Have been too busy to cook elaborate meals, thought i would post this journal entry
June 1st, 2015, 2 weeks after convocation, the end of an era, and i’m on the tail end of my journey. I’ve always been fascinated with Tibet, the roof of the world, with its long cultural traditions and complicated political past holds special allure. Due to time constraints, I was only able to visit Lhasa. When the 3 day tour came to an end, I opted to take the 23 hour train ride from Lhasa to Xining for the scenery and time for self-reflection. I wrote this letter on the train ride.
The cabin I’m in is small but comfortable, with 2 bunk beds. I’m lucky enough to have a bottom bunk which means I have a beautiful view of the window and plenty of sitting space. My cabin mates are a businessman from Wuhan and a tour guide leading a group of Thai tourists. Both of them quickly passed out on their bunks soon after the train departed. Neither are talkative but that suited me just fine- I want to do some quiet contemplation and fiction reading on this ride.
In the first few hours, the train passed vast areas of grasslands with herds of yak lazily grazing, the herdsman nowhere to be seen, under the backdrop of high mountains some of which with snow covered peaks. This is the highest elevation train track in the world. Even though the cabins are pressurized with supplemented oxygen, I still felt a bit taxed as the train moved through higher elevations of over 5000m. Although I’m doing much better than one of my cabin mates individually packed snacks that exploded open with reduced outside air pressure. The ride is slow and steady, at complete opposites of the technologically impressive bullet train in Japan. But this pace matches well with the vast emptiness of the Tibetan plateau under clear blue skies, and allows ones mind to fade into total blankness as the breathtaking images flash before the cabin window.
Lhasa was an entirely different experience. Besides the flatness of the cityscape and the countless number of stores selling Tibetan goods, it’s hard to tell it apart from the other Chinese cities outside its old city core. But once you stroll into old city, in the narrow ally ways between white stone buildings and join the herd of pilgrims in traditional clothing spinning their prayer wheel and murmuring prayers, you step into a different world. For someone without a strong interest in Tibetan Buddhism or history, the brightly decorated temples filled with gold covered Buddhas and old kings, the incense, and yak butter scented rooms soon become repetitive. My favorite parts of this journey were hidden in the unique experiences: watch the monks debate in the courtyards of Sera monastery, see the faithfuls prostrating on their pilgrimage, join the locals in the noisy tea shops, put some money under a glass and have the waitress automatically come and fill my cup with sweet milk tea, and chatting up with locals and other tourists. Of course, who can resist the allure of the majestic Potala with its white and red walls and its steep climb up. My travel mates were kind and some indulged me with my diva photo taking requests. Although I still tried to breakaway from the group as frequently as I can since I can traverse the city more adequately on my own. One food item I’m totally indulging in on this train ride is the yak milk residue snack that I don’t know the official name of. If I come back fattier that would be why. Oh how I wish I could have some Japanese train bento.
It’s now 2 PM. As I was writing, the train passed the highest elevation fresh water lake in the region that I didn’t catch the name of. The train radio also started playing. I just realized that the quietness following lunch time was intended for the post lunch nap that I’ve long forgotten. With the calming rhythmic movement of the train, and the warmth of the cabin created by the strong uv lights, I passed out in a slumber.
I woke up with slightly better mood and to a change in scenery. The high mountain tops receded into the far backgrounds and the clouds are low and grey, covering their peaks. The green grasslands replaced by wetlands, seemingly devoid of life or cattle, interspersed by snow covered fields- we have arrived at the highest station of 5072m at Tangla mountain range around 5pm. I feel bad for the businessman on my top bunk, wandering the hallway and peaking into the cabin from time to time, hoping either of us occupying the bottom bunk would be willing to share the space for him to sit, but not badly enough to give up my space. The tour guide later tells me that he thought his head was going to explode during that period of high elevation, but I felt nothing besides the need to intentionally take a few deep breath.
After a few pages more with my book, and finishing all of my yak milk treats, the scene changed again into snowy fields with blowing snow. The visibility almost none. I’m feeling a bit bloated from eating so much dairy product in a day (ate almost nothing else). The train is traveling steadily at 4000m. It would be just a few hours more until darkness envelopes us all.
I slept soundly with the rhythmic train ride and the soft purring of the engine. When I awoke from my deep slumber, it was already light out and the train was passing through houses that resembled Chinese country side under grey cloudy skies.
It’s 6:59 Am and the train is about to pull into the station. The written record of my narrated journey ends here.