The 7 Day Everest Lockdown
It was an unprecedented global chaos. Little did we know a pandemic was brewing some 3,000 kilometres away from the comforts of our home. And when it had arrived at our shores, the ideas of lock downs and movement control orders were far from our thoughts. It was unfathomable to restrict movement that has been embedded as part of our freedom. And so when the pandemic snowballed in the third month of the year, myself, being high up in the Himalayas, and the rest of world could only watch in disbelief as the world turned topsy-turvy, gearing towards a new normal.
The mountains always have a way of bringing strangers together to create life-long friendships.
The Everest Bubble During COVID-19
High up in the Himalayas, the scene was that of a 360 degree paradigm shift. It was as though we were living in a bubble. The higher we trekked, the more detached we became from the COVID world. We had very limited use of our smartphones other than photography and videography. In a way, being wrapped in a zen-like bubble, devoid of technology, with a view to die for kept the gravitas of the situation at bay.
High up in the mountains, we were wrapped in a zen-like bubble.
We were following in the footsteps of mountaineering legends like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to the foot of Mount Everest. Along the way, we were continuously enveloped by the gargantuan Himalayan mountains that had long fascinated people from all walks of life. Sightings of another being was scarce and we trekked by ourselves most of the time.
On the 16th of March, at 4600 metres, we watched Malaysia go into a state of movement control order. It's ironic how just a day ago, a local tea house owner was in awe at the zero mortality rate in Malaysia and within 24 hours, two people had died. The situation in Nepal was a little bit different. How so? Well, for starters there were no active cases in Nepal but that's not to say that the people were oblivious. Something was going awry but Nepal like the rest of the world was still grappling with uncertainties in the initial stages.
Trekking through Pangboche village at 4000 metres.
The Growing Concern
What was supposed to be a 15 day trek to Everest base camp and Gokyo lake was abruptly shortened by a series of unfortunate circumstances. The pandemonium wreaked by COVID-19 was out of sight at Earth's highest point. There, our concern was altitude sickness, hypothermia and exhaustion. While social distancing was just taking effect, we were somewhat living it at 5000 metres. At times, our nearest human contact would be a mile away and all we see around us is the mighty Himalayan range.
There was no one in front or behind me. All I see are mountains.In this case, a yak with the backdrop of Mount Lhotse, the 4th highest mountain in the world.
We successfully trekked to Everest Base Camp with a temperature of -20 degrees. But not all of us had it smooth sailing. The challenge that we commonly faced was the extreme cold temperatures especially after late evenings. While the ideal time to reach every tea house is before sunset, that bone-chilling feeling is always felt whenever a passing clouds blocks the sun. And believe me, that happened quite often.
It was something I had never experienced before other than in a hospital setting. I observed the creeping darkness taking full effect without any sign of my team mates returning. The temperature was now -25 degrees and I was getting worried. At 7.30 p.m, two of them staggered in, visibly shivering and exhausted. Never did it I occur to me that I would be treating moderate hypothermia with no medical supplies and aid. The trick was to warm the body gradually to avoid shock and all I had were emergency blankets, warm packs and body heat. It was the most frightening experience watching your friends completely beaten by the effects of altitude and cold temperature. That night we went to bed with a wary heart. Our concern was no longer about the pandemic but the safety of our fellow trekkers. When dawn broke, half of us were evacuated, and there there were four....
Everest Base Camp right before the lockdown with a chilling temperature of -20 degrees.
The Swift Lockdown
I remembered what it felt like, arriving back at the very point where I started this journey. We had trekked for 15 kilometres and hardly had any energy left. It took us 3 days to painstakingly descend from 5364 metres to 2800 metres. Our flight out of Lukla was brought forward by 4 days and by this time, we were looking forward to the habitual comforts of city life.
During out trek back, we received news that our return flight to Malaysia was cancelled due to the Malaysia's movement control order. Time was of the essence and we needed to get out of the mountains swiftly. At 10 pm, just 8 hours before our scheduled flight out, we heard a loud banging outside the door. We opened it only to hear that our worst nightmare had come true."NEPAL IN LOCKDOWN! ALL INTERNATIONAL AND DOMESTIC TRANSPORTS HAVE CEASED OPERATION!" exclaimed our guide. For one week there were to be no flights out of Lukla and everything else was a big question mark. Our hearts sank for a moment. That night, after 9 hours of continuous trekking, our fatigue overpowered our troubled minds and all we could think about was sleep.
After 3 days, we were back to where it all began, Lukla.
An Unprecedented Awakening
It was a peculiar awakening. We woke up to see the once bustling Hillary-Tenzing airport on standstill. Nepal had only 3 active cases, but they were quick to implement a lock down. Considered to be a third world country, Nepal's sudden and forceful lock down was a means to safeguard its healthcare system from total calamity. The system wouldn't have been able to cope with surging cases.
