The Daily Telegraph - The day the mountains moved
April 24, 2016
A year ago, Michelle Jana Chan was trekking in Nepal when the devastating earthquake struck. Here she reflects on the country’s enduring beauty and the resilience of its people.
There had been heavy rain overnight but now the clouds were lifting. I stopped on a promontory to admire the view across a wide valley towards the eastern arc of the Annapurna circuit. There was a steep drop below me and good visibility. I pulled out the map to pinpoint my location. The date was April 25 2015.
Suddenly the ground began to shake. It was not gradual but instant and strong, and then persistent. The juddering seemed to transmit through me. I instinctively spread my feet apart to stay upright and scanned the valley. A whole valley shaking and shuddering in front of me, even my own body, too. Yet I also noticed the tiny trembling purple flower petals and the whispering trees that moved not as they do in a wind, but as if some superhuman was shaking the base of their trunks. The sensation lasted over a minute, peaking in strength before it halted as abruptly as it had started. Then I heard the first of the landslides crash down the backside of a mountain.
I looked across at my guide, Rakesh, who was visibly distressed. “It was so long,” he said. “We have many earthquakes but not this long. Not this strong.”
He tried to make some calls on his mobile phone but could not get through. We had only ever had sporadic coverage at the best of times. So we continued with our trek, unaware of the humanitarian disaster unfolding around us – or the scale of destruction of an earthquake that we later discovered had registered 7.9 on the Richter scale.
Aftershocks followed swiftly and we became familiar with the sensation of tremors. We even anticipated them, impressed by the power of the planet.
We first became aware of the gravity of the situation when the ground operator managed to get a message to us asking if we wanted to be helicoptered out. Although they had more than two dozen trekking groups across Nepal, they contacted us first because we were closest to the epicentre, only 20 miles away. After a team chat we agreed to push on. We did not want to put any unnecessary burden on the rescue services, and the guides and support crew said they wanted to finish the job.
As self-reliant trekkers, we were in fact the most prepared for the aftermath of an earthquake. Across Nepal, people abandoned buildings to spend nights out in the open; the difference was that we had our own camping gear and supplies. The only change to our behaviour might have been choosing campsites less vulnerable to landslides.
The earthquake hit on the second day of my week-long trip to the Himalayas. I had been on a travel assignment to find a trek far removed from recent reports of crowded tea-houses, litter on trails and the erosion of traditional Nepali culture. Yet I wanted a trail easily accessible from Kathmandu and a trip of manageable duration with broad appeal: not too physically demanding and at moderate altitude yet with views of 8,000m-plus mountains.
I chose the area of Lamjung Himal, between Manaslu and Annapurna, in the central part of the country. This was to be a seven-night trip using tents rather than tea-house accommodation, which allows trekkers to steer away from popular routes. I invited my 71-year-old father who had once told me of his dream after retiring to see the Himalayas. “Be careful what you wish for,” I said with a twinkle.
We trained for the trip: me at the gym, my father marching up and down the staircases of his apartment block. I had my own equipment from previous expeditions; he bought trekking boots and waterproof trousers, and borrowed other items. Then we set off for Kathmandu and our first mountain trip together.
Rakesh met us in the hotel and we drove west, picking up our porters en route. It was a six-hour drive to the trailhead at Paudi, north west of the town of Gorkha, an area that has provided many British Gurkhas over the decades.
As we began the trek, the rain started to fall. The landscape at this low altitude was lush with giant tree ferns and groves of shiny bamboo. We passed villages where homes were built of stone and decorated with carved eaves and window frames. Drystone walls hemmed in paddocks of goats and buffalo. Chickens scratched about, fluffing up their wet feathers.
We walked single-file upon the elevated land between terraces of corn, barley and rice, as well as orchards of orange trees. Stooped elderly women in embroidered dresses brushed past on the narrow trails wearing rubber sandals – or, more often, barefoot – and carrying on their backs great bundles of firewood or 20-litre canisters of well water. As they passed us, they released their hands from gripping their head-straps to press their palms together, lower their eyes and mumble “Namaste”, meaning “I bow to you”.
That first night we set up camp late on the flat expanse of a rice terrace. The wind picked up and the rain morphed into big hailstones. We held down our tents as the wind tugged at the sheeting, pulling out pegs. As the terrace flooded, we dug channels to drain away standing water bubbling up beneath the ground sheets.
My father raised his eyebrows as we became increasingly sodden. On my holidays, I love to climb big mountains. “And you do this for fun?” he asked with a half-smile.
The weather calmed overnight and we made a dry start. The air was muggy. We ventured up towards higher ground and began to find our rhythm. Climbing doggedly up, and staggering slowly down. A meditative pace. We spun prayer wheels, and observed the custom of walking to the left of chortens, or stupas.
Over the course of the week we became obsessed with the weather, ever hopeful the clouds would lift. But the rain prevailed. As we reached altitudes above 3,500m, the villages petered out, along with the buzz of cicadas and the bother of leeches. The rain became hail, hard and heavy, then snow. In fact, the treacherous conditions forced us to abandon plans to reach Lamjung base camp, and we diverted in the direction of Tangting. It turned out to be our toughest day: an 18km hike, descending 800m, and climbing 2,500m.
As we emerged out of the woods, the clouds lifted on cue. Here were the mountains we had come to see: Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Annapurna I, Machhapuchhre, Annapurna III, Annapurna IV, Annapurna II and Lamjung Himal. These are some of the region’s biggest mountains, so high you must flip your head back to see the snowy peaks.
We descended through forests of purple rhododendrons, taller than oak trees, a blaze of azaleas and magnolias in full bloom. There were hundreds of butterflies in random flight, a red panda scampered along our trail and in the lee of limestone caves, nests of wild honeybees pulsated in the shadows. We shared wobbly suspension bridges with herds of goats and washed ourselves in glacial streams. Children played in the sunshine, brushing hoops with sticks; they said the last time they had seen trekkers was eight months earlier.
Appropriately we ended the trek near a chautaara, a resting place built by locals in the name of a deceased relative; they are stone benches with a higher ledge to support the load on a back. In the lowlands, chautaara are often built under the shade of a pipal, the same tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment more than 2,000 years ago. As my father and I paused there, we might have felt a resonance, reflecting on our week in the Himalayas that we not only survived but also will forever treasure.
In the wake of the earthquake – with a death toll exceeding 9,000 and thousands more injured – Nepal has received millions in donations and relief materials, but above all it is tourism that will best help the nation to recover. The Himalayas will lure visitors back. Nepal has eight of the world’s 10 highest peaks including Everest, an extreme landscape which we should remember has been created because this country sits on major fault lines of the Earth’s crust, which make, as well as very occasionally move, these venerable mountains.