Tibet: Kumbum Monastery Part 2


At last we entered the final area, a little square enclosed by different buildings. Each one was somewhat squat, no more than one or two stories tall, with grey shingles. Everything looked almost stylized to the imagination of an Eastern temple. Out there in the cold near all the monks in red, it all felt very real regardless. The monks eyed us and we them, standing as strangers barred by language from a straight connection. Even if we had the tongue to tie our two groups together it would have been an entirely higher level of courage to break the ice. It was nothing particular about Tibetan monks. In the majority of temples we went to the monks did their own thing and let everyone else do theirs.

The tour guide told us to sheath our cameras at this point. In a certain area we could take pictures of monks, buildings, whatever else. Inside buildings and deeper within the monastery, they disallowed photography. I felt somewhat glad for it. Pictures help with capturing and keeping a moment but not necessarily for enjoying it. It is a tricky tradeoff where I remember less of what I could not take a camera to, but absorbed more of it at the time. At this point we entered the Grand Golden Tile Hall. Here and in the Potala Palace we got cut off from our cameras and it made the dimly light and sublimely colored Tibetan tapestries come alive.

You can see the gold tiles of the hall we would soon enter.
You can see the gold tiles of the hall we would soon enter.

The bright and glaring sunlight made its exit and only gentle lamplight wore on our eyes now. The intricacy of the tapestries and the cloth covering the hallways was so intense that it felt overwhelming to try and take it all in at once. All the complex interweaving patterns created a sense of what the world’s cosmological phenomenon might look like. Pockets of well-organized tomes stood not far off either, sparking off endless thoughts on what they contained. Wild parts of my mind flirted with ill formed ideas of tantric secrets, but it was more likely the scrolls contained sutras and religious history.

Eventually we came to the large golden statue of Tsongkhapa himself, the man whose spiritual deeds sparked such grandeur. The golden statue itself was beautiful and awe inspiring in its own right, but the atmosphere meant everything here. A church inspires with ceilings that stretch on endlessly high, and cavernous expanses allowing all a seat. Kumbum felt small, but personal. The hallways were spacious enough, but crowded with so many banners and colors showered in dark light that in some way it felt packed and expansive at the same time. In this area we saw more monks and visitors giving offerings and sitting before the statue of Tsongkhapa. The holiness of the area radiated in a way I can only imagine Notre Dame or the Sistine Chapel or the Hagia Sophia might.

A dear friend I had made on the trip remarked to me how incredible the experience felt to him. He called it one of the most intense experiences he had. I had to agree, and felt good doing so since I heavily pumped up Kumbum to him while we explored Xining. I try to keep a healthy balance between cynicism and romanticism, to not to get swept up into breaking things down into nothing or building them up so they become everything.

Never forget to look up!
Never forget to look up!

Yet, Kumbum deserved respect and absolutely should radiate holiness and awe even by objective standards. Kumbum is one of the oldest religious institutions in Tibet and second in importance only to Lhasa. It should inspire in the way Notre Dame might. Centuries of tribute and donation from a mostly poor peoples, centuries of elite support, centuries of a good section of many people’s resources funneled into this site.

The result was sublime. As we loaded back on the bus, I felt enlightened by an understanding of how so many people could give so much of what little they had to a venture that never paid them back materially. Grandeur and awe incite such a flood of emotions that they become a payment all their own. As I reflect, it is not so unlike the sky scraping buildings of New York or the terrifying obelisk we dedicate to George Washington.

Nation means nothing on its own, and neither does Capitalism, but seeing all that steel and all that marble help me admonish these ideas. The abstraction springs to life in form of the finest construction people can manage. Incredible skylines remind us of how far we have come. Named after businesses, they make remarks on what might have got us there, or at least paid for the construction. Marble monuments that seat Lincoln like Zeus in a hallowed hall solidifies America into a material realm. In Tibet the grandeur of golden Tsongkhapa does not seem so different, bringing to life an abstract idea of this man become sacred symbol.

The thought makes me feel so close to so many far places but so grounded in my home. I could understand the motives and sentiments of almost any monument, but the true meaning is different. My fingers might grasp at the meaning of monuments, but I wondered how much I could ever close in on it without living in the society that made them. I still wonder if I can only properly feel the full cultural pull of the National Mall.

