May 25, 2015

NEPAL EARTHQUAKE Report: The Khumbu - Open for business... almost

The Khumbu, often referred to as ‘The Gateway to Everest’, sees a large portion of Nepal’s 600,000 visitors per year. With an extensive network of well-maintained stone and dirt trails meandering through friendly towns, past idyllic guest-houses, local farms, and waving children shouting ‘Namaste’, the Khumbu captures both the heart and the imagination.  For many, the first visit to the Khumbu will inevitably lead to more.

This week, in the aftermath of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks which devastated Nepal, I had the opportunity to travel to the Khumbu. The purpose of my visit to the region was three-fold: (1) to hand-deliver much needed earthquake relief in the form of financial support and shelter to the village of Thame in the Khumbu on behalf of the Sherpa Adventure Gear Nepal Earthquake Relief fund (2) to assess the damage to the area between Lukla and Thame (3) to get a break from Kathmandu where I felt like I was suffering from an ‘earthquake hangover’ – the constant feeling the ground was moving even when it wasn't…apparently an inner ear reaction to all the aftershocks, some 240 since April 25th

The Journey:
On May 18th I flew into Lukla, an infamous and remote mountain airport bearing the unenviable reputation of being ‘the most dangerous airport in the world’. Having just survived 2 earthquakes I pushed my luck even further, flying in what seemed like my own fully stocked private jet packed with with tents, tarps and medical supplies provided by aid agencies around the world.  

I’ve traveled the flight between Kathmandu and Lukla on a number of occasions but what made the journey unique this time were the startling views  –  a patchwork of orange, yellow and blue tarps scattered across the rolling hills and between the rubble remains of destroyed homes and villages littered across the countryside.

The earthquake came during Nepal’s popular spring trekking season. I’d expected the region to be quieter than usual given the circumstances but I was shocked to find that literally every trekker, mountaineer and tourist (as well as many locals) had left… All that remained were myself and two well travelled Americans – Mike and Parker – who were on a mission to deliver relief to Khumjung and assess the damage to the Khumbu Climbing School in Phortse. They were welcome company on the quiet and sometimes treacherous, landslide prone trails. With a backgrounds in carpentry and climbing and past trips through the area their insights proved to be equally informative. 

To provide some context, when we entered Sagamartha National Park, paid our $38 and passed through the checkpoint we were told that there had been 5 tourists in 5 days… including the three of us. Normally at this time of the year (April - May) between 3,000 - 5,000 trekkers pass through the park gates.

CONTEXT:

I’ve done my best to summarise below some of my observations about the well-trodden route between Lukla and Thame. Before going into detail I stress that these insights are based on my visit between 18 – 22 May 2015 only and are compared to my last visit to the area in the Spring of 2013. 

Given the speed at which the area is already being rebuilt, I fully expect that any specific photos or accounts of damaged or destroyed homes and landslide-prone trails will be out of date by the autumn trekking season. 

The ‘executive summary’ is that Khumbu will once again be open for business and ready to welcome trekkers to the region come Autumn. The caveat to this statement is that the region will, in the short - medium term,  be heavily reliant on both financial support to help with ongoing rebuilding efforts and continued tourism dollars coming into the region.

Main villages visited:
18 May: Lukla (2880m) – Phakding (2610m) – Monjo (2804m) (overnight)
19 May: Jorsalle – Namche (3445m) 
20 May: Namche (3445m) - Thame ( 3820m) – Namche (3445m)
21 May: Namche (3445m) – Lukla (2880m)
22 May: Lukla - Kathmandu

OBSERVATIONS:

Building Damage:

Lukla
Beyond cracks and minor structural damage to many of the older buildings, Lukla sustained only minor damage with popular haunts such as the ‘Lukla Starbucks’ still serving up steaming hot lattes and mouth watering carrot cake. Popular lodges including Paradise Lodge remain open and fully operational with the kitchen continuing to serve up the best momos on this side of the country. The most significant damage that I saw was a completely destroyed and burned-out building mid-way through town formerly known as ‘The Sherpa Café’ – this may have been damaged before the earthquake.  

Whilst building damage appeared minimal the psychological impact of the earthquake is significantly higher. A large portion of the population of Lukla (and the Solukhumbu and Khumbu more broadly) have moved to temporary shelters including tents, tarps and wooden animal stables. Living in fear of future earthquakes, many locals feel that their homes are unsafe and sleep outside and under rather than return to their homes – some of which could be made structurally safe with minor repairs.

Lukla - Phakding
Between Lukla and Phakding we saw a considerable amount (circ 70%) of buildings with structural damage varying from minor cracks, missing sections of wall to the complete destruction of the structure. 

A number of buildings at the top of the path leading down to Jiri appeared to have been completely destroyed with the taller buildings along the trail now tilting at vertiginous and improbable angles and balancing precariously on the steep slopes. Around them, the hills of rubble reveal the occasional door, window and sheet of twisted corrugated tin. High up on what must have been the second floor of one guesthouse, a kitchen cupboard clings to an external wall, tins and packets of food still sitting on its shelves, a flower pot balancing precariously in a glassless window…

We stopped for a delicious lunch at the Sunrise Lodge in Phakding.  Like many of the guesthouses and lodges Phakding, the Sunrise Lodge appears to have suffered a fair amount of structural damage – particularly to its older stone-contructed sleeping quarters. These will have to be rebuilt. The newer sleeping quarters made of a combination of stone, wood and mortar appear to have sustained only minor damage. 

