Friday, 16 October 2015

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Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Nepal Earthquake - 80 Life-Changing Hours in Kathmandu

In a departure from the normal posts you usually see at The Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet, what follows is an account from a previous guest poster, MikeC, of his time in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu during the recent devastating earthquake to hit the country.  A big thank you to MikeC for his willingness to share his story with the readers here.  I hope you find it as engaging, thought-provoking and life-affirming as I did.

If you are keen to see MikeC's previous work, follow the link below to hear about his amazing journey through the less-travelled parts of Northern India. 

'Northern India...Off the Beaten Track'


Background to the events...
At 11.56am on the 25th April 2015, Nepal was hit by a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The epicentre was close to the town of Gourka mid-way between the major tourist hub and trekking jump-off point of Pokhara and Kathmandu. I was in Kathmandu at the time, preparing to depart for a month’s climbing in the Himalayas. This is my description of events taken from diary entries from the quake up until I was able to get out of Nepal, some 80 hours or so later.

The day of the earthquake...
I had just returned from some last minute shopping to get some things I needed to go climbing; some snacks, and the odd piece of essential clothing. I returned to the hotel and my friend Neil and I agreed to have half an hour to sort things out, have an early lunch and then head over to one of the Stupas in Kathmandu. A few minutes later, everything changed. Sitting on my bed for a few minutes reading, I initially felt a small vibration and the power went out. Being a common occurrence in that part of the world, I momentarily gave it little thought. That quickly changed when the full force of the earthquake hit. When the shock started, I decided to get out of the room and out of the hotel. I ran down the corridor, down the stairs and into the reception of the hotel where I was able to hold onto a supporting wall under a lintel. I remember looking outside and seeing walls, buildings everything collapsing around me. The shaking went on for about a minute, although at the time, it felt much longer.

Once the quake stopped, we got out of the building and went onto the street, fearing aftershocks. Once on the road, a realisation of the damage started to hit home. Power lines were down, walls and buildings had collapsed, power was out, there was no phone reception. We went to a small car park; away from power lines and tall buildings and waited. Among us were many locals and foreigners. Most of whom were scared, confused and wondering what had just happened and whether it would happen again. Many people had injuries, thankfully none too severe, but some help was provided. There were two aftershocks while we were in the car park, during the second of which we met Hana, a South Korean girl who was travelling on her own and was understandably terrified.

(source - MikeC)

Making a plan...
After spending an hour or so in the car park, we talked and decided upon a plan. Many people didn’t do this, and I believe this made our lives over the following days far easier than they could have been. Preparation in these situations is key and taking a few minutes to take stock and assess a situation can save your life. We decided that we needed supplies and to be safe. We returned to our hotel which was still standing, I gathered a survival bag consisting of water, food, clothing, water purification tablets and medical supplies. We then went to Hana’s hotel so she could do the same. On the way, we saw complete devastation, collapsed and subsided buildings, more power lines down, cracks in pavements, roads and buildings as well as lots of people shocked by what had just occurred.

(source - MikeC)

Shortly after our thoughts turned to friends in Kathmandu. Both for ensuring they were OK as well as getting some local advice on what to do and where to go. Fortunately having spent a long time in Kathmandu over the last 12 years, I know the city well. So, we decided to set out for my friend, Basant’s office (as we couldn’t get any signal on our phones). It was a half-hour walk past more destruction. We got to Basant’s office around 3pm, but there was no one around. We spoke to one local who said he knew him, but had not heard anything. So, we decided to keep moving and get away from buildings. We headed down to Ratna Park, open, safe and with lots of people. This would give us chance to take stock. On the way, we walked past the clock tower in Kathmandu, the clock frozen at 11.56am. A poignant reminder of what had happened only a few hours ago.

The Clock Tower - 'stuck' at 11.56am (source - MikeC)

Taking stock of things...
In the park, we were able to sit and take stock. We didn’t want to go and had nowhere to go to. Neil was able to barter an old pair of sunglasses for some tea; we had a couple of drinks and talked about what had happened and what we thought was going to happen. There were a few more aftershocks, but none too bad. We waited until sunset, but decided to head back before it got too dark. We knew there was a small, but open café close to our hotel and there might have been a working Internet connection. On the walk back we saw further destruction. Buildings collapsed, shell-shocked people sitting on the side of the road, people trying to gather what they could from the ruins of their houses and their lives and people looking for loved ones. The realisation of what had happened perhaps starting to sink in.