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Tibet: Visting Kumbum Monastery Part 1


Before boarding the train to Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region proper, we had to see Kumbum Monastery. Kumbum provided the first real glimpse into the traditional Tibetan culture and religion that all of us had heard so much about.

Few places matter more to the Yellow Hat or Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism than Kumbum Monastery. Voices in media often speak of Tibet as one entity held tight by one faith. The reality has a few more grits to sort through. Tibet once had heavier pagan or shamanistic beliefs but these seriously started to lose prominence when one of Tibet’s great dynastic kings, Songtsen Ghampo took over. Songtsen was no small talent, quickly taking control of much of the Tibetan plateau and patronizing the region’s early Buddhism. Eventually he would even rout the forces of the Tang Dynasty.

Later on the Bon faith would arise in contrast of Buddhism, though it could never get quite as hard a hold. Tibetan Buddhists themselves could not quite agree on everything and splintered into several sects that rose and fall. The Dalai Lamas and the Gelug School now iconic across all the world started up in the 14th century with Tsongkhapa and a small town outside Xining that would become Kumbum Monastery.

Standing outside Kumbum
Standing outside Kumbum

Our bus wheeled up to the outer wall of Kumbum early in the day, just as it opened. We had all layered up but the cold winter morning could cut through any number of layers. The whole place was quiet except for us shivering and chattering. For a while everyone just stood outside, waiting for a signal from our guide to head in.

An eager salesman with a plucky grin spotted us. He had the reigns of a shaggy white pony in his hands and offered rides for anyone willing to pay. None of us were much pliable to the offer, though. As tourists we likely disappointed, not buying from the stands of handcrafted goods outside or opting in on pony rides. Most of us were saving up for Lhasa, a place bubbling with commerce and worship.

Doing business
Doing business

Aside from our group Kumbum did not have so wide an audience this early in the morning. A Tibetan woman and her kid came walking in with us and there were a few other folks scattered about. I do not doubt that, come a little later time, the place would get a bit more active. Still, Kumbum was a monastery slightly removed from the really big population center, so it may never have had so many worshipers as monks.

The sparseness of the monastery added to it anyways, at least for a visitor from far off. Generic holiness as I knew it always had this idea of solitude surrounding it. Generic holiness shows itself in form of a person alone in a church atoning, like in the movies. Yet if there was anything that the Yonghegong monastery in Beijing and my sometimes unstable routine of bible study taught me, it’s that faith and religion come alive when people come together underneath it. The people make the faith as much faith makes the people. That dialogue with an idea of something holy or unworldly good was always what gripped me.

Two people headed in to the monastery
Two people headed in to the monastery

Still, Kumbum easily shined through the biting morning cold and everything else that kept attendance away did not mean much. The monastery gradually wove upward into the side of slightly sloping mountain. The sharp red, gold and greens burst to life in the sunlight and from that moment I could feel myself romanticizing everything. I fought against that urge. I love the romantic but it can really run against you if you really want to grip something.

Red arches welcomed us into the monastic compound. Our long linger in the cold came to an end with a row of white stupas topped with colorful spirals at their tops and intricate colored patterns at the bottom. Each stupa represented a different part of the Buddha, Shakyamuni’s life and teachings. The sun shined down and the tour guide led us further in. First we visited a few rooms on the outside of the complex, shrines to various religious figures. We could not take pictures inside and unfortunately my memory cannot hold all the specific images. Still, the colors in all the temples, the deep reds and oranges stitched into so much incredible quilt work, and the glimmering gold of mighty statues has not left me. Rather, the colors just bleed into a mess of mixed images that won’t separate for all my pulling at them.

neatly lined up stupas
neatly lined up stupas
A closer look at the stupas
A closer look at the stupas

We walked through the thick and brilliantly colored cloth that covered the thresholds of some of the shrines and dropped small donations as we went. Sometimes we got shawls in payment for a donation. They feel thin to the hand and would not combat the cold, but they have beautiful color and decoration. They came with a meaning too, red for passion and love, orange for prosperity, and so on. Even with the meaning attached the shawls reminded me that I was as strange as a person could be to this place, separated by layers of culture thicker than a thousand of these shawls.

