How it Started
On 24th April 2014 a small group of my friends and I, accompanied by a local guide Chime, mountaineer and wild life photographer Samir and our tourist company representative Bhupen went for a trek to the remote Tsum Valley in Manaslu area of Nepal. Tsum is one of eight Buddhist Secret Valleys. It is considered to be a very special pilgrimage place and I had wanted to go there for a long time. It takes about 7 hours drive and 5 days walk to reach Tsum valley from Kathmandu. We were lucky to be dropped by helicopter to the tiny village of Philim on the Manaslu circuit – a day walk from where Tsum Valley begins. Flying there we circled Manaslu, admiring the mass of snow on the slopes. Samir commented that it was an unusual amount of snow and it would be difficult to cross the pass. There would also be a danger of avalanches.
We spent a night in the tents above Philim and started walking early next morning. The narrow trail was crowded with trekkers and caravans of mules headed for Larkhe Pass on the Manaslu circuit. We walked along it for about 2 hours. Then before the hanging bridge the path split into two — one toward Larkhe La, another toward Tsum Valley. The endless stream of people and caravans turned towards Larkhe La. We headed toward Tsum. From that point on we were alone on the narrow path. After about an hour of strenuous climb we stopped for a short break in a tea shop of Lokpa village. The whole village was about 10 houses and 2 newly build guesthouses. It started raining while we were sipping our tea and we were tempted to halt but then decided to continue. Rain soon stopped and we entered Tsum Valley through a formal gate. The scenery was amazing – lots of trees, bamboos and rhododendrons covered with pink flowers against a blue sky and mountains all around. The sun was shining but the breeze from the mountains was cool so it was not hot. I felt deeply happy and alive and whole.
We had barely walked for about 1km in the valley when first earthquake struck. We were very very very very lucky and blessed that we decided to have an early lunch because we spotted a nice clearing next to the river. We sat near the water joking and unpacking lunchbox when suddenly everything went still. Everything was silent and only the murmur of water continued. Then a sound like that of 10 huge planes taking off spread from everywhere and nowhere. The earth started shaking so violently that we could hardly stand. In that moment I still didn’t realize that it was an earthquake.
For some reason I was not scared. From the very beginning to the end I felt protected and sure that nothing bad would happen to us but we did have a very narrow escape. If we had not stopped for lunch or had been a little early or late, we would have been on the narrow path with nowhere to hide from the stones, broken trees and rocks falling from the mountain.
As the earthquake continued we ran across the river to a small island covered with bushes and trees and took shelter behind a big tree. Later we discovered that the island was full of nettles and we all were badly stung but at that time nobody noticed it. The tremors were very long up, to 55 sec and they came again and again. We could hardly see anything around because of the dust from fallen rocks and landslides. Chime and my friend Rita were so scared they hugged the tree, clinging to each other with one reciting Buddhist prayers and the other – Christian. Chime stayed in shock and misery for the next days. He actually felt responsible for the earthquake because just before it started he cut a brunch of a tree and he was convinced that this must of offended a powerful local protector deity.
Bhupen and Samir were very calm, alert and protective throughout. Samir is a tall man with long arms and he literally flung them around us as protection from one side with the tree on the other and the stones and rocks falling all around. One small stone hit his back. Fortunately he had his toughened protective camera bag pack on. That small stone was like a bullet – it broke through all protective layers and smashed his camera lens.
For about an hour we stayed on that island. I phoned through satellite phone to my son Urgyen in Delhi who told us that the magnitude of the quake was 7,9 and that we were about 20 km from the epicenter. All of a sudden there was another one. It was not as strong as the first but it seemed to do even more damage. Many more rocks and stones than before were falling.
