SURVIVING THE NEPAL EARTHQUAKE

Nepal was the first country in Asia to which I was sure I would come back to. They say Nepal stands for Never Ending Peace And Love, and it has the Himalayas, rivers, terraces, and some wonderful locals and travellers. I would love to go back because I left a lot of things unfinished when the Indian tectonic plate decided to push a bit more under the European plate.

I flew to Nepal on the 12th of April 2015. I wanted to celebrate the Cosmonautics day in style. At that point it was three months since I left Australia. When I say left, I mean for good, as I was sick of my office job and needed to change my perspective and see the world from a different angle. I started by exploring the Philippines, which had the best fish and fruit and the quietest beaches, yet it was overpopulated and polluted in Cebu. Next was Thailand, which had beautiful natural landscapes and sweet fruit, yet was overcrowded by tourists and expensive at times. Cambodia had the best mangos and coconuts but I found it to be hostile and dirty. I came to Nepal very excited to get some rest from hot and hectic South East Asia.

In Nepal, I woke up in a different world. It was raining. I stuck my head out of a 5th floor window and could breathe the wonderfully fresh cold air. As far as the eye could see there were brick houses and vertical horizons. As always, I never plan my trip in advance. I figure out what’s good to see and do on the spot. And as I wasn’t born in the first world, I don’t behave like most tourists. If getting to a destination takes less than two hours walking, I don’t take a taxi as most Europeans do. I walk or try to find a local bus. I eat where locals eat, find local markets and shops, and ask locals for advice. Within a couple days, I know how to survive. I quickly learnt that Nepal has good dairy products, great silver jewellery, bronze kitchenware and cashmere. And I learnt that most travellers come to Nepal with two kinds of goals. Most come to trek, and the rest to volunteer, do Vipassana meditation, visit Mount Kailash and partake in cultural, spiritual growth and yoga activities.

Treks are available in different heights, lengths and difficulty levels. The easy ones like Langtang take a week, while Annapurna and Everest Basecamp take two to three weeks. They are much harder, but they are very popular. There are also short treks, like Nagarkot (1–3 days, from Kathmandu) and Poon Hill (3–4 days, from Pokhara). To do a trek, you usually need a guide, who charges $15–20 AUD per day on top of his food and transportation. You don’t need a tent, as you can stay for the night in teahouses, which cost $1 or $2 AUD if you purchase dal bhat tarkari (basmati rice with mung beans or lentil soup and vegetable curry, with spicy pickles) there. You can also hire a porter who will carry your stuff. It’s a good idea to be in a group, preferably of the same speed and tolerance to high altitude. Of course you could always go by yourself, but it’s expensive, and you’d have to prepare to spend a week in the company of one random Nepali man.

I quickly found two American girls and together we went to Nagarkot. We left the hotel at 4AM, to see the sunrise from the hill. We got there by car, walked up 500 meters in freezing morning air past lots of prayer-flags and finally saw them: covered with snow, shining in morning sun, peaks of 8-thousanders. No words, no pictures can come close to describing the feeling you get there. It was the best view I’ve seen in my life. I spent the next six hours going up and down. The guide told me he was doing the Annapurna circuit the next day for two weeks. I got very excited and wanted to join. But the next day when I woke up my whole body was aching, forcing me to stay. In a week I learned that this decision might have saved my life.

By the end of the first week in Kathmandu I felt suffocated and was ready to move on. Trekking officers couldn’t find a group I could join, so I came to one of them and asked him to get me out of there. Luckily, there was a group from Sweden going to the villages of Jyamrung to work on a thesis, so I joined them straight away.

As I got out of Kathmandu, the scenery changed. I noticed a lot of women wearing the colour red, for no particular reason, just because they like it. I had to keep my hands free, to greet people by putting my hands together and saying “Namaste.” And then some simple miracles started happening: a random old lady treated us with buffalo curd when we stopped for rest close to her house. I tried to pay for it, but the guide said it was free. I almost cried. It was the first time in Asia that a local gave something to me for free and didn’t see me as an ATM.

My next day involved five hours on an overcrowded local bus, six hours walking uphill and a night in a teahouse. In the morning we separated from my group and was left alone in a tiny village. I was told that a man will come for me. He came at 9am and we walked down to his house where he lived with his wife, 19-year old daughter, three buffalos and nine goats. No one spoke English. There was no electricity during the day, only for a couple of hours at night from a tiny local hydroelectric station. The place was incredibly beautiful, and I spent four whole days not touching any money, not knowing the time, not using my phone, shepherding nine mountain goats, reading a book about Nepal, walking on terraces, swimming in the rivers and trying to be polite.

