Aftermath of Kathmandu
Experiences in Survival by a Backpacker caught amongst the chaos in Nepal.
On the 23th of April I found myself back in Kathmandu after a long trek up in the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp and a mountain called Island Peak. I was physically exhausted, having pushed myself over the last few days to make it back from a climb. Previous two days had me summiting a 6000m peak and trekking 60km to make it to Lukla airport in order to get back to Kathmandu as soon as possible. I was well ahead of schedule and just spending my time in Kathmandu recovering and enjoying the vast choice of cuisines at cheap prices.
The next day was spent wandering around the streets of south Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu, a one kilometre square built up area of tall buildings and dark thin streets and alleys. Filled with nothing but restaurants, hotels, and shops mainly selling trekking clothes and equipment it was a haven for tourists. I wandered down to Durbar Square, the heart of old cultural Kathmandu and sat under the towering temple watching locals and tourists alike peacefully walk by for hours. I intended to come back to this world heritage site in the next few days due to the large amount of time I had in Kathmandu so I did not explore it as much as I usually would have done.
After sleeping in late on the 25th, I decided to have a look at the Narayanhiti Palace Museum. The palace, which was the residence of a lot of the countries old monarchs, was converted to a museum immediately after the country was declared a republic. It contained all of the old royal families treasures and seeing the wonder on the face of locals who a few years ago could not dream of such riches was as priceless as the jewels themselves. I continued through and out the palace into the palace grounds and around a large circular pool. Seconds later the earthquake hit.
I had no possessions on me bar $10 in my pocket
I immediately knew this was a big one, the initial shaking started quickly and violently. Luckily I was near a post in the ground and could grab onto that to steady myself. Seconds later the main part of the earthquake hit and started throwing everyone around. The air was filled with the deep groaning sound of buildings and earth reluctantly moving punctuated by the cries and screams of people. Looking back I could see a great wave of water 5 feet high swirling around the pool, knocking people over. The shaking was so violent that most could not stand on their two feet and fell to the ground.
Children were crying and the faces of adults were filled with fear and shock
A great cloud of dust fell over me as the earth continued to slowly rock from side to side. Because I was inside a restricted area I had no possessions on me bar $10 in my pocket, and I immediately realised the importance and priority of getting such items. While locals were gathering their families and composure while moving outside, I was sprinting back around the palace building towards the guardhouse at the front where my phone and camera were sitting inside a locked box. I quickly found all buildings were evacuated and instead of waiting — jumped through the window inside to collect my stuff. With that in hand I then headed back towards my guesthouse (and my passport) which was hopefully still standing.
The streets of Kathmandu were packed with people all desperately trying to call home to family. Children were crying and the faces of adults were filled with fear and shock. I came across a power pole that had fallen on the roof of an unlucky taxi, it’s driver sitting outside looking remarkably unscathed. As I entered the tourist district of Thamel with its tall thin buildings that seem to hang over the this streets, I was incredibly afraid of the effects of a sudden aftershock. I sprinted up the stairs of my guesthouse to my room and gathered what I later dubbed my ‘go bag’. FIlled with necessities I needed, like my passport, money, charger for my phone, any food/water, knife, headlamp, and medication including water purifying tablets — it was ready to go with me at a second’s notice all the time. I left the remainder of my gear in my room and got out of that building as fast as I could.
What do you do in the hours after a major disaster?
I had sent a sms message to my mother as soon as I had collected my cell phone but now I tried to send or receive more messages. The cell phone networks were over capacity however and any attempts to send a message or connect a call were futile. 2 hours of trying later I managed to get a call through to my Dad, After quickly telling him that I was fine and had my passport and money, he gave a warning back about aftershocks before getting cut of. All in all the call lasted 18 seconds, the last time I talked to my family before I got home many days later.
What do you do in the hours after a major disaster? In the company of some Australians I walked down to a hospital to see some damage. This proved too much for me, the screams of families standing over bloody bodies lying in the streets outside, the wail of horns of every type of car bringing in more injured survivors (I hope) from Dharahara tower and Durbar square. We walked back to calmer areas depressed by our inability to help.
Among fellow tourists there was confusion on what the next step would be, many believed that Kathmandu’s tourist infrastructure would be back running in a few days, some of these intended on waiting out the chaos and continuing their plans like nothing had happened. Most tourists however, were very naive in their belief of the effects of aftershocks. Many, even days later, believed of some 72 or even 24 hour rule where the aftershocks will lessen substantially after such a time period and it would be safe to return to normal life and habits inside. I just had to remind them of the delayed effect of the devastating 2011 February earthquake in New Zealand to dash these hopes.