Outside the lodge, the local police force was patrolling the area. They came in to our lodge with a familiar announcement. Nepal is in a state of lock down and no one is allowed to leave the lodge. Only essential stores will be open and trekking is strictly prohibited. As to when we will be able to get out of this, no one seemed to know. There were roughly 200 trekkers stranded from Lukla to Namche Bazar. All trekking, at that point, had to come to a screeching halt with trekkers being told to head to Lukla.
Lukla had come to standstill and there was no other way out.
The Lukla Routine
Life at 2800 metres above sea level during lock down was a novelty for all of us. Here we are in one of the most beautiful places on earth and we are not allowed to step out. By 6 a.m, we were usually up. The first order of the day was brushing our teeth in icy cold water. The temperature early in the morning is usually subzero and heater is non existent. At 7 a.m, breakfast is served and the selections are similar in every tea house in this region i.e pancakes, English breakfast, hot noodles with a cup of tea/coffee. Our meals had already been included in the package only until 26th March, after which we have to start paying.
Hotel Nest became our home for the next 7 days. Our hotels had basic facilities and was located right opposite the airport.
This is part and parcel of trekking at Himalayas. The room is always cold and the sheets are washed infrequently as it is difficult to dry. Eventually, you will settle in but the bone chilling temperature makes being in the room a little bit harder.
As resources are hard to come by, all basic necessities such as electricity and heater are considered highly valuable. There is only one fireplace that operates after 6 p.m as wood is scarce. At one point, they even began to burn our playing cards to start a fire. Below are the charges for some basic necessities:
WIFI: 200 Nepali Rupees
Power Bank: 400 Nepali Rupees per charge
Handphone: 200 Nepali Rupees per charge
Shower: 400 Nepali Rupees (per shower)
1 Litre Water bottle: 100 Nepali Rupees
1 Litre Hot water: 150 Nepali Rupees.
After 12 days of trekking, all we dreamt of doing was showering and wearing clean clothes but none of that was possible. Though shower services were available, be prepared to bathe in fairly cold waters in a subzero environment. There are only 2 toilets shared amongst 50 people, so if you are the last one showering chances are it will be in a mess. As for laundry, the most we could do was to air out our dirty clothes and reuse them again. The fear was more of washing our clothes and not being able to dry them for days due to the temperamental weather.
Somehow the hours began to tick slowly, we would update ourselves about the chaos in the world through television and erratic WIFI. The electricity did go out briefly but luckily it came back, otherwise we would be cut off from the media. We would sit and talk to other international trekkers about means to fly out and share how the pandemic was affecting their respective countries. At 2 p.m, it was finally lunch time. We would order our usual meals and the cycle will repeat for dinner and every other day for the next 7 days. Point to note was that after day 4, our food options were narrowed down to 5 options as supplies weren't coming in. Meat became scarce but we had rice and noodles to compensate.
Our daily menu. Almost all the items on the menu were not available during lockdown except noodles, rice, potatoes and Nepali meal.
The menu continues...
The Mighty Nepali Hearts
"A stranger is shot in the street, you hardly move to help. But if half an hour before, you just spent 10 minutes with the fellow and knew a little about him and his family, you might just jump in front of the killer and try to stop it,"
During times of trouble, those with power and authority are our saviours, isn't it? It was one of the most poignant lessons I learnt during the lock down, that help can come in all forms, irrespective of status or power. On the 26th of March, the local Lukla municipality presented a piece of paper to us. It read as follows, "All lodging and food will be covered by the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality in collaboration with the government." There was a sigh of relieve and gratitude to the authorities but what came next was a bigger elation.
This notice was a life-saver for many stranded tourists.
'Stranded In Nepal' created by Raj Gyawali, founding director of Nepal adventure travel company Social tours, is a travel support network created in under 24 hours to aid stranded tourist from all over Nepal. Together with Nepal Tourism board, the purpose was to gather data and disseminate right information to tourists i.e accommodation, food services and logistics. It was them who helped to initiate logistics to rescue trekkers as well as handle official paper work. After 5 days, the most awaited announcement came, "There will be rescue flights tomorrow out of Lukla. 7 planes will be flying in. Be ready to get on any of those planes tomorrow early morning." We were completely elated! The first we did was to fill up our group details for the earliest flight out. With that being said, there were other chartered flights that came in earlier, but only for citizens of the respective countries that had negotiated with the government of Nepal. Of course, we had to pay for the flight amounting to 180 USD as opposed to getting a helicopter for 400 USD. The bottom line is, we were finally getting out!
Escape From Lukla: Attempt No. 1
The Malaysian team had written down all names and we were set to depart on the first flight out. That night we packed our things with the thought that come tomorrow, we will be reunited with the rest of our team mates. And so at 5.30 a.m in the morning, we were all awake and ready to have a quick breakfast before heading to the airport. At 7 am, we were there eagerly waiting for our turn. The temperature was -2 celcius and there were already at least 50 trekkers waiting at the gate. The system goes as such. Our names would be called out according to country groups to enter the small terminal for check-in. Each flight could only accommodate up to 14 people. There were at least 200 trekkers and today there were only 7 flights coming in.
