit on your face
Sip on south saliva hip drips

So we grind away get wild from
Dancing glancing issues off us
Sweetly civil people get drunk
Sniffing skunk scent glugging cleaners
do the daily shit get sugar
on the Fridays gather fuck its
Make them sweeten Monday folgers

Work Work Work Work
To feed the village that raised you
Work Work Work Work
Return to hometown a hero
Work Work Work Work
To be the words your parents taught

Remember all the ways you drain
Your ancestors’ aspirations
How failure cuts a mark on bark
Of family trees for ages seen

Recall all resume mistakes
Distractions you indulge to dodge
The things left half assed on the side
Of empty Ritalin-less thoughts

Where did you let your focus go?
Forgetting things that made you you
The job you do the things you make
The blood that parents passed you on

Let drive and deed out weave your goals
Pull you to far flung fields to plant
Your seeds, they grow they go, like you
They walk, they work, they dream of home

Work Work Work Work
Because it is the only way
At dollars and household hollers
Work Work Work Work
your coffin can attest to how
you inched better measures out
Work Work Work Work
The sweet taste of sugar will sour
So scour for salt to store your food
Work Work Work Work
As grandpa did making your clan
To beat your folks at games they taught
You how to masterfully play
Work Work Work Work
An empty object up until
It fills to sickly prickly burst
Wax on wax off until you get
It off and turn each chore to joy
Since every break turns task and work
When time involved is more than small
Exchange it how you have to that
Work’s pleasure triumphs leisure’s song