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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4 thoughts on “The View From a Train to Tibet, Part Two

  1. Really enjoyed reading your writing. I admire the flow that you’re able to achieve. I have tried writing before while travelling and all I get are notes and points.

    1. I am glad to hear you liked it, thank you for the compliment! Flow is something I focus on a lot, particularly getting some poetic flow into prose, so I am glad it was noticeable. I did edit my original journal entries so they would fit better/had less mistakes, I just tried to keep the content itself original. Normally I too make smaller notes about where I actually am and what I am seeing, but there was so much time on the train and so much to see that writing about the scenery came more naturally.

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