Sublime: “Inspiring deep veneration, awe, or uplifting emotion because of [their] beauty, nobility, grandeur, or immensity.”—Yi-fu Tuan, Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape (2014)
Melody and I parted three weeks ago, and the details of our Trans-Siberian trip are already fading. But what does remain are brief snapshots of sublime moments. Moments that filled me with awe and a strange longing, and a desperate desire to hold onto the memory.
We cycle through Moscow’s Gorky park, and I pedal faster to keep up with Sasha, who we just met a few hours ago. It’s dark, but the buildings on the other side of the river are bright with lights, illuminating the path ahead of me. A cruise ship passes. The colourful lights reflect off the river’s surface and mix in bright patterns, while the night air is cool against my face. Someone whoops as they ride. I stand up on my bike recklessly, turning my head completely to look out at the river, and time seems to slow. I want to remember this, how I feel right now. Melody is somewhere up ahead, and we are free.
I urge my horse forward towards the hill ahead of me. The sky is dark with ominous rainclouds, and I hear thunder. I’ve drawn ahead of Melody and our guide so that Mongolian countryside looks completely deserted. My horse, which has irritably travelled at a trot for the past hour, urges forward, and I loosen the reins and kick his sides. Why not? The transition is instant, and I’m no longer bouncing in the saddle, but rocking smoothly back and forward. We canter, maybe gallop towards the rocky hill, flying past skeletons of sheep and cows. It’s faster than I ever ridden, and I want to scream, I’m terrified and elated as we gallop up the hillside. I feel like a conqueror. Remember this, I tell myself. I don’t deserve such an absurd and beautiful moment. And then we reach the top, and I turn around, and I see Melody in the distance.
The mountains of Guilin are verdant and unearthly, rising straight up from the ground like vast pillars from a forgotten city. The Yulong River reflects the distant cliffs, turning them more blue and smoky in the imperfect mirror of its surface. Riding on the back of a moped, I have a perfect view, my vision only slightly obscured by my boyfriend’s helmet in front of me. The country road we’re on curves back and forth, bringing the mountains on either side in and out of view. We’ll head home after this, and in a few short days, Adam will go back to America while I stay in Singapore. Even though I don’t need to, I hold his waist. I wish this ride would never end, because when it ends, we have to leave and our moment is over. Remember the beauty of the mountains. Remember how it feels to be with someone you love, how warm it is when you touch them.
Looking at these moments clinically, they have a few things in common: awe-inspiring scenery, being in motion, and a relationship. The scenery explains itself. As for motion, in each moment that I felt the sublime, I was literally moving: on a bicycle, a horse, and a moped. So even as I try to take a mental snapshot, I’m rushing past the scenery. Everything blurs. Desperately, I try to hang onto these memories, but each time I revisit these scenes they grow fuzzier. During each experience, I was all too aware that the moment was about to end. So the elation and freedom I feel when I recall my Trans-Siberian trip is tinged with sadness.
Finally, each sublime experience is framed by a relationship. Without Melody’s boldness, we never would have met our new friends in Moscow, and we never would have ridden by the river. And in Mongolia, I wouldn’t have survived the aching horse ride without her. The beauty of the landscape is permeated by what I was feeling when I saw it, the love and friendship we experienced. Because throughout the trip, Melody constantly spurred me on to be better, to take things as they come, and to trust God. I miss her. I want to hold on to the adventures we had, so that I can always recall them, even after I graduate and we’re apart.
And as for the ride in Guilin. Over half of my relationship with my boyfriend has been long-distance: I live in Singapore and he lives in America. And so in the same way that I try to preserve the flashing moments of the sublime, sometimes when I look at him I desperately try to take a mental picture. Remember the face he makes when he eats. Or how excited he gets when he gets to pet a cat or dog. Remember, remember, remember, before it’s too late and you’re cruelly stripped of three of your senses.
In the Pixar film Inside Out, it is eventually revealed that many of our most important memories are mixes of happiness and sadness. For me, that’s what experiencing sublime means: feeling the elation of the moment, trying to preserve it in my mind while already mourning its passing.
Our Trans-Siberian railroad trip was beautiful. I want to hold onto it forever.