Uncertainty was the only certainty in the aftermath.
I formulated a plan that night to head to the embassies to seek refuge. I hurriedly gathered my bag and the rest of my items and started walking towards the British Embassy (There is no New Zealand Embassy in Kathmandu) which luckily took me in. By the evening there were over 130 tourists packed in this eden and so non-commonwealth members were been turned away at the gates. Rumours that day were that the US Embassy was not even allowing US nationals into their Embassy.
Everybody in Kathmandu was on edge that first night, nobody slept peacefully. Throughout the night aftershocks would hit and wake everyone, children would start crying as the ground slowly shook from side to side. Every local in Kathmandu was sleeping outside that night, to afraid to return to their homes. Parks, roads, intersections and courtyards were covered with tarpaulins and families wrapped up in all the blankets they could find. That night a country mourned and worried for their future.
The next day most tourists in Kathmandu headed for the airport. Everyone was attempting to find a flight out as soon as possible. Luckily, my parents had booked a flight out for the next day for me overnight so I wandered around Thamel. Rubble and collapsed buildings lay everywhere, I came across many locals starting into ruined houses with dried tears on their faces — knowing there was a body buried somewhere beneath the destruction. Durbar square was destroyed, the proud brick temples I had sat under two days earlier lay scattered in a million pieces on the ground. Retracing my footsteps from the day before the quake I came across a huge rescue operation still in progress. Police and Army carried away large stone brick to slowly find survivors beneath, families waited desperately in sorrow on the edge. The earthquake ripped apart a nation.
Many different choices would have me in more dangerous situations, none I can think of would have me in a safer situation.
You cannot imagine the fear that plagued Nepal in the hours after the quake. Any knowledge was scarce. Phone networks were overloaded with people trying to find out if friends and family were okay. Police were overwhelmed by requests and lacked direction. Tourists gossiped for any information about shelter, travel possibilities and food. Most information was sent from family and friends back home in the rare moments that they could reach us. There was no such thing as knowledge or reports then, we gathered information by listening to rumours and then turning those rumours into fact when enough has said them. Uncertainty was the only certainty in the aftermath.
The second night was the worse. After a night at the British Embassy, we were told that we could not return if we left unless it got worse. Therefore I had the problem of finding a place to sleep that night. The tourist district was an unnatural ghost town, a far cry from the raw activity and life that filled it days earlier. Only a few hotels were open, however nobody knew where they were and ‘earthquake inflation’ meant they were out of my reach. Even on those few open hotels I was not comfortable sleeping inside. I was carrying expensive and visible equipment so sleeping in public was not ideal and so I decided against that. Im not sure why I decided upon the following course of action but the lack of water and food combined with the mental strain led me to finding the lowest deserted hotel in Thamel, climbing through an open window and making my way to the roof. After gathering a mattress and blankets from the abandoned rooms I ended up sleeping under the stars with a knife in my hand just in case any looters stumbled across me. Sleep did not come easy that night.
The cell networks remained unusable for days to come. Miraculously, late on the first night my phone received 3G connection allowing a surge of online messages that eliminated my remaining cell phone balance. The day after the earthquake there was only a couple of cell towers that worked in the whole of Kathmandu and to get connected to one I had to walk 45 minutes to a hill to be able to send a sms message — forget about phone calls or 3G. On the 27th phone calls seemed to connect sporadically and by the 28th some 3G data worked. Receiving and sending messages home required sending the message via 5 different mediums and hoping that at least one might make it through.
Friends want to know how I felt on those days, I can only shrug and try to explain the state of mind I escaped to. Then, my biggest concern was what I was going to eat that day? How was I going to get enough water? Where would I receive cell phone reception that day? Each moment was a mental exercise in conserving and accumulating resources vital for my survival. A small open cornerstore in a forgotten part of town might be the only source of packaged food. Another might be the only shop that still had bottled water in stock. Any cellphone signal required stopping for an hour to try receive and send a message home. My food intake then consisted of water and oreos, cooked food was a scarce luxury.