The tour guide showed us complex statues made from Yak butter, and important offer given to Tibetan temples and monasteries, before we walked off the beaten path to somewhere deeper in. Along the route we ran across some monks making their way into the main complex where we would soon be. They worse Nikes and eagerly eyed their smart phones.

So much color!
So much color!

It might seem a sharp contrast, but Buddhism and Capitalism do not often clash so much. Even before capitalism ever came about, any religious order needed money and resource to stay alive. Often those resources had to come from the surrounding towns, the monks and abbots too busy with holy scripture, prayer or meditation to manage all on their own. So monks in many places lived as a privileged class funded through heavy donation.

My father never pushed Buddhism very hard on any of us, but he had demystified it for me. Buddha does not wipe away the little terrors people feel. Even monks stay human, eating human food, finding human shelter, at least until the accounts say they burst into clouds of lotus flowers. Like any religion Buddhism could coexist alongside anything from something as small as smartphones or as sinister as fanatical violence. I was glad to see monks in Nike’s as another reminder to not fetishize faith.

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Tibet: Starting Off in Xining


Nothing gets people so riled up as a chance to see Tibet. That plateau has been talked up higher than it lies above sea level. Our group of exchange students hardly proved exempt from the pull of the mystical plateau. Beijing University offered us a few travel lines, but so many opted for the line with Tibet in it that all but two of the lines had to be cancelled for lack of travelers. Most of my peers desired to see Tibet above all else, and signed up without knowing much of the other sites along the way. I could not blame them, the chance to see Tibet proper does not present itself often.

In the end we all piled into the Tibet travel line anyways, heading off to learn about Buddhism. I like to say that even if it did not include Tibet I would have picked it to explore one of the religions I was raised with. To this day I am not sure if I was speaking true or trying to diminish my shallowness. Either way, it did not matter. Almost every site on the list I knew and wanted to see, from the old capitals of Luoyang and Xian to the temples on the Tibetan plateau to the sacred peaks and historical cities of Sichuan.

Our first glimpse of Tibetan Buddhism came after we landed in a small city called Xining, the capital of a far off province called Qinghai. At first glance it did not seem Tibetan but it no doubt was a part of the plateau and influenced by a mesh of cultures, including Tibetan and Han Chinese. Trade between Han, Mongolian, Turkic and Tibetan empires allowed Xining to flourish. It rose up right on the edge of what the Chinese call Qinghai and the Tibetans call Amdo, two names for a similarly assigned space. However, we came to Xining for a nearby monastery more than the city itself.

Still, the city had a significance worth exploring. At the intersection of several cultures, Xining’s probably seen a lot of every sort of people. Mongolians, Tibetans, Muslims and Chinese all played a part in its history. Now it stands as the largest city on the Tibetan plateau. None of that translates into its skyline or across its urban sprawl.

Landing in the Xining airport.
Landing in the Xining airport.

Large though it may be for the plateau it is a small city on China’s scales. Of all the places I had been in China none felt as empty and spacious as Xining. To be fair to Xining, we did not stay there for very long and only went exploring on one quiet night.

Besides, Xining had a very special charm all its own. Few places felt quite as honestly human as Xining. This is a city with more work than pomp. The city lacked the grand skyline of China’s megacities and it could not sprawl out endlessly like Beijing does. Rather, it exists and only ever existed as the simple and practical version of itself, not reaching out to be a Big Apple or even a Second City. Xining did not feel dressed up, a rarity for a country rediscovering the clothing of State Capitalism and Confucianism.

Despite my all too natural reluctance to go out, I ended up heading out after dark to explore the town with a group of friends. We struck a path along a street next to an empty canal and walked a short while before stopping at corner store. A young man stood half asleep at a slightly dilapidated chrome counter. He welcomed us in and bade us to buy whatever we liked, though he spent much more energy welcoming in a white cat. I could not blame him; the cat seemed much more interesting.