On a positive note – perhaps reflective of the future of the Khumbu and the resilience of its people – between 18 and 21 May the stone walls around Sunrise lodge which had been completely knocked over had been completely rebuilt. If this is indicative of the speed of rebuilding then there’s no doubt the area will be able to sustain tourists for the Autumn season. 

An ongoing theme was the ‘clean up’ which had already started in earnest. Resourceful Nepali’s had ensured that any salvageable lumber / tin / stone in buildings which had been levelled to their foundations had already been stacked into neat, organised piles, ready to be reused. 

As a recommendation (and I suspect that this is already being addressed), there would be tremendous value in stepping up ongoing efforts to provide locals with research / training on how to build more ‘earthquake resistant' homes using a combination of available materials including the increasingly popular ‘soil bags’ along with timber, stone and mortar so that past mistakes are not repeated – or can at the very least be minimised.

Phakding - Monjo
From Phakding to Monjo the scale of devastation appeared to increase with about 75% of the buildings having significant structural damage and held up by struts. There were greater numbers of lodges and cafes impacted. 

If the primary building material was stone then damage was often significant and the building was now uninhabitable. If mortar was used in conjunction with the stone then there was often little to no damage – and in some cases the home appeared to be habitable with only minor repairs / reinforcement required. 

Many buildings supported by timber foundations (including wooden posts) and a wooden structures appeared to be in near perfect condition. We guessed that this was in part due to a combination of the soil-structure of the ground under the house and the ‘flex’ nature of the wood in response to the earthquake. 


Monjo

We slept in tents (along with most of Monjo and Jorsalle) on the front lawn of the 'Monjo Guest House'. From its exterior, the main building of the guesthouse appeared to have survived unscathed.  A quick look inside revealed that all was not as it seemed - literally all the interior walls and a large part of the roof had caved in. The entire building is unsafe and will have to be rebuilt. The glass and timber built dining room suffered little to no structural damage. 

Work had already begun on a temporary tin shelter next to what used to be the main sleeping quarters. 

As Monjo has been without electricity since the first earthquake, we dined by candlelight with the locals and enjoyed a delicious dahl baht feast.

Monjo – Namche
Jorsalle, just outside of Monjo suffered significant damage with about 80% of the buildings suffering major cracks, missing parts of walls and/or held up by long wooden struts. Significant rebuilding work will have to take place before most buildings in Jorsalle are habitable again.

Namche
Buildings in Namche seemed to have suffered only minor damage in comparison to the rest of the Solukhumbu and Khumbu that we’d passed through. 

Perhaps one of the hardest hit buildings by the earthquake is the guesthouse of popular and rather iconic Café Daphne – the site of many a post-climb celebration. Whilst the main bar area and internet café remains intact (albeit with a very wobbly wooden floor), the old stone-built sleeping quarters have been completely destroyed. Efforts are already underway to rebuild and have as much of the building open and safe for tourists coming through in the Autumn.

The Shree Himalayan Primary School in Namche is completely destroyed – the scale of the destruction shocking with many of the exterior and interior walls having completely caved in. There were about 145 pupils attending the school, from the age of three-and-a-half up till 11 years of age and coming from all parts of the Khumbu.

It’s hard to find a ‘silver lining’ on the situation but if there is one it is that it’s incredibly fortunate that the initial earthquake struck on a Saturday – the only day that children don’t attend school - and that the equally devastating second earthquake occurred while the children all been on their lunch breaks.

I stayed at the Hotel Sherwi Khangba, located a few minutes walk above Namche Bazar and also the home to the popular Sherpa Culture Museum. The hotel was fully operational with no visible damage and sustaining a fully operational kitchen. Only the traditional entrance gate to the hotel and its significant stupa suffered structural damage as did some of the walls around the museum. I did not visit the museum on this occasion so am unable to provide an update on its current state.

The front lawn of the Hotel Sherwi Khangba has become Namche’s ‘tent city’ housing about 70 tents ranging from large multi-family Red Cross tents to expedition-style sleeping tents and providing temporary shelter to about 200 people.

Namche – Thame
The entire valley of Thame and its neighboring Thameteng was devastated by the initial earthquake including complete destruction of the Thame monastery, one of the oldest in the Khumbu. Any buildings that ‘survived’ the first earthquake were subsequently destroyed in the aftershocks. A total of 423 houses were damaged affecting the population of 1876 people.

We visited one elderly couple in Thamo, a ‘suburb’ of Thame. Their home had been completely destroyed. Any remaining and salvageable possessions that they’d owned had been destroyed in a fire which subsequently engulfed the rubble. 

