The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the highest and longest railroad built on frozen Earth. It’s an engineering marvel that stretches 1,956 kilometers (nearly 1,215 miles) and takes 21 hours to reach Lhasa from Xining by train.
The first time I skydived, I heard the pilot count down, the door swing open, my instructor murmur the seconds on his watch, a sigh (as an apology to my parents), and then nothing at all. The wind pressure blocked my ears, so I looked at the sky and emerald-blue sea in deafening, exhilarating silence while I somersaulted to my possible death with a last “oh f*ck”.
Yet, the smaller I felt, the more I revered things I could not control. I couldn’t figure if I was more afraid of giving my instructor full permission to control my outcome, or comforted in risking my life with another person.
While spending 21 hours in the world’s highest train was a saner version for an ambivert like myself to connect with strangers in the sky, it left the same strange impression.
All of us battled altitude sickness to visit Tibet for different reasons, perhaps even for reasons we could not describe. But at that moment, we shared a love for the same view, removed of distractions, except our own thoughts held up against the reflection of the windowpane.
In the next cabin, there was an Italian named Nico, and a Vietnamese-Australian named Trin, who both coincidentally joined our group in Tibet. Trin had the honour to bunk with my dad who loves spreading the word of Tibetan Buddhism, and we joked his altitude sickness was probably due to my dad’s endless talking.
Nico towered over us at 197cm tall and explained he was a professional basketball player on his off season. He was travelling solo around Asia for his first time and loved the "really tiny but friendly people" in the Philippines.
Along walkways, people exchanged words about books they were reading, travel experiences, home culture and political opinion. But in pitch black tunnels, everyone retreated back to their holes as I laid down and listened to the rumbling of the train, thinking how fortunate I was to see light again.
That night, I slept on the upper bunk and heard oxygen hissing through the nozzle above my head when the altitude rose above 4,500m. Sunrise was later than expected, at nearly 8.00am.
But waking up to a view of nothing but snow-capped hills, yaks, frozen lakes and sporadic settlement, was one of the most beautiful moments I had witnessed.
The tranquility was soothing, yet almost gloomy. There was so much land, selflessly given to free-roaming yaks, horses and Tibetan mastiffs—a world apart from where each tile in my apartment costs over S$400.
Watching daybreak paint the landscape brown and white, I daydreamed about waking up to this view every morning, instead of the air-con compressors and laundry poles hanging out of my neighbour's apartment.
But when my camera shutter clicked, I was reminded I was only a traveller on a temporary pass, bound to convenience and accessibility in a first-world city, always moving faster to afford a slower, simpler life in modern times.
Words and photographs by Chevonne.