A large part of China’s spirit – as I saw it – manifested in bottles of water and cats. The people there could not do without either. The tap water in China is undrinkable even for the iron-stomached, making bottled water a constant. Office places had several 32 packs of plastic water bottles stacked atop coolers. Campus stores sold big bottles with handles. On the street a vendor stood at the ready with one as well. Restaurants served steaming hot water in part to ensure customers of its secure quality, and partly out of traditions I only half understand that call for hot drinks

The cats paint a cheerier picture. Stray cats are a fixture along the streets of Beijing and Xining. People leave little piles of kibble for the cats to eat and let the felines come and go. The small office where we met at Beijing University even had a cat all its own, affectionately named Xiao Bai (小白) meaning “Little White.” It came in for food but sometimes stuck around for company.

It had little legs so I called it lil' legs
A stray cat I met in Lhasa.

We got our bottles of water and had the man up front ring us up. He was fairly friendly and pretty tired. He tossed up three fingers to indicate the price, then dropped a word I did not know. Spotting the confusion, he smiled and cut back to the Beijing dialect, common speech. China’s tongues do not just divide at Cantonese and Mandarin but at the boundaries of every province. Dialects can differ right down to the county line, sometimes so steeply separate that they could be languages all their own. All across the country most people can speak Beijing dialect at least like a second language.

After that we ambled onward for a while, realizing that few places outside of that corner store and some McDonald’s were still open. We thought everyone was asleep until we came upon a super poppy tune emanating from a distant plaza. A bunch of senior citizens had gathered at a nice and open place to do some nighttime group dancing. They quickly invited us over, curving hands and mouthing “Lai 来! Lai 来! Lai 来!” So for a while we did a little group dancing in a foreign plaza. Some older women helped show me the ropes and by the end I was deep in the formation trying hard to stay in step. My compatriots pulled me out of the group and we went on walking.

Past that point we did not have so much to see. Before we knew it we had stumbled upon another plaza, this one even more massive and filled with some strange sculptures we did not understand. After some loitering a nearby McDonald’s called our name, mostly by merit of being open when everything else was closed.

The magic of marketing has made McDonald’s and other fast food brands a middle and upper class treat in China. The menus feature American style foods often with a Chinese twist, featuring fried chicken with a Sichuan sauce and a curry chicken plate served with fries. One of the biggest culture clashes I have ever had was over a pizza hut in Chengdu, where I ate a freshly made pan pizza underneath glinting chandeliers while watching well-dressed businessmen chat at a nearby table. Though this McDonald’s proved pretty interesting too.

I got another bottle of water to have when I woke up next morning and sat at a table a slight way away from a middle aged Chinese woman sowing something nice and colorful. At first nothing seemed amiss. Gradually a tragedy etched into her expressions and she started to sob and heave quietly in the corner. There we were, foreigners in one of the furthest parts of a strange land all alone on the second floor of a McDonald’s save some workers and a woman crying into a quilt.

The moment struck me as I felt simultaneously very far and incredibly close to her. My language skills could not grapple with her troubles and my social skills would not have been up to the task either. Still, I was one of the few witnesses to a breakdown, one of the warm bodies nearest to some unfortunate thing that had brooded until it spilled over. No travel guide in the universe could have explained to me how to handle the situation.

Stories started to swirl around in my mind, trying to understand what might have happened. A friend of mine and I started to speak carefully in English. We wondered openly what to do, but also what this woman’s tale was. Had she lost a child recently, went for a night time walk and ended up knitting and sobbing? Was she just distressed at things at home or homeless entirely? There was no way to know even though we tried to figure it out. The most respectable thing to do may have been to stay silent or talk about other things. Perhaps we should have lent a hand despite language barriers. We should have tried to do better by her. We should not have given into curiosity, but if we were not weak to exploratory impulses we may never have ended up in China.

After that we just walked back and relaxed at the hotel. It was a very human city and it gave me plenty to think about even if not much happened while I was there. The bell would call for us very early next morning and we’d end up hastily eating a bare-bones breakfast before going to Kumbum Monastery. The tale will continue next week with the monastery. I will leave a few photos as a bit of a teaser.

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~Austin R Ryan

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