The waiting game outside of Lukla airport. There was no such thing as social distancing here. Everyone was trying to get their names on the list to fly out.
For those whose embassy were not able to arrange a chartered flight, the Nepali government had arranged for Nepali airways to rescue them. Our flight was to be Nepali airways and so we waited patiently out in the cold for our names to be called. Now the problem here is that, there were many other countries who had already arranged chartered flights to rescue their citizens and they were usually given priority. The last flight out of Lukla is always by noon. After that, the conditions are no longer safe for flying due to strong winds. I won't deny that it was painful watching other citizens being called before us while we waited with zero certainty. At 12.30 pm, the last flight out departed and we were not on it. At that point, there were at least another 100 trekkers stranded. We headed back to our lodge with a sinking heart. "Tomorrow, there will be more flights out," our guide reassured us. We kept our chin up and made that painful short walk back to our lodge for lunch. Tomorrow we shall try again...
A Moment Of Reflection...
That evening we made a short visit to the local stores to get some snacks. We were not sure as to how long we would be stuck here so we might as well stock up. You could say it was a moment of solitude and reflection for me and one of my team mates. That short walk in an almost empty town to a convenience store flanked by imposing mountains and valleys did bring some peace to us. We spoke about lives, unabridged. We spoke about our love of the mountains and what inspires us. Along the way, we met some of the kindest Nepali people whom we shared an eye-opening banter. From a shopkeeper whose very livelihood was threatened to a guide who had lost his source of income for the whole year, all they had were smiles on their faces. We understood their plight, yet amazed by their incandescent joie de vivire. "We will somehow endure. All it takes is some patience," said a Nepali guide.
The once bustling village was now in silence as everyone stayed indoors. Only essential purchase was allowed.
The breathtaking Himalayan range enveloping Lukla.
Escape From Lukla: Attempt No.2
We were promised the first flight out of Lukla and so at the break of dawn, we stood in front of the airport gate, hitting yesterday's replay button all over again. To our dismay, the first flight out was a chartered one for the Germans, and the subsequent flights were for the Americans and Europeans. Nepali airways, the planes designated by the Nepali government for those whose embassy were not available to secure chartered flights had yet to arrive. At 10 a.m, the chief of the municipality appeared at that gates and began reading out a new list of names. This time it was for all mountain guides. The irony of the situation was that just a day ago, our guide had mentioned that tourists will be evacuated first before the locals and guides. And now, the guides were inside, while be watched from outside this abrupt turn of event. One would assume that most of us would be dissatisfied, but we were genuinely happy for them. They were citizens of this country and therefore had equal if not more rights to be rescued.
Ramji, our guide, gets in first and we were genuinely happy for him. Just days before, he began to resign to the fact that he may not see his family for some time as initial rescue was only announced for tourists.
The hours began to whizz by and the crowd was dissipating, there were 50 tourist left and Nepali airway was a no show due to technical difficulties. After 6 hours out in the cold, we were beginning to lose hope when someone exclaimed "Quick give your passports!" The man of the hour was the owner of our lodge who could be seen inside the terminal. There were only two planes left and the remaining trekkers were scrambling to get on board. We quickly handed over our documents through the fence and after 10 minutes, he appeared outside with a confirmation of our seats. We will be flying via Sita airlines but nothing could be confirmed until we were physically in the plane. At 12 p.m, our names were finally called. It was the most surreal experience being on the other side of the gate. Inside, we paid the full amount for our flight and gladly checked in our bags. We were briefly reunited with our guide, Ramji who had the widest smile on his face seeing us in the airport. He had insisted our lodge owner to help us by any possible means and he sure did.
We watched a group of stranded tourist painstakingly make their way back to their lodges after failing to secure a flight out. We understood what it felt like and could only empathise. We took a moment to convey our gratitude to the owner of Hotel Nest for going the extra the mile for us. We hugged Ramji, our beloved guide, for one last time before he boarded his flight. Soon enough it was our turn, to board the very last flight out of Lukla. I was returning as how I had begun this journey, with a glint of tears in my eyes and gratitude.
The last flight out of Lukla for the day...
A Life Long Lesson....
If someone were to say, I hope you had learnt your lesson, I would gladly say yes. Not because we regretted the outcome, but because the hardship taught us courage. The chaos made us into a family unit. Although the despair did bring out the worst in people, in our eyes, we saw only the best of humanity from Nepal, and all the way to Malaysia. While it is true that those who hold power can make a difference, it is the underdogs; those who have little to offer and nothing to gain, that will eventually teach you your most poignant life lessons. As our propeller plane took off, the might Himalayas began to whizz pass us. I gently wiped away the tears in my eyes. There is a quote by Prophet Muhammad which I now understood its meaning."Be in this world like a stranger or a passing traveller." I travelled not for worldly goods but for that of my soul, to learn, understand and not to fear what I do not know. At the end of the day, my heart was full and I gained more than what I could ask for, a new family...
Our very last group shot at Lukla before we flew out for good.