Telling the world I was alive...
We returned to the hotel and café and somehow was able to get online. Of course, Facebook was inundated with messages, posts, comments etc. We were all able to get a message out to people that somehow, by some inexplicable piece of luck, karma; call it what you will, we were all alive. We remained in the café until around 11am, taking advantage of social media and electricity while we had it. We also had a hot meal, not knowing when we would do so next. After much discussion and consideration, we decided to go back inside. In hindsight, this was one of the two mistakes I made during the four days – I’ll get to the other later. We did however pack our bags carefully with all equipment in/attached to it. To say we slept is an overstatement, we rested, but a number of small aftershocks as well as nerves kept me awake. Around 5am, a 5.6 aftershock hit us which sent us scrambling out of the building and me cursing myself for my stupidity and putting us in danger.

Day two...
We spent the next few hours in the café garden, still with Wi-Fi, but little else. We were able to update people about our condition and to formulate our next plan. We had heard a rumour about the British Embassy wanting to make contact with British Nationals and that they were formulating a plan. At the time we believed this was true; this was the second mistake I made – as time went on, we learnt how quickly misinformation and rumour can spread. We made it to the British Embassy, I spoke to the Commanding Officer – the embassy is quite militarised and it run by the Ghurkhas. The Officer told me him and three staff were looking after 158 British Nationals, they had little to offer, but said they could take myself and Neil in, but Hana, being South Korean would understandably not be allowed in. It was also suggested we go to the airport and the South Korean Embassy.

It was here that we saw the worst of people. It was the only time. Overall, I was blown away by the kindness and generosity of people – I’ll get onto that, but this was the one time I witnessed exploitation of the situation. The taxi journey to the South Korean embassy would usually be a few hundred rupees, maybe £3. When I finally found a taxi driver, who would go, they wanted 1500 rupees per person. After an exchange of expletives, he left and we abandoned that plan and went to the airport. Unfortunately, 10000 other foreigners had the same idea. The airport was chaos. No one knew what was happening, no staff had turned up as they were either injured, dead, or had gone to check on/look for their family. We quickly decided to abandon that plan and head back to Basant’s office. Thankfully when we arrived, he was alive and well. We discussed what had happened and were able to get a copy of an albeit small newspaper. It told us of the death toll, but we all knew it would rise.

Making a plan to get home...
We started to discuss onward flights and getting home. After calling home on Basant’s somehow working landline, I tried to call the airline, but at 12.50pm mid-call a 6.5 aftershock sent us running outside, by the time we were able to go back inside, the line was dead. We realised we needed somewhere to stay, which wasn’t inside. Next to the office was a small park run by a group of Hare Krishna’s who had a commune for people of all faiths and beliefs. They very kindly welcomed us to live with them. They couldn’t offer much, just a piece of grass and a tarpaulin for a roof, but it was a wonderful gesture, one which we will never forget.

After getting settled and speaking to some of the others in the park (we were the only foreigners), I decided we needed another plan. While the airport was no use, maybe the airline offices would be able to help. We found quickly however that they were all closed; staff having gone home and many without power. It didn’t take us long to abandon the re-booking plan and decided that buying any flight out was the best solution. This of course would only work with an Internet connection. By this time the power in the café had run out, so we went on a Wi-Fi hunt with dying batteries and no way to charge them. Hana knew of a Korean café which according to some people she had met still somehow had working Internet. We tracked it down and amazingly it worked! We were partly relieved, but knew we had many more obstacles. The first being the structural integrity of the building. It was standing, but a number close to it had collapsed and were dangerous, so we didn’t want to linger. Just before the battery died, I was able to get a flight booked with Qatar Airways for Tuesday evening which was a great relief. Hana was able to get one for herself for the following morning. We were overjoyed and left to go back to our new home in the park.

Helping others...
On the precarious walk back past unstable buildings and through dangerously narrow streets; we met a group of Czech people who had just got back from their trek, but having missed the force of the quake. Their hotel was unusable and they were in need of shelter and accommodation. We suggested they came with us and they were delighted at the offer of somewhere to stay. They were well equipped for camping and mostly self-sufficient which was great as none of us wanted to overly burden our hosts. We returned to the camp to be given a plate of rice with a few vegetables. A moving gesture given what the people had gone through. We felt touched that as complete strangers, the generosity of those who had nothing extended to giving us a warm meal.

