A year ago I set out to fulfil a long-held dream, but I got more than I’d bargained for which made me appreciate just how precious each day of our lives is. I boarded a flight on 25 April to Kathmandu via Abu Dhabi with five friends. Ultimately we were bound for Tibet and our expedition had been planned for many months. As our visas and permits for travelling in the different regions of Tibet were being handled by an agent in Nepal, we were intending to spend some time there before flying on to Lhasa.
I had wanted to visit Tibet for many years, having been interested in Tibetan Buddhism. In my work as a publisher I had published some important books and authors on Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama. I had visited Dharamsala in Northern India long ago and was keen to explore some of the sacred places of Central and Western Tibet, and to see how the culture and religion of the Tibetan people was changing under Chinese rule.
I was mindful that when embarking on such an expedition, which in many ways was for me a pilgrimage, I was placing myself at risk, both physically, because the terrain in Tibet is difficult, and psychologically because I might well experience more than I bargained for. However, I didn’t reckon on the 7.8 earthquake striking Central Nepal, bringing devastation and death on a colossal scale.
Although we were fortunate to get a flight (not the one we were booked on) out of Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu the day the earthquake struck, it was not an auspicious start to our adventure. Approaching Kathmandu, we were held in a stack south-east of the airport due to a violent thunderstorm. When we eventually landed, we were plunged into chaos, which only worsened as the night progressed.
Life is always unpredictable and we need to be courageous when the unexpected happens. Usually most of us cope with difficult circumstances, seeming to find the inner resources that get us through somehow. However difficult the situation is, we always have a choice about what we think and feel. We can choose to stay open to life and trust that things will turn out OK.
Since most flights into Kathmandu had been cancelled, our agent was not at the airport to meet us. We found out that our hotel in Patan had been completely destroyed, along with much of old Kathmandu. Unable to reach any other hotel on the phone, we faced a prospect of a night in the wet and the cold in the open, along with the many Nepalese who were sleeping in the streets due to damaged buildings and the potential for aftershocks and further quakes. Although I didn’t relish that prospect, I found myself surrendering to the possibility, appreciating that at least I was alive.
Eventually, due to the admirable persistence of my friend Colin, we had a breakthrough. He managed to get us accommodation for the night just north of the city centre. Procuring taxis to take us there was the next challenge. With determination and US dollars we were able to secure two rickety cabs to transport us through the half-collapsed streets, deserted of traffic but full of people sleeping under awnings outside their houses.
How grateful we were to arrive at the hotel! Cracked walls and floors meant tents had been erected in the gardens for us to sleep in if we wanted to be safe, and we were treated so graciously we indeed felt blessed.
The next morning with the sun shining on the exuberant dahlias and marigolds in the tented garden, we felt more optimistic about being able to get to Lhasa. We managed to connect with our Nepali agent who took us to the northern outskirts of Kathmandu to see two of the great Buddhist places of pilgrimage – Boudhanath and Swayambhunath, as well as the Newari Buddhist temple of Budhanilkantha – all pretty much deserted. Earthquake damage was clearly visible, most businesses were closed and people swarmed in the streets. Aid workers were pouring in, and encampments being erected in parks and gardens.
Meanwhile our visas and travel papers were made ready for our departure. Leaving Kathmandu however proved as difficult as arriving. The airport was surrounded with crowds of people, and inside was a mass of humanity trying to leave the country – many different nationalities, shouting, pushing, shoving, and taking endless photos of themselves in the chaotic scenario.
Hours then passed as we waited in the hot, jam-packed departure lounge. Watching the endless stream of incoming planes with their military personnel, rescue teams, and tons of tents and aid parcels was a humbling experience, and our personal discomfort and the uncertainty as to whether we might ever get to Tibet seemed of little import. Acceptance and patience was the name of the game.
Eventually we were able to board a flight to Lhasa – or so we thought! Three hours into the flight we were informed that we were now bound for Chengdu, some hours further east. We did not have the appropriate paperwork for arrival in Chengdu, not having planned to go there, but after some confusion, we obtained 72-hour transit visas, and were whisked away for what remained of the night to the ‘Homeland Hotel’, a 5-star marble-floored and chandeliered affair – life was becoming more and more surreal.
It seemed that no sooner had we collapsed into bed than tweeting birds on the room phone roused us to catch flight 4403 to Lhasa. We couldn’t help wondering what lay ahead since it seemed unlikely that Tibet would not also have felt the effects of the earthquake.
The first shock to the system in Lhasa however was the cold. There is no heating in hotels in the country even though the temperature was below freezing. After a few hours the altitude also took its toll and I was nauseous and had a pounding headache, which no amount of Nurofen or green tea could assuage until I had acclimatized some days later.
Meanwhile the news on the earthquake in Nepal was beginning to get worse, with the death-toll rising and the relief effort hampered by bad weather. What did it matter that our own plans for travel were now an unknown. The Everest and Shishapangma regions of Tibet had been affected – the road west was apparently closed, Everest was out of the question, as was the overland route back through Nepal. In the end we did manage to see some of Tibet, but that extraordinary adventure is the subject of another article.
What emerged for me personally from this experience was a reaffirmation of my own belief that we have to live as if it is the only day we have. We never know what may befall us, and although the world is full of tragedy and suffering, there is also much in it that is good. When we are able to feel gratitude for our own lives, and live in the present moment, our hearts are open and we want to help one another, recognizing that we’re all part of humanity.
On my return to the UK, I chose to support smaller organizations working directly on the ground in Nepal to rebuild the lives of the people. A year after the earthquake Nepal continues to need our help.