Cycling into devastation: the Nepal earthquake
What started out as a cycling adventure, with a ride from Dehli to Kathmandu, became an experience a couple of Australian riders will never forget. One day after completing the journey the plan was to do some sightseeing in the capital of Nepal. What Lucien Keene and Tom Goddard saw was the devastation of an earthquake…
– By Lucien Keene
Find a doorframe. That’s what you’re supposed to do in an earthquake isn’t it? I’m not sure where I heard that advice or why my brain stored it, but I was glad to have some direction when the earth began to shake. How did I find myself on the second floor of a five story building in Kathmandu during one of the city’s most horrific natural disasters? To find out, we have to trace back three weeks as we touch down in northern India with our bikes, some panniers and a plan that simply entailed reaching Kathmandu by 26 April to get our flight home.
Our plan didn’t seem too ambitious as we begun the adventure with a confidence that was dashed after the first two days. Monumental hills and the unfamiliar feeling of riding a loaded bike weighing close to 20kg compared to our 6.5kg road bikes dropped us down a peg or two. Other challenges we met were no coffee available (sometimes not even instant), wearing the same knicks day after day, Delhi Belly and after riding 100km on a loaded bike, you generally don’t feel like sleeping on a piece of wood without power.
Yup, we were away from the creature comforts.
There was certainly no barista on hand serving coffees every morning and there is only so many variations of rice and dahl to be eaten in three weeks, however, in the grand scheme of things these were minor issues in what became an epic Asian adventure. We slowly made our way towards Kathmandu via bicycle, jeep and bus, experiencing rough scenic roads (picture the Indian equivalent of the Forest of Arenberg only take into consideration that it was at an altitude of 3,000m). All the while the generous hospitality from the locals reminded us how special this place is.
Avoiding the major roads meant the areas we rode through had scarcely been visited by foreign tourists. This enabled a rare insight into the daily lives of the locals. We were the talk of the town everywhere we went and it was a special experience interacting with everyone. The kids were so enthusiastic and many attempted to ride our ‘cycles’ despite only reaching the height of our hips.
The tiny town of Sankrati Bazar in eastern Nepal was a particular highlight; perched at the top of a ridge it offered stunning views to Mount Everest and Mount Kanchenjunga in the clear early morning. Our accommodation was $3.00 for the night and our hosts brewed up the best Chai (sugary spicey tea) of the trip thrust into out hands upon waking up. There had been a single German tourist visit the town in February and that had been the only foreigner for the year, we were certainly in an extremely remote area.
Arrival to Kathmandu was a great feeling. Finding a box to pack a bicycle into proved to be no easy feat in a city like this but some prior research led us to an amazing bike shop called Himalayan Singletrack (HST). It was not dissimilar to any Australian shop with a showroom, well-stocked workshop and staff who raced at high level and ran cycling tours in the surrounding area. Even though we didn’t speak Nepalese and their English was very limited, being at the shop on a Friday afternoon while the staff readied the bikes for the Saturday shop ride, it was obvious we were all just riders that shared a common passion.
Cycling bought us together and it happened to coincide with what would become a most remarkable time of us all. Gifts were exchanged, group photos taken and we cleaned and packed our bikes in preparation for our return flight to Australia on the Sunday.
We had earmarked the Saturday to explore Kathmandu, but what should have been one of the more relaxing parts of our journey soon turned into the most stressful. The earthquake hit at around lunchtime as were exploring the city’s sights. We were on the second level of a five story building and, after the initial shock, we raced out to the balcony assuming there was a fire escape. There wasn’t.
It’s impossible to know how you’re going to react in such a terrible situation, and I was lucky to be in the vicinity of an English soldier living in Kathmandu. He assessed the situation and quickly informed us what we were dreading: we had to go back inside the building that was crumbling to pieces so we could get to ground level. While inside, we saw antiques falling and smashing to pieces, cracks appearing in the walls and collapse seemed inevitable but we were some of the lucky ones that day.
We made it out alive. Many others weren’t so lucky.
This is not a situation anyone is prepared for but the soldier and a few locals seemed to have a sense of how to manage. Once outside our building we thought we were in a safe place but then realised there was a hotel parking lot right under our feet. Before long, cracks appeared in the ground and we knew we had to keep moving. Finally, there was a moment of reprieve when we saw some tall trees not far away; we stood beside them believing that the roots had to have some ground to embed into. Still, no where felt like a safe place to be after a quake of this magnitude.
We followed the soldier’s example and he eventually led us to a sports field clear of tall buildings where we sheltered for the night. Even as we stood in the centre, clear of any structures, we saw the entrance to the sporting ground collapse on top of a crowd of 20 people. Everywhere there was carnage and it was obvious how lucky we were to get through unharmed. When we walked back through the streets to see buildings that had been reduced to rubble on the same block as our accommodation.
Over the hours following the earthquake details trickled in about just how damaging it had been. Thamel, the area where most of the the tourist accommodation is, consists of mainly well-constructed buildings that survived but more residential areas that we had not passed through were left in much worse condition as the shoddy brick buildings simply collapsed, many times with people inside.
The Himalayan Singletrack crew had been out on their shop ride, training for the MTB national championships that were meant to be contested the following weekend.And then the earthquake struck. Immediately the guys went into rescue mode and, without the aid of tools, dug a mother and baby out from rubble of a collapsed house. Their efforts continued the following days as they risked their lives to save others all the while using the bicycle for efficient transport around their broken city.
The local bike shop became a temporary shelter for the injured and the homeless. ‘The third place’ indeed! It’s not home, it’s not work – it’s a place you can go and help fellow human beings try and overcome devastation.
We had a sleepless night after we were offered pillows and blankets from a man who lost his seven-day-old child in the disaster… everything about this experience was heartbreaking. But we also saw how generous and brave people can be at a time of utter crisis.
There was an uneasy feeling as we caught our scheduled flight out of Kathmandu with the knowledge we were leaving all the destruction behind after we found ourselves uninjured and able to help. In addition to this, as we sit here contemplating all that happened and writing this summary, the news is not good for the remote communities; we have no way of knowing if our friends in Sankrati are okay or if the town didn’t simply vanish down the side of the hill. It is the hardest thing to look through your camera at the memories of a trip and have absolutely no idea if the kid and his family with the big smiles that gave us so much joy have a roof to sleep under or if they even survived the weekend.
Via social media we were able to learn of Santosh and his team’s rescue missions and that a shelter had been opened at the bicycle workshop providing cooking facilities, beds, water and other essentials.
We have set up a fundraising page so these guys can continue the great work they are doing and every bit will help: Five dollars definitely goes a lot further in Nepal than it does in Australia so please help if you can.
– Lucien Keene
(To donate: visit: nepalcyclistsridetorescue.blogspot.com.au)