By Adrienne Mong, NBC News producer
Lanzhou, Gansu - It wasn't an auspicious beginning.
After several false starts this year, we'd finally received word that NBC News would be allowed to ride the train to Tibet - the world's highest altitude railway.
The Qinghai-Tibet railway, which was completed July last year, extended existing lines so that travelers can now journey on the train from far-flung places like Beijing or Shanghai all the way to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
The connection from Qinghai to Tibet links Golmud, a remote city in western China across the Tibetan Plateau directly to Lhasa. The line runs 700 miles and traverses some of the toughest terrain known to man. Altitudes range from 12,000 to just over 16,000 feet (some reports say the highest point of the trip, Tanggula Pass, reaches almost 17,000 feet), and the tracks are built on permafrost.
Of the team - correspondent Mark Mullen, cameraman Marcus O'Brien, researcher Ed Flanagan, and myself - Mark was the most excited about having finally obtained approval from the Tibet Autonomous Regional authorities and China's Railway Ministry. Being the pessimist, I wasn't going to kick up my heels until we were all standing in front of Lhasa's most famous landmark, Potala Palace.
So I should have expected the little hiccup at the very start of our journey.
Like all passengers, we had a number of choices from which to kick off the trip. We'd whittled them down to Beijing, which covers over 2,500 miles and takes nearly two days; Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province; or Xining, the capital of Qinghai province.
We decided on Lanzhou since the trip would take just over 24 hours and the departure time was during the day, which would make for easier filming.
Lanzhou is only a two-hour flight west from Beijing. We booked an early flight, allowing for the hour's drive from airport to train station, a leisurely lunch, and an hour to shoot at the station.
As it turned out, we wound up doing none of these.
Inexplicably -- as it was the clearest day in Beijing in months -- our plane was delayed just under four hours.
By the time we finally landed in Lanzhou, it was just after 3:30p. The train to Tibet was scheduled to depart at 5:40p.
Or so we thought.
With Mark egging on the lone airport baggage handler, we managed to retrieve our 18 pieces of gear and throw it onto the hired "bread car" by 4:05p. Five minutes later, we were on the highway to downtown Lanzhou, an hour's drive away.
As my colleagues admired the views - rolling hills and grazing livestock - I urged our driver to hit the pedal and began fielding what would be the first of several dozen calls from Lanzhou Railway Minister Zhao at the train station.
It began rather cordially.
"Miss Mong, where are you now? Oh, you're on the highway now? Good, please ask your driver to drive quickly. We will try to hold the train for you. Thank you."
Shortly after, however, the calls came fast and furious:
"Miss Mong, where are you? Tell your driver to drive more quickly. Drive quicker, tell him now."
"Miss Mong! Where are you?? Do you think you can get here before 5p?! We can't hold the train! Quickly, quickly, quickly, Miss Mong!"
"Miss Mong!! Where are you now?! Have you gotten off the highway?! Tell your driver to take this exit! Aiya, Miss Mong, you're giving me heart disease."
"Miss Mong!! Where are you??" "We're almost there. We're just at a red light. I can see the station, Minister Zhao."
"AIYA!! TELL YOUR DRIVER TO DRIVE THROUGH THE RED LIGHT! THERE'S NO TIME FOR RED LIGHTS!! DRIVE NOW! TELL HIM TO DRIVE AROUND THE CARS NOW!!"
Huffing and Puffing
When we showed up at the train station, one man was waving at us frantically to go down a path they'd carved out from other station traffic. The minister - a slip of a man whose size did no justice to the ferocity of his voice -- was standing right outside the terminal and waved our driver energetically towards an alley behind the building.
At a carport, our "bread car" stopped, and a dozen rail officials - men and women, in suits mostly - each grabbed a Pelican case and began jogging up a flight of stairs. One poor fellow had the misfortune of choosing the case containing a powerful light kit, which weighs easily 80 pounds.
As he huffed and puffed his way up the stairs, Marcus - tasked with documenting our journey with his camera -- mercilessly zoomed in on the poor man's face, stoic-looking as sweat rained down from his forehead.
Down the platform, a dozen people and ourselves sprinted towards the train, where conductors in neatly pressed maroon uniforms and caps stood at attention by the doors. We threw everything into the rail car. I turned around to try to shake Minister Zhao's hand, but this was no time for niceties. "Get on the train, Miss Mong!" he barked at me for the last time.
Two minutes later, at 5:14p, our train pulled out of the station, before we even had a moment to take stock of anything.
But I did manage to ring Minister Zhao to thank him and to apologize for giving him, as he had put it, heart disease.
"It's okay, Miss Mong. I'm glad you made it after all this," he said, unexpectedly graciously. "We hope you enjoy your journey!"