Two weeks ago we flew Darrell Wade (Intrepid founder) and his wife Anna (from our not-for-profit organization The Intrepid Foundation) into the Nepalese Himalayas. We wanted to see the effect our Earthquake Appeal campaign was having on the ground, check in with some of our Nepal friends and assess trekking conditions on the routes we use. It was an eye opening experience.
Our ultimate goal is to get travellers to return to the mountains, once it’s safe to do so. And for anyone interested in the reality of post-earthquake life in Nepal, or for any travellers thinking of trekking there in the near future, Anna’s story below makes for some pretty fascinating reading.
Flying into Kathmandu, it seems superficially untouched. Buildings are still standing, but scattered around in nearly every open space are splashes of aqua, yellow and orange. These are the plastic sheets used to create temporary homes, not just for those who have lost their houses, but for those fearful to return for fear of aftershocks.
Despite many people returning to their ancestral mountain villages to help, Kathmandu feels filled with bustling, colourful life. At Park Village Resort, ten kilometres North East of the centre of the old town, the Intrepid team are re-establishing a home base. The Kathmandu Guesthouse they were staying in was being demolished brick by brick. The workers, wearing cheap plastic shoes and colourful headdresses, balance many floors up, pounding the concrete floors with sledgehammers.
Nick, our general manager in Nepal, and his wife Belinda tell us that in the days following the 7.9 earthquake on April 25, Park Village took in not just the 100 Intrepid travellers, but also many others who were needing refuge. They were in tents for the first few days. With the travellers returned home safe, Nick and his family now sleep inside with their vital possessions packed in a bag by the door so they can grab them on the way out if a tremor goes on too long.
Belinda has made a safe and fun place here, not just for her boys but also for many of the neighbourhood kids as well. After school they swim, play soccer and help her cook endless batches of cookies. A calm oasis in an unpredictable world.
The town of Sanku
Visiting Sanku is confronting. This beautiful town overlooking Kathmandu was once filled with large homes built centuries ago, decorated with intricate carved windows and doorways. Families had lived in them for generations.
Some of these buildings are merely damaged by the quake, while others have been reduced to rubble. The government has offered no help yet, so locals are doing the demolition work and rebuilding as best they can. Families have been forced to sell their beautiful woodwork; they can get $3000 for these antique pieces, enough to make a start on rebuilding.
Meanwhile they are living in what are effectively tin sheds and tents.
Dawa, one of our local operators, tells me he used to wag school to come up here to drink chhaang, Nepali rice beer, with his friends. A lady sees us taking photos and asks what will we do to help? “No one has come to help,” she said as she, her husband and her tiny daughter moved bricks. An old man stands looking lost on top of a huge pile of rubble that may have been his ancestral home. Many people died here. You can see the sadness in Dawa’s eyes.
Sarendra, our helicopter pilot, is dressed in a blue jumpsuit and aviator sunglasses. He looks like a Nepali Tom Cruise, handsome and smiley. He recounts stories of how he helped with the recovery of bodies from Base Camp after the avalanche.
The sky is hazy, as is typical at this time of year. Almost immediately after we leave the Kathmandu airport we are flying over small villages that have been devastated by the earthquake. Kathmandu itself seemed relatively intact. Damaged but by no means wiped out. These little hilltop villages on the other hand have lost most of their buildings. Tarps are spread over ruins and used as makeshift tents. I had heard from Dawa that his village was badly affected. It is one day’s drive and three days walk from Kathmandu, which means three days walk from anywhere.
Arriving in Lukla, the jumping off point to the trek to Base Camp, we’re greeted by local kids photographing our landing on their iPads. Many containers of fuel are unloaded and we’re able to take off again. We need to be lighter to go higher. The plan had been to drop two of us at a hilltop monastery to lower our weight even more, but the field we were to land on has been overtaken by tents. Many still don’t want to sleep inside. We make our way up toward base camp.
The clouds are low and our vision is blocked. We won’t be getting as far as Base Camp. Sarendra, our pilot, diverts around the back of the mountain and we can feel Everest looming over us wrapped in cloud. We fly over a brilliant aqua lake and look up at walls of snow.
On the way back to Lukla we can see that there seems to be little damage to the small towns on the steep rock tracks. Indeed the tracks themselves seem intact. People are crossing the swing bridges that crisscross between the mountains. It’s an encouraging sign for the tourism industry, an industry that is essential for the Nepalese economy.
Back in Lukla to refuel, we tuck into a massive breakfast of omelette and rosti in a courtyard full of roses and daisies. Having seen trekkers on the paths, the mood is good, and Lukla itself seemed to have avoided the worst of the quakes. Business ideas for how to get people back to Nepal are tossed around and met with enthusiasm. There is a feeling of optimism.
Nepal will be back.
Intrepid is donating all profits from its 2015/16 Nepal trips to earthquake efforts on the ground. To learn more about how you can help, check out the campaign page here.
Feature image Mike Behnken, Flickr