In Nepal, transliteration is very unusual. When you speak Nepali words written in English transliteration, locals will not understand you. Once when I was hungry I asked for a carrot in English and Nepali, but the girl could not understand me, and I had to write it down in Nepali letters. They were giving me food, tea for breakfast (black, lots of sugar, which I had to beg to omit), dal bhat for lunch, tea in the afternoon, and dal bhat for dinner, which was served two hours after sunset. The food was delicious, but by the time they served dinner I was always starving, as I was used to eating at 5pm. I asked the woman to let me watch how she cooks, but it seemed like she didn’t want to let me into her kitchen. Maybe it was because I was not from her cast. They still have a cast system. For example, if a man from a higher cast is eating and a man from a lower cast touches him, he has to throw away his food.

When I walked around by myself, people would say Namaste to me and those who knew a bit of English, would ask me where I came from, if I liked Nepal, how old I was, and whether or not I was single. Perhaps I looked too vulgar. Women there are supposed to cover their shoulders and legs, but they can leave their belly uncovered. My clothes were the opposite.

On one of the days a man walked me to the local hospital, so that I could talk to the doctor. The doctor, as he was the only one in the village. The doctor was 24 years old, spent three years studying medicine, and he spoke some English. Communication, finally! He told me lots of stories from local life and his practice. A month before he helped with childbirth. The girl was 17, which is a young age to give birth for the Nepalese. I eventually met the girl. She was very pretty and looked very young. She lived with her husband in a barn with a cow. They had no money or land, so her husband worked the fields every day to earn money for food. Unfortunately his parents didn’t support their marriage, so they weren’t willing to help them financially. Hopefully their love and diligence allows them to escape poverty some day.

The Earthquake

I originally came to Jyamrung to teach schoolchildren, but the semester wouldn’t start for another week. My plan was to go to Pokhara (7–8 hour bus drive), do the Poon Hill trek, and return to Jyamrung after the semester started. I didn’t have a return ticket, and didn’t have any limitations other than a visa that could be easily prolonged. And I wasn’t afraid of the approaching rain season.

The Swedes joined me in the village and the three of us went to Pokhara by local bus (with 20 people on top of the bus that didn’t fit inside) on the 24th of April. We arrived in the evening tired like hell, had dinner at an Indian place and went to sleep. In the morning, it rained, and we walked to the lake, had breakfast at a German bakery, bought overpriced Spanish chocolate and were unusually happy. I had to get some dried mango for the trek, so we went to a supermarket which was downstairs.

And then, all of a sudden, the ground started to shake.

It felt like the world was ending. The shelves started rattling. My first intention was to hide under something, so that nothing from the shelves would fall on me, but I saw people running out and ran after them.

The sound

Imagine the sound of thunder, coming from all directions. From above, from underneath the ground, from far and also very close. I could see the ground underneath my feet moving. My chest tightened. The shaking stopped for several minutes then started again. We all stood there on the street for a couple of hours, afraid to go anywhere. I took pictures of the people around me, and later posted them on Instagram. Someone commented: “Why does that guy look so glad?” I replied: “He’s happy that he survived.”

We didn’t know the extent of the earthquake until we saw the news. The first few days the news was only about Kathmandu. They showed ruins everywhere. And people buried underneath them. There was no phone connection. I couldn’t call anyone I knew in Kathmandu to see if they were alive.

The ground continued shaking. Each day we felt anywhere from three to five after shakes that lasted a couple of seconds each. We ran outside every time. Most tourists slept outside at the back of hotels. Even though we realised we were on a plateau and a bit far away from the epicentre, every time anyone slammed a door, we jumped up to run. Soon we got news from Jyamrung village. The village was gone. It was located less than 60 km away from the epicentre, so they got shook pretty hard. The doctor wrote to me that no houses were standing, most of the animals died, as they were tied inside barns and couldn’t escape. But luckily the people were safe.

Two thoughts made me sick. One, that the goats I was shepherded died in pain, and second was that if I stayed to wait for the school semester, I might have as well, since I usually rested on the second floor and read books at noon.

I had no idea what to do. Pokhara seemed like the safest place on Earth and I didn’t want to go anywhere. But I couldn’t stay there for long. The Swedes and I separated and being alone suddenly felt uncomfortable. The last major quake to strike Nepal was 80 years ago. There were two shakes — one with magnitude of about seven on the Richter scale, and the other, a nine, a week later. I waited for the second shake. I could feel it coming. And it did, several days after I landed in Ukraine. This quake ended up being a 7.9 on a scale, followed by a 7.3 aftershock.

As I wandered around Pokhara at sunset, I looked around and saw the peaks of 8-thousanders in the light of the setting sun. I got up to the roof of the closest hotel and held my breath thinking that these mountains stood as monuments to people who died at their formation.

The next day I decided it was safer to stay in the air than on Earth, so I found a Russian paragliding pilot in Sarangkot. Paragliding and trekking are the two most popular activities in Pokhara and very easy to access. We flew between the broccoli clouds above and broccoli trees below. It was very exciting. I really recommend it. Most tourists have left Pokhara, so the pilot complained that he had almost no clients these days.

