“…the Kathmandu airport is unavailable” – The Full Story of Our Detour from Nepal
After finishing our three week whirlwind tour of Japan, our next stop was the only one we had decided to plan before leaving home; a 16-day trek to Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal.
It was supposed to be a dream hike through the Himalayas culminating in the shadow of the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest. We were going to make our way through the storied towns that fans of mountaineering literature (see: Krakauer) knows well. But as you, our friends and family, well know this was not to be.
The devastating earthquake which took over 8,500 lives and caused unfathomable damage, much to priceless temples and cultural treasures, dashed any hopes of completing this trip.
Despite not ever arriving, our attempted journey to Nepal is worth noting. I’ve recounted our experience on an individual basis but below is as detailed an account as I can remember:
The day before the initial earthquake we took off from Osaka’s Kansai International Airport and made it to Shanghai’s airport where we spent the night (in surprisingly comfortable fashion).
The next morning upon checking in to our flight to Kathmandu via Kungming (China) the counter attendant informed us that there ‘had been an earthquake’ in Nepal and asked if we still wanted to go. Unable to procure any more details from her (or our disconnected phones) as to the severity of the quake we figured that it was unlikely to be bad enough to affect our trip and decided to proceed.
Before our flight we found a couple public computers where we were able to get online and get more information about this mystery earthquake. To my shock, the front page of CNN read something along the lines of ‘Devastation in Nepal’.
I then flipped over the the US State Department’s website and found that they had issued an advisory against ‘non-essential travel’ in Nepal due to the earthquake. Some reports had listed Kathmandu’s airport as closed.
We realized immediately this was more serious than we had initially thought.
Our flight was due to take off in a few minutes so, as China blocks Gmail, I quickly created a Yahoo! email account and emailed my family to let them know we were fine as well as our sherpa/guide in Nepal to see if he was ok and if he thought we should proceed with the trip.
We boarded the flight and made it to Kunming (located in southwestern China) where, to our chagrin, we were unable to get online to receive any more information and were left up in the air as to whether we should head to Kathmandu.
With our only other option staying in Kunming – which at least on the surface, did not appear to be an appealing option – we decided to proceed once more and board the final leg of our trip to Kathmandu. If it was that bad they would have cancelled the flight and worst case, we thought, we would not leave the airport and get the first flight out.
The plane was only about a quarter full, entirely Nepalese except for Jenna and I and despite everyone having full knowledge that some sort of an natural disaster had occurred the general mood was very relaxed.
Old men chatted and drank coffee. Families buzzed around the empty seats, obviously excited to get back home from wherever they had been.
We befriended a young duo who lived in Japan but were heading back for one of their weddings. They had talked to their families and didn’t think the quake was a big deal – we began to think that maybe the headlines and warnings had been overblown.
But about 45 minutes from our projected arrival time an announcement came through the cabin speakers, first in Mandarin then in English: “We have just been informed that we will not be able to land as the the Kathmandu airport is unavailable. We will be returning to Kunming.”
A wave of murmurs swept through the cabin as we felt the plane lurch right and head in the opposite direction.
Passengers with baffled looks on their faces beckoned flight attendants to clarify what exactly was happening. Some got angry but there was nothing that could be done, we were going back to China.
For Jenna and I, the disappointment of turning around was quickly tempered by the realization that if this earthquake was bad enough to shut down the airport, we probably did not want to be there and that not landing was the best thing that could have happened to us.
These thoughts were confirmed when we arrived back in Kunming to a flood of messages from friends and family checking to see if we were ok (an official helped us finally connect our phones). The news reports seemed to have doubled their estimated death tolls and the travel advisories had gotten even more urgent.
There had been serious avalanches at Everest Base Camp – the precise spot we were supposed to have been. At least a dozen climbers and sherpas were reported dead or missing.
At this point we had been offered the opportunity to board another flight to Kathmandu. Fleeting thoughts of helping the earthquake victims flew through my head but reality hit quickly; what help would we really be by ourselves? Nothing. And we would most likely put ourselves in harms way in the process.
So now that we had been fully informed of the situation anything but canceling the trip would have been reckless.
It was official, we weren’t going to Nepal.
From here we were wished our Nepalese friends well and were escorted to retrieve our baggage with another couple passengers who had decided to cancel their trip as well.
Being that we had been granted only a 24-hour Chinese visa, as that was all we had needed to complete our flight transfers, we had to pick a flight that was leaving that night or risk being detained. The Chinese immigration officers made that very clear, in quite intimidating fashion.
It was about 9:00PM and there was a flight leaving for Bangkok at 12:15AM and as SE Asia was our target after Nepal we figured that was our best bet.
Quick funny story about buying the Bangkok ticket…we had to purchase it outside of the international terminal and as all our visas only permitted us one entry to China (which we had used transferring in Shanghai), we had our passports held as collateral and were escorted by an immigration officer to make sure we didn’t escape.
So technically, we were illegally on Chinese soil without passports.
Not something you dream of as a traveler but funny to verbalize.
Our trip to Bangkok proceeded without a hitch and we ended up having a great time, but our thoughts stayed in Nepal.
We ended up meeting a couple in Thailand who had been in Kathmandu during the earthquake and gave us a first-person perspective on the terror that moment held.
They had been in a gift shop when the earthquake hit and ran outside amidst a scene of buildings collapsing around them. They had to sleep outside their hotel for 4 nights in tents as it was structurally unsound and ended up not being able to get a flight for a full week due to the airport backlog.
This is what would have awaited us had we landed. But what about those who can’t leave? Who call Nepal their home? They’re the ones whose lives have been reduced to rubble.
The devastation on a fully-developed country would have been bad enough – but Nepal was fragile to begin with. Their underdeveloped infrastructure had difficultly handling everyday life before it was shaken into a thousands pieces and now their main industry – tourism – will be devastated for months.
Being that we decided not to go and help ourselves, all we can do is give to those who are there and encourage others, like you, to do the same.
So here’s a couple links where you can help:
Or make the choice yourself on which organization you choose to donate to – I’d just encourage you to give something. Some perspective – if you’re reading this post on a device worth more than $500, those people need it more than you do.
That was our journey, eventful, but ultimately safe.
While we’re sad we won’t be making the trek on this trip we can say with confidence that we will be standing in the Everest’s towering shadow one day. Just not yet.