Birthday in the Sky

It’s my Birthday.

I wake up in hotel bed in Xining, after sleeping off the 38 hours of traveling we have done from Hong Kong. What do I have to look forward to today? A party? Seeing family? Hanging with friends? Nope, another 22 hours on a train. But this will be no ordinary train journey…

Amanda and I make our way to the hotel’s breakfast lounge. We meet our friend Rachel, who has flown in from HK to join us on this next leg of our journey. We catch up over coffee and eggs, discussing our previous train trip and the journey ahead. We contemplate the tiny cabins, the many meals of pot-noodles and the strange feeling when traveling with so many people, yet not understanding or communicating with anyone… even so, I am really excited to be getting on this next train.

Amanda surprises me with various birthday cards that had arrived at our apartment in HK. I manage to connect on the internet and read a number of Birthday emails (thank you all), but unfortunately Facebook and China don’t play well together, so I will have to catch up with that later. We finish breakfast, ‘borrow’ the bread from the breadbasket and some fruit from the buffet (after all, man cannot survive on pot noodle alone) and prepare to head to the station.

Why so much excitement over another long train trip? Well, today, on my Birthday, we will be taking the highest train in the world, to Tibet!

While our destination, Lhasa, sits at around 3490m from sea level (probably the highest place I have visited), the train has to travel across the Tibetan Plateau and over two passes, the Kunlun Mountain Pass 4800m and then some hours later, the Tanggula Pass 5072m.

map from

To deal with such altitudes the train comes equipped with machines to increase the amount of oxygen in the cabins, and an oxygen delivery system to every bunk, which allows you, should you need, to plug a tube into the socket and have oxygen piped into a nosepiece. Every train also has a doctor on board. So obviously Amanda has been very anxious and apprehensive (extensively researching High Altitude Sickness!), and I could not have been more excited to experience this trip.

We get through the station, deal with the crowds of people, and show our special permits that allow us to visit Tibet to probably 4 different officials, then board the train. Unlike our train from Shenzen, this time we are in a ‘Soft Sleeper’ class carriage. Meaning a room with 4 bunks, better mattresses, a backrest and wonders of wonders… a door!

Soft Sleeper Carriage in Lhasa Train
Zak and Rachel in our Soft Sleeper Cabin

So we found our cabin… four bunks for three of us… ahhh space and comfort. We chatted and snacked, explored some of the train, read, took photos of the passing landscape, things were pretty uneventful… until someone discovered the ‘Making Oxygen Machine Room’.  Not only was this a great room name, it had a screen that showed the current altitude.

We were fascinated by the altimeter, and a little obsessed. Every 15 mins, one of us would run out to check our current altitude. We also kept checking the internet to see what times we might hit the high passes and the countdown to the Kunlun Mountain Pass began.

We ate lunch (the hotel bread!), we ate dinner (another pot noodle), we got ready for bed, but 10:30pm found the three of us crowding around the altitude screen while the train staff, in their little room next door, looked on in bemusement.

When we hit 4800m we were pretty much jumping around and taking selfies with the altitude screen! We must have looked like a bunch of five year olds who have just been introduced to a room full of puppies.

Excitement over, we headed for bed. The Tanggula Pass wouldn’t be until around 2am, so we were going to sleep through that. Up until now, we had not experienced many altitude effects. Slight headaches and just feeling a little ‘weird’.

Amanda and I had been taking small doses of medication (Diamox) that helps your body process more oxygen and adjust to the higher altitude, but Rachel had not. Rachel didn’t feel well going over the Pass and wasn’t able to sleep well, but once the the train started to descend, the worst symptoms were over and she was able to sleep again (just a little headache!)

When we woke up the next morning, we discussed the nights events, how well we did or didn’t sleep, and counted down the last few hours before we reached Lhasa.

As Birthdays go, it was very exciting. I missed my family & friends, but I experienced new heights (pun intended), and was on my way to Tibet… this was the beginning of another adventure!

5 Replies to “Birthday in the Sky”

  1. Firstly, happy belated birthday Zak.

    Wow this is so interesting, you are taking me to places I am unlikely to ever see. I really want to go to Machu Picchu so if you wouldn’t mind …………

    Just think of the tales you will have to tell when you’re old and grey.

    Looking forward to the next chapter.

    Take great care of each other.


    1. Thanks Sue.
      I have always wanted to do Machu Picchu too, but I may have to do the train rather than the hike… as the ‘old’ and ‘grey’ is creeping up on me.

  2. Happy belated birthday big guy! Catching up on your travels. Looks great!!!

    Keep it up and stay warm!! Pic with your Blade Runner jacket dude!

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