(source - MikeC)

Exhausted people began to bed down for the night around 10pm, but none of us really slept, the pouring rain, the aftershocks, the nervous conversations of people and the general apprehensiveness made sleep elusive for a second night. Around 5am the following morning some people left to assess their homes. For most the news was bad and they would be forced to return.

Day three...
Later than morning, I went in search of food. We had mostly been living of energy bars and peanuts and I felt some fruit or vegetables would not only prove a welcome break but keep us healthier. I was beginning to worry about the outbreak of disease, there was no running water, the sewers had backed-up and rubbish was piling up. I was able to find some fruit from a market which was a great relief. It was more expensive than usual, but not overly so. I was impressed at the self-control of people for not panic-buying. I believe the good-nature of Nepali people and the concern for others maybe prevented hoarding. Such discipline and concern or others, I don’t believe would have existed in the West.

Assessing the damage...
We decided to go and assess the damage around Kathmandu, gather a few more missing possessions and get a better idea of what was happening in the rest of the city. We were able to find a couple of restaurants and cafes which were somehow functioning. Somewhere to get a cup of coffee and a meal was a great relief. Not only for our own well-being but also because we didn’t want our hosts to feel obliged to waste food on us.

We returned for our last night to the park and spent time talking to the locals. Much of this was dedicated to dispelling rumours. Rumour, we learnt was one of the biggest problems here. A lack in knowledge about earthquakes meant people believed all sorts of stories most of which lacked any scientific evidence. Many times we heard people saying ‘there will be another earthquake at 3:30pm. This was of course complete rubbish, but created panic and hysteria. A few basic lessons in plate tectonics gave some of the locals a little more comfort in understanding what was happening and why it was happening. This was the first evening when we heard planes and helicopters flying overhead. Mostly aid planes and helicopters flying to the mountains to rescue people stuck. It was a reassuring sound to hear, but didn’t make sleep any easier.

Day four – time to leave...
The following morning was sunny and warm. I decided to take a short stroll around to assess what was going on. Not much had changed, but a few people had begun to go home. I saw a few Red Cross tents, but little else. The Government had begun to deliver water in large tankers and people were (again without panic) filling up containers. This was the morning of our flight and knowing the chaos of the airport, two days previously, I wanted to give ourselves a lot of time. After meeting Basant, changing clothes and getting ready, he asked if I could take one of his volunteers, Giulia, to the airport as well and help her. Around 9:30am, we set off for the airport expecting the worst and in no way assuming we would be leaving. Check in for Qatar Airways was easy, Etihad for Giulia was anything but. The previous day’s flight had been diverted to Delhi as there had been too many planes on the tarmac for it to be able to land. While of course the aid was needed, the clogging up of the airport probably caused as much harm as good. Much of the blame of this has to fall on the Indians for acting without thinking. Eventually we were all checked in, through security and ready for departure. We all had a few hours nervous delay as more rumours spread about cancellations, but in the end we were all aboard our respective flights and heading home to great relief, exhaustion, but also a fair amount of survivor guilt.

Emotional effects of leaving...
Things for me really hit home when I landed in Doha, firstly seeing lights on, having electricity and Internet was all very unusual. I walked past a restaurant in the airport around 1am and it was full of people eating, drinking, relaxing and doing normal things, a few snoozing on their chairs. I thought back to the last 4 days, could there be a greater juxtaposition in any given period of time?

The day I returned home I went to the supermarket to get some things which I had had to leave behind. I ended up walking past the vegetables and found myself looking at the mushrooms. For no particular reason I don’t think, but I remember looking and thinking, what has happened to our world where people demand to have a choice between eight different types of mushrooms while most of the people I had been living with the last few days probably won’t eat tonight. Many of the injustices in the world came crashing home at that point. While I don’t think of myself as an overly materialistic person, this experience has taught me so much about the world and what we deem important. It has also taught me the kindness and compassion which most people have. It also reminded me of the importance of being prepared. I’m not talking about constantly remaining on edge expecting something to happen, just that when it does; taking a few minutes to take stock and consider your options so you can make informed decisions can be the difference between life and death.