Offering countless cups of tea, the kind and weather-beaten couple never said it directly but the worries were clear in their eyes – how would they ever begin to rebuild their home

Trail infrastructure:
Overall the trails were in good condition with only a few areas between Lukla and Phakding covered by some minor localised rock-fall that has likely already been moved. 

Whilst the trail was free from objective hazards, we continued to be vigilant for rockfall and landslides and would advise others traveling through the region in the foreseeable future to do the same.

There significant evidence of active landslides between Phakding and Monjo with a ½ km section of the trail just after Phakding directly impacted. In this section two large landslides have made the main trail inaccessible and dangerous for sections varying from between 2 – 25 meters and remains an active and ongoing hazard. The ground in this section is very unstable with large cracks appearing directly on the ground and threatening to slide between 30 -  40 metres down the cliff.  We were able to climb up and around the landslide prone-areas but with extreme caution.

The bridges appeared unaffected by the earthquakes. It was great to see both the ‘high bridge’ and the ‘low bridge’ accessible and in use just below the long hot slog that is the infamous ‘Namche Hill’.

Water:
Streams in the area were flowing rapidly. Most of the water stand-pipes are made of plastic, they remain functional, providing clean safe water. The extensive aquaduct system around Monjo remained intact.

At the time of visiting the bigger water-related concern was the status of Imja Lake and the ongoing threat that it poses on downstream communities. The lake is considered by researchers to be among the three most dangerous glacial lakes in Nepal.  The recent earthquakes are rumoured to have affected the moraine of the lake however at the time of visiting I found no evidence to support this.

Agriculture:
The main agricultural food staples in the area are potato, wheat, maize and millet. There did appear to be some activity in the terraced fields and plots of land around the villages where farmers could be seen actively weeding around the maize crop and many potato fields. Based on our general observations there does not appear to be an immediate / short-term food shortage and agriculture has not been badly affected by the earthquakes.

Tourism:
Tourism to the area has been severely impacted. 

When we passed through the checkpoint entrance to Sagamartha National Park we were told that we were the 5th trekkers to pass through the gates in 5 days. Not a promising figure for a region which, in April 2014, welcomed 7,208 trekkers and in May, 1,392 trekkers – (these figures do not reflect expeditions which would add another 1,500 to those numbers). In total the Khumbu welcomes through its park entrance over 35,200 trekkers per year. The lack of revenue generated by trekking permits and park entrance fees will certainly be felt.

Resourcefulness and Resilience:
Walking up on 18 May, several small villages between Lukla and Monjo appeared to be completely empty – with the panes of glass removed from many of the lodge windows and the curtains left blowing silently in the breeze.  It was eerily quiet for an area that always seems to be full of activity. We learned the following day that this may have been due to ongoing  (and false) ‘predictions’ about further earthquakes.

It’s worth noting that on my descent back down to Lukla just a short 3 days later on 21 May, the general atmosphere of the area was completely different. There was a flurry of rebuilding activity taking place with men, women and children active in the streets, in their homes and in the fields – structures being torn down whilst others were being rebuilt. A number of lodges back open for business and shops with soft drinks and chocolate bars on display in store windows. Where villages were devoid of children playing in the streets, they were now alive and abuzz with activity... It was starting to look like 'business as usual' again.

Whereas we didn’t see any porters while walking up to Namche on the 18th, I passed about 45 porters walking up between Lukla – Namche on the 21st  while I was walking down. All were heavily loaded with timber, sheets of corrugated tin, building supplies as well as rice, lentils, eggs and other food staples.

In short, it appears that slowly but surely the daily hubbub of life is returning to the Khumbu.

The future…
After a disaster of such magnitude, the task of reconstruction will never be easy – especially for an area inaccessible by motor transport and where all supplies have to be walked up or flown in. 

Having said that, as seen so clearly in the Khumbu, the rebuilding work has begun – and in light of the impending monsoon, this is all the more critical with thousands of people living under tarps, in tents and in temporary camps. Full recovery will take both time and patience – the Nepali people must continue to be resourceful and resilient.

And all the while the Nepali people and the thousands of tourists that will continue to visit this beautiful country must remember that the ground will stop shaking, the dust will settle, and we will live on to build a new Nepal. 

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Much gratitude and many thanks for reading, and for caring. Whilst the devastating Nepal Earthquake headlines may have disappeared from the front pages of the international media, the country  and its people still need your help to rebuild.  Please consider making a donation to:























7 comments:

  1. thank you for this informative summary of the situation.

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  2. Thank you very much.
    Even if you have not been. Do you have news about villages above Namche, up to Gorakshep and/or Gokyo ?

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  3. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  4. An excellent report - thanks very much hope to take my trekking group into the Khumbu this November.
    www.sujoyrdas.blogspot.com

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  5. thank you for these news. I was in this area last october ...What a pity .

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  6. Excellent Report with lots of very useful info.
    Do you happen to remember if “The Waterfall Lodge” on the top of the rise just as you enter Benkar from the Lukla direction is still standing ?? – I first stayed there in 1998 and returned again in 2012 and consider myself friends of the lodge keeper (Pasang Sherpa and his Mother)
    Thanks
    Rob – aka - into-thin-air

    ReplyDelete