April 25 2015 – Kathmandu Earthquake
Anzac Day – and we start our day remembering the fallen diggers – one of the girls brings a poppy for remembrance – another an Anzac pin. Anzac Day always brings a tear to my ear – my Pop was an ANZAC and when he passed away at 84 I was 10 and they played The Last Post at his funeral – it’s choked me up every time I’ve heard it since. It’ll wreck me for ever more.
We were heading to Kathmandu Airport for our flight to Lhasa Tibet, an 11 am take off – so no time for much else than a shower and breakfast. How exciting – I’m going to Lhasa and in a few days I’ll be trekking to Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side. Can’t wait. I’m up for it and have trained hard for it. Kathmandu is a small airport, with strong stony floor tiles and a rickety roof. As a form of security your bag is scanned, then your back pack, the usual passport checks, you pass through a metal detector and you are frisked. It’s a multi-step process.
Our 11 am flight was delayed, no one was fussed though so we just sat around chatting. Our flight began to board – more frisking, passport checking and we were on our way. I felt a plane land and remember thinking gawd this place is shonky – even a plane landing makes the earth move. I was next in line to be frisked and the security officer and my eyes locked -she knew before I did it was an earthquake – she was gone, out the door. I remember thinking it was a good idea to stay in a doorway during an earthquake, but perhaps not in Kathmandu – and the screaming and stampede behind me got me into gear. Run like you’ve never run before. And I was out the door in less than 10 seconds. I remember thinking I’m safe – but all the security officers were looking behind me – there are large lighting towers behind the building and they swayed with the earth. I ran a bit further and located my group and we just stood together and waited for it to pass – it was over pretty quickly I suppose but I remember looking at the birds – they were swooping in a crazy unnatural way – perhaps they were wanting to land but the earth was all crazy. I’ll never forget that. Lots of people were crying and hugging – we all held hands, and kept off the cracks. But no-one was hurt.
Everything went quiet. The security officer I’d locked eyes with was very distressed – we soon heard she had a 4 month baby at home – and what was left of her home she did not know. Our wonderful guide Rinzin was missing from us, we found him shortly and his family and home were still intact. This selfless man continued on with his job – delivering us to Lhasa, communicating between the locals and us. We were soon to find that we would not have gone to Lhasa without him – we later discovered how Chinese officials will not change the conditions of your entry visa – even in the light of disaster. But Lhasa was the best place to go – not affected by earthquake.
From the hills we could see a large plume of red dust rising – it was clear this was a large earthquake – 7.8 as it turned out, although reported at 8.1 at times. Rinzin was very sad – he told us that very traditional people live in those hills and the buildings are 3-4 stories high – just stacked stones – no mortar – they would fall like a stack of cards, with 3 generations of family inside. The loss to human life would be catastrophic, he predicted. The aftershocks came, again and again and again.
It’s amazing how a group for 40 something mums attracts those who are seeking comfort. Many independent, young travelers sat near us, joined our group. I wonder how Daniella from Columbia got on, or the young man from Canada, or the 2 girls from Norway with enough technology with them to make contact with the Norwegian Embassy who said get out of there – but they had only just arrived.
We sat on the runway for about 4 hours. Some planes landed without air traffic controllers – but running out of fuel. We were moved from one part of the runway to another as planes landed. No-one seemed to check the runway. At 2 pm a plane was loaded and we grew optimistic they we too would be able to leave – who knew what was back in the city. They sat in the plane for a further 2 or so hours. We loaded at 4, but first we were asked to re-enter the building and go through security again. This did not sit well with anyone – tiles were broken on the floors, ceiling tiles were falling out, the whole building looked unstable and the after shocks were coming at 10-15 minute intervals. Madness. So we entered the building and it felt like a tomb. All the emergency exits were locked and the windows were 3 stories up. They lined us up as men and women. I can’t say how that made us feel, except I was grateful I was travelling with just women and not separated from my family. Getting through security took forever and fortunately no aftershocks – packs ready to cover our heads – the most stable parts of the building identified, incase.
We left at 5pm and had our flight rerouted ending up in Chengdu by midnight (central China) – it made our day longer and more exhausting but we were grateful, alive, hungry, thirsty and really hadn’t experienced much more than the earth moving under our feet. After a 3 hour ‘sleep’ we were up again and off to Lhasa – this had it’s own set of challenges that I will write about later – but for now we on our way, on just day 3 of our trip – it felt like we’d been gone for weeks!