Escape from Nepal
I’ve always loved exploring new parts of the world and in recent years I’ve gotten a little addicted to trekking vacations, where you spend anywhere from 3 days to 30 days hiking up a mountain. Yes this is my idea of fun. I’ve done 3 of these trips already: Machu Picchu, Kilimanjaro, and the W in Patagonia. I love it because the mountains are always take your breath away majestic and they make me feel small in the best way possible. These trips strip me back to the basics. It’s amazing how much perspective you get and how refreshed you feel when you don’t have a constant barrage of information via fb, ig, email, snapchat, etc and when you don’t look in a mirror or wash your hair for a few days. When your only source of entertainment is the view in front of you and your fellow trekkers. The conversations you have go way beyond small talk and the comfortable silences during the hikes are meditative. So it wasn’t a shock to any of my friends and family when I decided to tackle the Annapurna circuit in Nepal on a 18 day trekking trip during my break between jobs. It would be my longest trek so far although not the highest peak only 17,769 feet (Kilimanjaro was a bit higher at 19,341 feet). Nepal is the ultimate mountaineer/trekker destination. With the Himalayan mountains, it had 9 out of the top 10 highest peaks in the world including número uno Everest. Annapurna circuit is regularly on the world’s top hikes list. I know it all sounds very intense, 3rd world country, elevation, weeks on the mountain. The secret to these trips is that everyone thinks you’re hardcore but honestly it’s just one foot in front of another. Especially if you do the trips with good equipment and the support of a guide and a porter. So I really wasn’t worried.
Katmandu where my trip was starting was very far away, 24 hours on a plane with a 10 hour layover and a 12 hour time difference. I felt like I accomplished a lot just by the time I got to my hotel and was reunited with my friend Anita who is my partner for the trip. Of course after we landed, there were a few more loops to jump through, logistics with payments to our trekking company, schedule miscommunications, a 6 hour bus ride to the mountains, and a 3 hour jeep ride along bumpy, curvy trail/road before our trek really begin. In that time, we got comfortable using squat toilets (maybe comfortable is putting it to far but we used them) and eating a lot of rice and beans (dal baht the most popular and cheapest meal in Nepal, it’s delicious)
My first impressions of Nepal was that it was a country full of contrasts. The bustle and craziness of Katmandu vs the quiet of the mountains. The mix of Indian and Chinese culture shows it self in the food (quite delicious), the people, the clothes, and the architecture of the buildings. There’s cell service everywhere including the mountains but sit down toilets and clean drinking water are rare or only for pay. People are very comfortable with tourists but still quite traditional.
The first day of hiking was idyllic, we started the hike at a waterfall! The sun was shining and the mountains which the locals call hills were green and lush. It felt good to stretch our legs after all the plane/bus/jeep time and to be away from all the noise and smells of civilization (especially the smells). We wondered up a windy path, cutting through more small villages sitting on the edge of the mountain and cooing over more waterfalls. Then by mid afternoon our guide declared that we were done for the day. We weren’t even winded! But we happily settled into our basic but clean and charming guesthouse, took our ice cold showers, and got a beer sitting on the patio overlooking the mountains and the village. I remember being shocked that there was wifi in this guesthouse in the mountains but gleeful posted photos and chatted with my boyfriend. We could barely keep our eyes open after dinner and went to bed at 7PM with a lovely breeze and the silence of the mountains.
The next morning, we woke up to the pitter, patter of rain. No problem, we are prepared hikers with Gore-tex rain gear. After a quick breakfast we set out for our second day of hiking. It’s raining hard but not in a hard sharp sleet like way more like a rainfall shower, so I thought it was quite lovely. Walking up the trails with the green mountains and misty rain clouds, I could almost imagine that we were on a quest to the top of a mountain where a temple awaited those who were worthy. I know I watch too many movies but look at this view!
After about 5 hours of hiking in the rain, we stopped for lunch at this lovely little restaurant that was nestled into the cliff side across the river. We had to across a long suspension bridge to get there. It’s a little wobbly but we got across without any mishaps ready to devour some rice and curry.
Just as we sat down with our tea and started to warm up, we felt the first tremors… Now Anita and I are both Californians, so we are used to minor earthquakes but this one got stronger and we started to hear rocks falling. The locals started panicking and running out of their houses. Anita and I followed suit and stumbled out of the restaurant where all the locals were squatting in the open space next to the bridge terrified. We see mothers clutching kids, the cook in the restaurant is literally carrying an onion in one hand and a knife in her other hand as she runs out. Anita and I have left our packs with our passport, water and extra clothing behind. This all happened within a minute and then the second set of shocks came. This time it was clear this village was not the ideal place to be in case of a landslide. The villages and our guide started sprinting across the wobbly suspension bridge. I hate that bridge and had cautiously tiptoed across the first time but this time I ran with everyone else across the river, hoping the bridge doesn’t collapse on our way to the other side. Once we got to the other side, we didn’t know what to do, the adrenaline dies down as did the tremors and while some minor damage happened to some of the houses, everything looked ok? Anita and I were regretting our hasty departure and the loss of our packs… Maybe it’s like the California quakes, a little scary but no big deal? Maybe the locals just aren’t used to earthquakes? I convinced myself it was ok and we all crossed back over the bridge to finish lunch. I know this seems crazy now but pack mentality? I also really wanted my bag. Then of course as soon as we sat down to wait for lunch again, another set of after shocks. This time without hesitation we grabbed our bags and ran across the bridge. Then we saw some big grey clouds roll in only they weren’t normal clouds they were dust clouds from the debris of the landslides all around the mountains.
After this one settled, we agreed that it was best to skip lunch and try to find a safe place. At this point it was really unclear what happened, how bad this was, and what was safe. Our guide was on the phone frantically calling people he knew and we got snippets of updates as we marched up the mountain.
