The window faces northwest and is still cold to the touch. Jagged spiderwebs of frozen moisture persist in its shaded corners despite a growing warmth, both inside and out. The dining car fills slowly as I wait for my breakfast, the train’s passengers undoubtedly not anxious to leave the comfort of their blankets. The ice crystals wither, final traces of the previous night’s rain evaporating into the great arid spaces of the Tibetan Plateau. I touch the window again, now leaving my prints in the fresh condensate of the first diners’ breath and sweat and steaming soup.

Dark harmonies played on the skies in the night. The crumpled earth south of the Taklamakan had trapped the cold and the wet. Trains sat idly on their tracks while clouds pummeled Xining with heavy rains. Alone in the station, caged by the rain, my thoughts turned to foreboding. Once again, I’d wandered down from a mountain and into the remote expanses of China’s west. A year before those places were still unimagined, but a summer of violence and ethnic unrest had shaken Xinjiang in the months come and gone.

As the stark walls of nearby buttes echoed the thunder’s chorus, the faces in the station – Han, Uighur, Tibetan, Westerner – began to seem dogged and anxious. Having traveled for many months in mainland China, I now saw the Han as a happy, open people. They are not unlike Americans in their ambitions, seemingly drawn forward by impulses that have no rational origin, that are accidents of place, time, and culture. Yet it was the ethnic markers of the Uighurs that drew my own anxiety. No longer an indication of the growing diversity of The People’s Republic, my newfound prejudice transformed them into reflections of the deepening angst of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, high on the Plateau, another tragedy waited to be scrutinized. With National Day quickly approaching, I wondered at the troubles that Han nation-building had spawned at the end of the train’s long track.

Finally the rain subsided to a drizzle and, bodies filling the berths with warmth, we set out. The track was pressed by the weight of our bodies and their carrying machine, going up toward Lhasa. I fell asleep quickly but had troubled dreams. My imagination fled west from the locomotive with the grassland beasts, hurtling itself toward a rising wall of rock and ice and, beyond that, a great vacancy of time that I could not penetrate. Along its borders the future was mute with an implicit belief that I was going to die. My tiny life-fire was at last blown to ash on a nameless peak of the sprawling Himalaya.

Now the sunlight of the Plateau fractures the bodies’ sleep and I struggle to see much beyond the frigid window. A great, rolling plain fills the horizon on all sides, frost peppering thick marshes. In the distance, the low hills are glazed with snow and painted red on their north faces by strange grasses. Here is a rippling earth, barely inhabited. These thousands of empty miles are the sky’s dominion alone.

Another train, another day. My birthday. In my berth a baby grows weary of the train’s rocking. He wears a small hat and smiles from time to time, his grip strong. A Han woman sleeps, hoping not to be awakened by the child. Her husband sniffles and so do I. My feet are cold – shoes soaked by the rains – but I don’t put on socks. The child is wrapped in a green blanket. Against my own will I look into its eyes and smile. It smiles at me. The tiny impulses in its frenetic, unstructured mind know the combination to my locks; my locks are opened. I wonder at the purpose of such things.

The old Tibetan woman, grandson under one arm, calls her daughter on a mobile phone. I marvel at the relationships that surround her, their peculiar closeness and the confines of skin, the touching of skin, her unwavering at the itch that comes with it. She shakes her sandal nervously, wondering what I’m writing. They seem a curious people, interested to know when things are hidden. She wonders what I’m listening to. She wonders about my bare feet. She does not hide it. It is a warm and open wonder, but an invasion of skin that makes me flinch. In it there is much to love, or maybe I just imagine that it’s so.

What will come in Lhasa? What will come beyond, in the places where the earth is pushed yet higher? The strange oblivion of the dream comes, perhaps, from my hesitation to do the one thing that I meant to do from the beginning: to look into the eyes of giants. Uncertainty emanates from those distant peaks, the Himalaya. Do I fear the pull of my own curiosity?

The sun is intensely bright outside. Clouds break, leaving dark trails on the grassland. Next to the track, the long road to Lhasa is heated by the sun. A caravan of trucks motors steadily on. I need to put on some socks.


I know when skin is bristling.
I know when skin is milk.
I know when hair is love.
I know when I make mistakes.