MikeC - Safe and Well (source - MikeC)

Personal thoughts and advice...
For whatever reason, my hotel didn’t collapse while others did. That is just the way things happened, there is nothing you can do about that, but you can be prepared to make decisions. We were, others were not. Everyone suffered, we, I believe suffered less as we were prepared and didn’t panic. I hope that no one has to go through what we and the people of Nepal have recently gone through, but if you do, take stock, come up with a clear plan of action, don’t make rash decisions, take rumour with a big pinch of salt and be prepared. Water, clothes, high energy food, water purification tablets, medical kit and a solar charger for your phone are all vital things and can keep you alive. A pen and paper with phone numbers and addresses of travel companies, embassies, the emergency services are all indispensable. For me, being able to write my experiences also made a big difference in enabling me to re-tell this story so that I can share my experiences and hopefully help to prepare you for what might happen if you are unfortunate enough to experience anything similar.


The relief effort to help the people of Nepal is a huge task.  The priority is to help those in need now; those caught up in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.  Based on who he saw 'on the ground' in Nepal, MikeC has suggested the following charities, should you want to donate to help those affected by this catastrophic event.

Medecins Sans Frontieres -

The International Red Cross

Water Aid

Sunday, 15 February 2015

An Ethiopian Trek (A Guest Post by Calum)

He's back!  After writing about Berlin in November 2013, Calum has returned!  Only this time, we find him in Africa, exploring the magical beauty of Ethiopia; a destination that is growing in popularity as more and more travellers take advantage of the good connections to the country and begin to realise what this fascinating country has to offer!


Read any piece written by travellers to Ethiopia in the past 10 years and your preconceptions will be blown away. The country is still poor but news pictures from starving refugee camps are long in the past. Instead think lush green countryside, awe inspiring landscapes and a country rich in cultural and religious sites. From rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, to the claimed home of the Ark of the Covenant in Axum, the North offers much for the 21st century traveller, though infrastructure remains in the early stages and getting around can be hard.

My friend James and I spent two weeks backpacking around Ethiopia’s Northern circuit taking in Addis Ababa, Gonder, Axum, Lalibela and the Simien Mountains National Park. It provided just the inspiration I’d been looking for to offer up another piece of writing to The Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet. Below is a short snapshot from three days in the middle of our trip.

...Our pick-up arrived outside the L-Shape hotel in Gonder at 7 a.m. Despite the slightly charred omelette served for breakfast, and the two hour power cut the day before, the L-Shape had offered a relatively pleasant stay. A stylish looking chap with dreadlocks jumped out the van and enthusiastically introduced himself — “I’m Yur Kuk, and I’ll be trekking with you over the next few days”. An unusual name, I thought. James and I jumped in and the van pulled off. It went round a few streets before pulling over to the side where Yegsaw jumped in behind us.

The road into Gonder on the day before setting off on our trip (Source - Calum)

Yegsaw had organised our three day trip to the Simien Mountains the previous day but now he looked a tad nervous. “The rest of the group have cancelled”, he said. “I’m going to have to ask for some more money, another $25 perhaps”. The atmosphere went cold. Yegsaw had offered us a good deal on the basis of having another group of trekkers we could join. He began mumbling about how one of the group was ill and they’d had to delay their trip.

“You’re asking us for another $25?”, I said, after a few minutes awkwardness in the van.

“The cost is higher because the others in the group have cancelled.”

I wasn’t enjoying the news. “If the others have cancelled that’s not our problem. We agreed a price and you were happy to take money from us last night. You took on that risk.”

“Well the cost is higher and I need to ask you to pay more.”

“Well, how about we stop the van, cancel the trip and we get out here. You can refund our money and we’ll find someone else to arrange our trek.” I looked at James and he didn’t look pleased either. Neither of us wanted to cancel the trip — we only had two weeks in Ethiopia and it was a struggle to squeeze in a three day trek as things were. We were both not very chuffed with our agent Yegsaw at this point.

“I don’t think you should cancel, but I do think you should maybe consider paying a little more”. Yegsaw seemed slightly less sure of himself now. I told him we wouldn’t be paying any more. At that point he said goodbye and exited the van, leaving us with the driver and Yur Kuk.

We’d had a frosty start to the trip but we were to have some fantastic adventures over the next three days. The scenery was breathtaking throughout; we had lunch by the river whilst families of Gelada baboons crossed in front of us, saw Jinbar waterfall with a 500 metre drop and witnessed the most spectacular views from Imet Gogo at 3926m. Our guide and scout, Mesi and Moulali, looked after us well. It transpired that ‘Yur Kuk’ had actually introduced himself to us as the camp cook. Much to my embarrassment I’d invented him a new Ethiopian name. He was a mysterious character whose real name we weren’t to find out, but he made the most fantastic pancakes and coffee for breakfast and prepared supreme meals each evening when we reached camp.

