This may be my whisky blog, but the events of April 25 are so memorable that I needed an outlet to post my thoughts. So, in an unusual post here’s what happened while I was in Kathmandu in the days following a magnificent trip to Everest Base Camp.
Checkout was midday, so just about on time the three of us made our way down to reception to pay and to sort out leaving our bags at the hotel while we went for lunch and killed some time before our car picked us up to go to the airport. The bill wasn’t quite ready so we waited while the guy behind the counter nipped to the office to sort it out for us. As he returned I suddenly went a queasy and knelt to the ground. I didn’t feel quite right. That’s when it hit.
There was a growing and urgent panic amongst the staff. It suddenly felt like there was a tube train going underneath the hotel – much like the rumbling experienced when indoors in London. Only Kathmandu doesn’t have an underground. It grew into waves. Actual waves. Feeling like I was standing on a ship in rough waters, the staff continued running to the stairwell to ‘escape’ to the basement. P was caught in the rush. I shouted to E to stay where she was as something told me we were in the right place under the doorway. I was already on the floor having been knocked off my feet. It appeared that the whole building pitched to one side.
I’d read about the possibility of earthquakes on the Foreign Office website before we went, and we all knew Nepal was on a plate boundary – that’s why we were here, to see the Himalaya. But we really didn’t consider it a risk; I was more concerned about the 8 hour bus journey and the flight from Lukla.
I glanced to my right and saw a crack developing on the wall of the reception at about head height. Alarming. But then the movement stopped. Scared would be an understatement and many expletives were exchanged as P came upstairs to join us. What was that. Earthquake. F**k.
Unsure of what to do now, and being thoroughly underprepared we started to talk about what had happened and what we should do. The staff went outside to assess damage but quickly retreated as the first aftershock came in. As we huddled together we agreed with E’s plan that we needed to leave. But where to go? The staff wanted to shut the hotel anyway and we didn’t want to return. The airport would be the best bet, eventually. We clamored to pay and left more than we needed to. The staff weren’t bothered about the money, they wanted to flee as did we.
E had done a quick recce and with no immediate danger we lifted all our gear, (how did our porter carry this?) left the the hotel and moved quickly through the side street to the entrance on the road. As we paused to contemplate our route – we wanted to find open space – the most promising route was blocked by a building that had completely collapsed and the locals were hunting for casualties. Knowing no better we decided to go our usual way, through Thamel. We turned around and headed for the narrow streets very aware of the danger and praying that nothing would fall.
Immediately after the hotel junction we passed a wall that E and I had walked past about 20 minutes earlier. It was no more and had crushed a car. The damage was total. We carried on, avoiding the trailing electricity wires and turned the corner. We were blessed by some locals pointing to the entrance to a courtyard and we entered. It was a big open space with lots of Nepalese families and some Westerners. We felt safer, there was nothing in the immediate vicinity that could physically harm us.
The next few hours were excruciating. Every 40 minutes or so there would be another tremor and everyone moved and screamed and watched fearfully. We were lucky. We weren’t injured, we were together and we had all our luggage – the blessing of being packed to go to the airport. The airport, we needed to get there.
We’d already managed to text home, assuring family we were safe after a minor earthquake somewhere in the area. Minor. This was the big one. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake about 35km away had devastated the area. Rumours were already coming about Durbar Square being destroyed and as the afternoon wore on we saw pictures on Nepalese phones of the damage. We would later learn that Langtang was flattened, and Bhaktapur, which we had visited just 24 hours ago, was on its knees with temples and history destroyed. We formulated a plan. If there were no tremors for two hours we would try to make our way to the airport. We knew it was closed, but we had to get there.
I prayed. Standing in the courtyard I prayed that God would keep us safe, that the tremors would stop and that we would be able to get to the airport and leave the country. I asked again and again.
The Nepalese people were so generous. We had lost nothing, they everything. Yet they allowed us to sit on their blankets and offered us their food. It was touching, and that will remain with me for ever.
Three or four hours later things momentarily calmed and we put our plan into action. There had been no aftershocks for almost two hours so we decided to leave. P and E went to assess Thamel and get some water while I looked after the luggage. They returned and we left anxiously walking the narrow streets that were usually full of snarling traffic. Thamel was ok, the damage was minor but as we left it and entered the main road into Kathmandu the damage became more apparent. Electricity pylons were down, the palace perimeter was severely damaged and the road was buckled with cracks.
The airport was closed, there were no commercial flights in or out of the only international airport in the country. Relief flights from India would land throughout the evening so we knew the runway was holding up. We slept on our thermarests, with a foil blanket above us supported by two airport trollies. We wore our Everest gear and we were woken on the hour, every hour as aftershocks continued throughout the night. We felt safe in the car park though as nothing could land on us.
Morning came, and with it a long day of frustration. We stirred from our lack of sleep shortly after 05:30 I think and waited. The earth was still and the airport quieter than the previous evening. The busyness built throughout the morning and we waited for 09:00 to arrive so that we could phone the emergency flight number. Well, P and I could. E had to go into Kathmandu to sort her flight out. The best we could do on the phone was to rearrange them for two or three days time which was crushing. We took them and waited for England to come online so that we could use people at home to help us. I’d always thought that one only needs a credit card and passport to survive but it turns out you need the internet too.
E disappeared into town, back into the earthquake zone to try to fix her flights and we began the communications back home. By a miracle P and I managed to secure a booking on a flight leaving later that day, but devastatingly despite there being room for E we couldn’t book her on as she didn’t have an Indian visa. But we couldn’t leave her alone in Nepal. She needed to get a flight.
That’s when the big aftershock hit Kathmandu, while E was there, in the town. 6.6 on the scale so a lot less than yesterday but the low rumbling and long long movement was gutting. Surely they’d shut the airport and we’d be trapped again. Would we ever leave? We spoke to E mum who had good news – she’s booked E on a flight the day after. E had had no joy in Kathmandu so we broke this news to her. But I couldn’t leave her. Not in Nepal. I tried to get onto her flight but it was full, the only option was to leave two days after E which wasn’t really a possibility. E was adamant that P and I had to go and heartbreakingly we said goodbye.
P and I entered the terminal building. It was about 14:30 and our flight was due to in a couple of hours. We’d heard rumours it was late and was going to arrive by about 18:00 but this did nothing to quell our anxiety. I don’t think either of us though we would actually leave Nepal that day – if there was another aftershock then the airport would be closed again.
The departure lounge was chaos. Well, chaos does not describe it really. Everyone was pushing and tempers were fraying. The situation wasn’t helped by the lack of electricity in the terminal so all of the boarding cards were handwritten! We checked in, not confident that we would fly, or ever see our bags again and headed for security.
We eventually boarded at 23:00, and took off an hour later. Thrilled to be leaving, relieved to be leaving but immensely saddened and praying for E who would leave eventually and safely 24 hours later.