At that point, I still had no plan. Then my friends from Ukraine wrote to me that I should notify the Ukrainian consulate of my whereabouts in Nepal, since they were organising an evacuation. I had spent only a few years in Australia but I was forgetting that I’m still a holder of a Ukrainian passport. At first I was very hesitant, as I wasn’t injured and didn’t deserve any help. Also I didn’t want to travel to devastated Kathmandu via a long ruined road. I called them and was told the plane was leaving in two days, which meant I had to leave Pokhara the next morning. When I woke up, I decided to go to a yoga class to calm my nerves through exercise and make a decision. I jogged for 40 mins to see the school that was closed that day and slowly walked back, feeling lost and sad, and stopped in front of a cow (it’s a common thing to see cows wandering the streets). The cow must have felt my tribulation and attacked me, causing two rips in my pants and a huge painful bruise on my leg. I read that as a “get out of here!” message.

The road was surprisingly in order. The local government did a very good job removing the bricks from the roads and opened the roads back up within several days. When I got to the capital at sunset, I saw the apocalyptic city. There was thick brick dust in the air and mud underneath my feet. Many houses had only half of the walls standing. Luckily, my hotel was still standing, storing my two bags. The boys who worked in the hotel were genuinely happy to see me return alive, and welcomed me as a beloved sister, even though we were arguing when I originally left.

Most of the tourists had left, but there were a lot of journalists. I could feel that the people around were different. Half of the souvenir shops opened again, most people returned to their usual jobs, and there was a lot more love in the air. People were kinder and supported each other. I suddenly wasn’t lonely any more. I met several wonderful people — a Russian photojournalist, a Nepali boy who took me to Boudhanath stupa (the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet), and a group from Ukraine.

I felt like I didn’t want to leave at all. But the evacuation time came, and I went to the consulate with my bags. That’s where I found out that the Ukrainian Armed Forces plane IL-76, which was sent for us, was parked in Delhi, India and it was broken.

About 70 people were going to take that plane plus about two dozen journalists. Some of us had to stay at the Consul’s residence, and some planned to spend the night on the floor of the consulate. It was kind of depressing, but they couldn’t let us go back to hotels, as the plane could be ready at any time.

We had no choice but to sit and talk. Everyone told each other their stories.

Twenty people died at the Everest Base camp. Avalanches came down. Tents were dragged away. People ran, many got hit in the head and killed by stones that fell. Before the trek they were instructed that in case of stone fall, they should lie down and cover their heads. But people panicked and ran. Lantang valley was majorly ruined. There were cracks in the ground, and more than 200 people were missing.

At 2AM they took us to a hotel, where we ended up spending two nights waiting for the plane. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Emergency Situations couldn’t decide if it was safe enough for us to fly on the IL-76 plane or if it was better for us to take a charter from Ukraine International Airlines. On the third day I heard a knock on the door. We were finally going to the airport and the long journey began — bus, airport, journalists, waiting for the plane to take of, waiting for the airport to let the plane land, waiting for the airport to give the plane the OK to take off. I was very tired. I was running off very little sleep and didn’t know when the next time I could rest my eyes would be. We took off after midnight and landed in Delhi soon after. They landed there first because the plane was very heavy, and the old airport in Kathmandu wouldn’t allow it to land unless it became lighter. To do that the crew had to leave part of the petrol in Delhi, and come pick it up later.

I got out of the plane. It was dark and hot. I grabbed a blanket and laid down to close my eyes in the plane park. When I woke up, it was light and the sun was rising. I asked a journalist why were still there and he said they had a flat tire. Oh well, at least I got some sleep.

We flew on. I panicked a little since I almost ate all the food I took with me from Kathmandu. The food they offered us on the plane was food for soldiers — canned meat. That’s fine and well, but I don’t eat meat. The plane had wooden benches for seats, and at landing and take off, we were simply told to hold on. The air was tight. It was a bit hard to breathe. The light was too dim to read. Moreover I sat next to annoying journalists who were recording their news at night and arguing with the flight crew.

We parked in Baku for 12 hours because the pilots needed rest. We were taken to a café close to the airport terminal, and I had the best food I’d had in the last four months. They served borsch, and okroshka, and potatoes without spices, and bread. The potatoes in Nepal were always so spicy that it was a relief to have some plain ones. I fell in love with Azerbaijan immediately.

I was still very tired and needed sleep. But I’m a traveller after all, so I only slept for one hour and then went for a walk in the city with the other guys. Baku is very beautiful, and much more European city than I expected. At around midnight we boarded the plane again. At 4am we landed in Boryspil. My epic journey was over.

Travelling often leaves you speechless, either from beauty or horror, but in the end, it turns you into a storyteller. I’ve learnt that new and intense experiences in life last much longer than those that were relatively dull. So get out there. Go to Nepal. Hike some mountains. If you doubt whether or not you can do it, just remember: “some of the world’s greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible.”

Originally written by me for RED magazine.

http://redmagazine.com.au/home/surviving-the-nepal-earthquake/

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