At that time we got concerned about both fire and water. Fire because we could see multiple sparks flying around when rocks hit each other and water because the fast strong narrow river was getting blocked with huge rocks and boulders posing a danger of flooding of our small refuge island. After some time we decided that the safest was to try to get back to Lokpa village. The path we came by was damaged so badly that instead of 20 min it took us more than 2 hours to come down; crawling under the broken trees and climbing over fallen rocks. In Lokpa we met some locals and an American couple called Jennifer and Andy. It was total chaos with some of the people crying, some trying to pull out belongings from damaged houses, others sitting silently with frozen faces, and still others gathering in small groups, exchanging experiences. Frightened animals were running helter skelter. We were told that the road to Philim was destroyed by the landslides and a whole caravan of 11 mules went down with it. The owner of the mules was sitting in the dust. His face was covered with blood and he was sobbing continuously. He almost lost his life and he had certainly lost all his livelihood. The next few hours people kept pouring in with more stories — another caravan lost half of the animals… one more caravan’s mules got stuck under a big rock, badly injured. The owner was running from one person to another crying: “Help me to kill them!”. But nobody dared to approach the poor animals out of fear of the falling stones and they kept screaming and screaming.
Surprisingly only two houses in Lokpa were damaged and a small village above it was also intact. It gave us a hope — may be in spite of looking so clumsy and unsteady these houses are really strong and earthquake resistant? May be people here knew how to build? Our hopes were shattered at night when a few foreigners — a Spanish couple Eli and Pol and American girl Sandy walked in falling with exhaustion. They managed to walk along the destroyed path all the way from Sardi – the first of 20 Tsum Valley villages. They saw how the village of about 60 houses was wiped out till the last house. It was unbelievably fortunate that nobody died and only few people sustained minor injuries. This happened because one of the Tsum monasteries was holding it’s annual festival in a big open field next to the monastery. People from all neighboring villages gathered there and so the houses were empty. Sandy told us that the next village was also completely flattened out. Aftershocks came continuously one after another every 1-2 hours and after some time people almost stopped reacting. I said: “Just pay attention to the birds. If they stop singing, it’s serious.” Bhupen looked at me and said: “I think it might be not a reliable sign any more. Even the birds have got used to these endless tremors.”
At night we didn’t dare to stay in the concrete building of the guesthouse but pitched a tent. Even there we hardly could sleep waiting for the next big one. In the morning we were trying to figure out what were our options. The only way out of the valley – a narrow path toward Philim was badly damaged but villagers told us that it was still possible to move along it. All foreigners and Nepali guides got together and after a short discussion everybody agreed that it was too dangerous to walk that path as loose stones were continuously falling down. We had enough food and nobody was hurt so we decided to wait for a few days and then slowly start walking towards Arughat Bazar from where starts a paved road to Kathmandu. At the same time Bhupen and Samir were constantly in touch with Santosh – the director of Fantastic Nepal Holidays tourist company, the one who organized our trek. Santosh spent two days between the airport and the Ministry of Home Affairs and with a lot of help from many people he achieved the impossible – on the third day the helicopter came and we were transported to Kathmandu. The landscape on the way back was drastically different from what we had seen just 3 days ago. Most of the villages were flattened out and bright orange polythine sheets were stretched everywhere. Blocked roads, broken trees, mountains and hills split open – the whole land was like a twisted wounded body.
I started writing this on the plane coming back home. I needed to write about it. I felt like a soldier who came back from the war – I couldn’t think about anything else, those Nepal memories were somehow more real then the reality around. At the same time I couldn’t talk about it with people who haven’t been there.
I spent in Nepal earthquake only 3 days but it feels like months. My experience was very limited and nothing compared to that of others but as soon as I close my eyes I see it again and again – wounded mountains, flattened villages, broken trees, broken bodies. I remember that when it just began and everything was moving around and I still couldn’t accept that it was an earthquake I had a distinct feeling that my life has been changed forever. Later, in Lokpa, at night in the tent I was trying to understand why this was. I still don’t know the answer. What I know is that I have to help to rebuild broken lives.
Common sense and what I saw in Kathmandu and the villages tells me that in big organisations the money and efforts might be easily wasted, especially when there is such little coordination such as we saw in Nepal. So we are planning on keeping it small. Also we will choose one area and concentrate our efforts there. Maybe Tsum Valley or any other place which does not get adequate help.