The airport was completely swamped with international flights
On the day of my newly scheduled flight, the 27th, I walked the 5km out to the airport mainly because there was nothing else to do. The airport was still overwhelmed by people, the Indian Government were evacuating their nationals out of the country and so each day there were over 3000 Indians waiting for a flight. People were frightened and desperate to leave, fights were not uncommon as two people vied for a seat and tempers flared.
Tribhuvan International Airport is a basic brick building that houses 20 or so check in desks, airline offices around the back are usually empty and flight staff only turn up to check in passengers before going home. The airport was completely swamped with international commercial and aid flights coming in resulting in a breakdown of organisation. The issue with the airport, causing all the congestion that you would have read about, is that there is only enough tarmac to park roughly 9 jet airliners. Combine that with the turnaround time for an international commercial flight (2.5hrs) or an aid cargo plane (4hrs) and you can begin to understand that while they can land planes easily, parking them is the biggest problem.
My flight was scheduled for 9.45pm on the 27th of April. The day was spent sitting and waiting outside the terminal watching as the hour slowly approached. Roughly four hours before my flight I moved inside the terminal and waited for the airline check in staff to arrive. Time passed and it became increasingly questionable if we would fly at all. A small group of people on the same flight had collected and we all asked our family members home to ask the airline call centre what the status of the flight would be. Paper notices taped up outside had indicated that the plane was schedule to fly, and the departure boards indicated nothing amiss. But soon reports from home filtered through that the flight was cancelled, rumours circled that the passengers on the flight scheduled that morning were still waiting in the departure lounge for their flight to arrive. Throughout this process we met nobody from the airlines staff, saw no notices and received no messages about the plane. There was no communication whatsoever about our flight from the airline.
The remarkable state that I survived the earthquake in means my circumstances are clouded by ‘what-ifs’. In reflection there could be any number of things that could have been different. If I had taken that acclimatisation day in Namche I would have been in Durbar square, potentially ending up under a pile of rubble. If I had followed my schedule at Everest Base camp I would still be on that track, at risk of rockslides and likely stuck at Lukla airport for weeks. If I had been proactive and arranged laundry immediately after I had arrived back in Kathmandu I would have likely lost all of my clothes. If I hadn’t jumped the queue I would have been inside the palace under many chandeliers when the shaking started. Many different choices would have me in more dangerous situations, none I can think of would have me in a safer situation.
Another night was spent with minimal sleep, this time on the dusty concrete floor of the departure lounge next to the biggest pillar we could find. The morning arrived with still no information apart from an acknowledgement of flight cancellation in the form of a paper notice outside the terminal. Waiting had become a normality, we were surprisingly accepting of delays — there was nothing else to do and it seemed inappropriate to think of complaining. But excitement grew as the first airline staff arrived and confirmed that they would be checking in our flight. We were elated, but tried to keep our expectations down, even the staff were not particularly hopeful that a plane would even arrive. But finally, in our hands we held a boarding pass — a massive step in the right direction.
Everyone was desperate to get a seat on that plane
We pushed through immigration and security as fast as we possible, soon after receiving a boarding pass we learn’t that there were two flights issued boarding passes that morning, but only one scheduled to depart at lunch. We didn’t know what flight would leave first or if it would be first come, first served to board the flight. As such, I teamed up with two other New Zealanders and an Australian to work together to get on that first flight. Even though we knew we were checked in on an earlier flight, we prepared ourselves for the worse case of a first come, first served situation. After waiting hours in the departure hall with our eyes peeled on the runway, finally our airline’s plane touched down — 4 hrs late. We sprang into action and followed who we thought was the check-in staff to the gate. When we arrived a considerable line had formed and more were arriving. Passengers were trying to push in and other were getting very aggressive. Everyone was desperate to get a seat on that plane.
Suddenly some check-in staff walked off, there was panic — stay or follow and go and risk not getting on the flight. It soon became clear that the gate had changed and everyone started running to other gates, furiously searching for the staff that had just left. With my height I managed to catch a glimpse of a staff member and we assembled at the right gate, almost at the front of the line. In the end it turned out that it was our flight that boarded, but the panic that resulted because of the lack of information was horrible.
And so, after 31 hrs at the airport waiting, my flight lifted off from Kathmandu and climbed away from the uncertainty and chaos that smothered that city. 6hrs in Dhakar, a day in Kuala Lumpur and many hours later I touched down in Auckland to a world of constant and predictable life — I wanted nothing else.
James Bayly — 8th May 2015