Gelada baboons walk along the escarpment in Simien Mountains National Park (Source - Calum)

There was one thing we’d been nervous about the whole trek. Yegsaw had promised to arrange us travel to Axum, our next main destination. We were to stay one night in Debark following the trek before travelling on. After our exchange with Yegsaw in the van we were much less confident that the travel arrangements would come through.

After three days trekking we were picked up and driven out of the park, onward to our hotel in Debark. It was a miracle to have a shower after three days away, but now we had business to attend to — we had to decide what to do about our planned, or possibly not planned, journey the next day.

I began asking around the hotel for information. If Yegsaw hadn’t arranged our transport the next day how would we get to Axum? As always in Ethiopia, things would be slightly complicated.

A bus left Gonder at five-thirty each morning for Shire, passing through Debark sometime between 7 and 9 a.m. This would take us most of the way and from Shire we’d arrange a minibus ride the final two hours to Axum. However, as the bus usually set off full from Gonder we’d be unlikely to get a seat in Debark. To secure a seat we’d have to have someone travel the Gonder-Debark part of the route on our behalf. Our hotelier could call back and arrange for someone to get on the bus there, but on top of the bus ticket this would involve a fee. The arrangement sounded slightly odd but it did correspond with information given in the Lonely Planet guide. I decided this would be a good time to call Yegsaw for a chat.

Yegsaw’s English was good enough for him to have sold us a three day mountain trek but otherwise fairly basic. Unfortunately my Amharic is completely non-existent. I did manage to ask Yegsaw how he was going to deliver our tickets. I expected him to ask us for more cash. Instead he said: “Be at the bus station tomorrow morning at seven, they’ll be there”. There didn’t seem much else we could do.

On the main road through Debark (Source - Calum)

Other than being a place to await onward transport Debark offers little for the traveller. We sat down in the hotel restaurant and ordered ‘Pasta and Meat’ — possibly the least risky looking option on the menu — before heading back to our room. Tomorrow we’d find out whether our bus journey would come through.

Less than ideal surroundings in Debark (Source - Calum)

7 a.m. at Debark bus station is miserable, utterly miserable. James and I arrived with our packs. The hawkers seemed to leave us alone once we confidently told them we already had people looking after us. If only they knew. Debark was a basic town and if the dusty high street full of corrugated iron shacks had little to offer then the bus station had even less. Agents shouted ‘Gonder-Gonder-Gonder-Gonder’ as minivans came and went. Carrion picked on the animal vertebrae on the ground to my left. I didn’t feel hungry at all.

Two hours later the bus finally pulled in, did a turn-around and stopped. The engine kept running — I imagined the driver wouldn’t dare turn it off given how much trouble it might take to restart — and a young boy jumped out the side door to pop a brick chock behind the front wheel. Passengers began getting off to stretch their legs and behold, our man with the tickets was there!

Always tip the man who loads your luggage. You really want it to be strapped on tight! (Source - Calum)

The bus waited in Debark for thirty minutes before setting off. It turned out this would be the only stop. I had no idea how long the trip to Shire would take but I’d read minivans for Axum stopped leaving at five in the afternoon. Driving in the dark is dangerous in Ethiopia and the risk of hitting livestock is high. In addition, many vehicles on the road don’t have or don’t use lights and head-on collisions are commonplace. There’s a much higher likelihood of encountering bandits too. We had no idea how long the journey would take but we were sure we should be there by 2pm. On the map the distance from Debark to Shire looked 100km as the crow flies. Surely it couldn’t be much more than that by road.

Three o’clock and still Shire was nowhere in sight. We’d approach villages, “this must be it, it must be”, I’d say, but no, the bus would carry on through. Checkpoints seemed to be becoming more frequent. Police officers would stop the bus, get on and check everyone’s identity cards. A few times they made us all get off and stand outside though I’ve no idea why. An hour later we began entering a much larger town than the rest. ‘This must be it, this really must be it.” Inda Aba Guna the sign said. There was still another 20km to go.

From left: James, Mesi, Moulali and myself (Source - Calum)

Taking the harder road often offers the richest rewards. It’s two months since I arrived back in the UK yet I’m still continually reminded of contrasts between Ethiopia and home. Taking a comfortable car journey up the M5, browsing the shelves in the local supermarket or even just being able to flick a light-switch with some confidence the lights will actually come on. Things will become easier as time goes on but I firmly believe the richest possible experience to be had in Ethiopia is now.