‘Katmandu was hit badly.’
‘All tall buildings are down’
‘Quake was 9.2'
‘Can’t reach family’
We got suspicious of every little tremor, the mountains we enjoyed so much earlier are now our enemies and we expected at any given time to try to outrun a landslide. We bumped into confused and frightened trekkers all along the trail, all trying to figure out what’s next. After another 3 hours at a pretty rapid pace up the mountain, our guide stopped us at a little village on relatively flat land and said this is probably the safest spot. The owner had disappeared though and we see that a huge landslide happened on the cliff side across from the guesthouse though the guesthouse itself seems fine. Anita and I were hungry and shivering. The rain had died down but we were wet from rain and sweat and adrenaline was no longer keeping us warm.
The best news of the day was that Anita gets cell service in Nepal and we were able to send expensive text messages to friends and family letting them know we are ok. She was a sweetheart and lend her phone to fellow trekkers who in exchange gave us information they had and a snickers bar. A Finnish man told us about outrunning a landslide by only about 10 feet. When the owner of the guesthouse finally came back, we were able to get some food and we treated ourselves to a survival beer. The conversation in that small guesthouse was full of anxiety and random bouts of crazy laughter. Anita and I secluded ourselves after dinner to avoid panicking with the crowd. I remember being very cold and after putting on long underwear, fleece pants and fresh sweaters I huddled under the sleeping bag shivering. When we finally got our wits together, Anita had a great suggestion of repacking our day bags for survival. I took out the expensive dslr and stuffed my bag with water, extra battery for the phone, baby wipes, basic toiletries, and extra clothing and underwear. We stayed at that guesthouse for another day and night. During that time there were apparently over 30 aftershocks although only 2 were big enough for me to remember. One was at 5am and as much as I prepped, it took me a long time to get my shoes and jackets on. Another one causes a small landslide on the mountains side across from us the next day at 1pm. In some ways the guesthouse was lovely, they had a lot of food stockpiled and we enjoyed good hot meals. The view was beautiful and we spent a lot of time reading. I was reading the Martian about a man stranded on Mars. It helped realizing his fictional problems were much bigger than mine. But we could never really relax not knowing how we were going to get out of the mountains and with frequent aftershocks. The locals treated us well but our guide wasn’t sleeping and we were the only women at this guesthouse. We started getting a little paranoid, we stockpiled food like boiled eggs and the height of our paranoia was when Anita stole a butter knife from the kitchen and kept it up her sleeve. Our last night at the guesthouse Anita slept in her hiking boots. I took a risk and slept in only socks and most of my clothes.
Finally on day 3 after quake we left the village. Anita and I had discussed our plan and we got news that Katmandu airport is open. So basically we asked our guide to help us get back to Katmandu quickly and safely. That meant a 20–25 km (12–15 miles) hike down to a village called Syange that took us about 6 hours and a 3 hour jeep ride back to Besisahar. The hike wasn’t fun, our guide was jumpy and paranoid. He would frequently walk 20–30 feet in front of us and barely look back. We half jogged down this mountain. By the time we got to town, I had convinced myself that the aftershocks were done. I even unpacked some of my go bag but of course at 2am that nite we got another strong one. Luckily Anita and I are pros at escaping by now, we ran down 2 rackety flights of stairs in our pjs with our packs and phones. We couldn’t sleep anymore that nite and waited until it was time to get on the bus to katmandu.
The drive to katmandu was uneventful until we arrived in the city where we saw the true effects of the quake for the first time. There were buildings that have collapsed, people sleeping on tarp covered tents in parks, thousands of people trying to get out of the city to their family. The city smelled like dust and gasoline. We were lucky enough to get through it all with no problem and to our original hotel in Thamel. The previously bustling tourist area is surprisingly quiet, menus are limited, electricity is coming from generators, wifi is down everywhere, and no hot water. But we are relatively safe and there’s a sit down toilet, so I’m happy. We see rescue crews check into the hotel and tourists empty out.
Anita’s friend booked us a flight out of Katmandu the next morning and after spending as much money as we could in the restaurants and bars that are open, we left Katmandu for the airport. As I write this I’m waiting to see if my flight out lands today. The airport is crowded with people and the runway is full of military and rescue planes. Our flight ended up being 12 hours delayed but eventually we got out of Nepal.
My trip to Nepal is not what I imagined and every tremble still brings me into fight and flight mode. There’s a man on the phone next to me shaking his leg and every time he does it I want to jump out of my seat and run for the nearest exit. I might stay this way for a bit. But I am amazed at the beautiful parts of the mountains I did see and mostly at the discipline the people of Nepal has shown, through all this there’s no pillaging or mass hysteria. People are still trying to do their jobs the best they can. This country is beautiful and it deserves help. So if you can please donate to help them recover. It might be a long while but someday I hope to come back and finish my trek.
Last but not least thank you Anita for being a great partner in crime and not blaming me for picking this location for our trek. Thank you everyone who worried and sent good vibes. In the intermittent bits of Internet I’ve gotten it was so lovely to get all those warm messages wishing me luck.
P.S. It’s been about 10 days since I left Nepal and after a week in Thailand, I’m finally back in the US. I still jump a bit at tremors. But the more important thing is I’ve been following the story of Nepal and I’m worried. There’s a major problem on how aid is distributed. Katmandu is about to experience water and food shortages and they are still digging people out of rabble. However, in the villages in the mountains, majority of buildings have been destroyed and there’s no aid. How do you distribute such limited resources? Even worse, it’s about to be monsoon season. That means heavy rains and landslides, which are far more likely after the earthquake. My friend Dwight is still in Nepal helping. Nepal needs more help before the rain hits them.