We are on day 48 of a Nation wide lockdown in Nepal as the Corona Virus cases have slowly crept up over 100, with 0 deaths. These numbers are stillshockingly low. It’s a mystery why, but it has everyone pretty relaxed, especially where we are up in the Solukhumbu region near Everest. This is my 1st experience of a lockdown and it has been a good rest period for myself and my Kona Hei Hei. The Nepali government seems to be following a similar Covid-19 strategy to whatever India does, so even with one of the Worlds lowest case loads, this lockdown will likely not end anytime soon. Apparently 80% of those testing positive, aren’t even showing many symptoms which is quite odd but.
Part of the reason for the low Covid-19 cases in Nepal may be due to the pretty healthy diet of the locals. They generally eat a natural diet which includes the heavy usage of the superfoods turmeric, garlic and ginger. I’ve made a career pushing myself and my immune system to the limits, often in unhygienic countries. Having good luck relying on these, and other natural remedies to stay healthy. I’m a big believer of the powers of the food we eat. I know in the time periods of my life when I was eating a more unhealthy western style diet full of processed foods, heavy meat consumption, sugars, bad fats and fried foods my health was drastically weaker. It will be interesting to see how this Pandemic plays out over here in the coming months but knock on wood, things seem pointed in the right direction. If it does go sideways we have two escapes deeper into the Himalayas but currently it looks like those cards won’t need to be played. Worst case scenario there is an old Pilgrim route into Tibet which goes over the 5800 M Nangpa La Pass, just about 50 km North of our current location. I’ll touch on this a lille later on as this route has some interesting history and is one of the few passages through the Himalayas.
Right now I’m officially stuck here in Nepal for the foreseeable future. How does that happen? It didn’t come without warnings as things were starting to slow down here in mid March when the government closed Mount Everest to climbers for the season. I checked a few flights out and had my chances, but opted to sit pat as with just 1 case Nepal still seemed like safe place to be. March 23rd the government stopped long distance travel in the country and on March 24th they imposed a 1 week lockdown, also sealing its borders and grounding flights. This was a bit out of the blue, and left thousands of trekkers stranded up in the mountains. It was odd after 1 case of corona virus nothing happened here, but after the 2nd one the whole country shut down overnight. This also coincided with the start of India’s lockdown. The Nepal Tourism board did a good job at rescuing the stranded hikers, bringing them back to Kathmandu, although a few opted to stay up high, which seemed more logical then going back to a city of 4 million people!
Tomorrow we are currently in the 4th lockdown extension and flights are grounded till at least the end of May, likely longer. Depending on what media sources you follow, there are at least 500 000 Nepali Migrant workers overseas, possibly 4 million. They will need to fly home at some point, but the government doesn’t have a solution to quarantine or isolate them so have opted to lock them out for now. It almost seems they’ll have to go with the “herd” mentality to get out of this problem as social distancing doesn’t seem to be an option here. Over 25% of Nepal’s GDP comes from remittance of these workers, 8 billion dollars, while another big chunk comes from tourism which is currently shutdown. Nepal may escape the Covid-19 virus in regards to deaths but economically it is going to be very hard on this small Himalayan country moving forwards. Once Covid-19 passes, tourism will be one of the solutions to getting this country back on track. If you want to see your tourism dollars go to a good cause a trip to Nepal in the future could be a good option.
The first 3 weeks of the lockdown were interesting as no-one had any clue what was going to transpire here. One day tourists were being told to stay where they were, the next day there would be rumours we’d all be getting sent back to our home countries. Some days all vehicles were stopped and we’d be stranded, the next day vehicles would start again. On and on it went, there were about 4-5 “last chances”, to get back to Kathmandu, which only seemed smart if a person was going to be catching a flight out. Being in a hotel room, locked down in one of the Worlds most polluted cities wouldn’t have been so cool, luckily I’ve avoided that thus far. The Nepali governments decisions have been pretty sporadic and random on this one so my tactic has been to wait it out as jumping every time things changed would get quite tiring after a while. One of the benefits that has come with all the confusions is the closure of the Immigration office which means free tourist visas as long as long as the lockdown lasts.
Canada did have a rescue flight with Qatar Airways leave Nepal mid April which was a bridge home. With no bike racing on the radar, a sketchy flight itinerary, and a good setup here in the mountains I chose to stay. The fact someone was trying to profit on the flight by charging over $3200 CAD, made it an easy call. Toss in a 16hr overnight layover in Qatar, a necessary overnight in Montreal, Canada’s epicentre of the Virus, before paying another $700-800 for a domestic flight to western Canada, it didn’t make much sense. Apparently only 140 of the 1100+ Canadians left in Nepal took the flight. For the total price tag of around $4000, a person could live well up in the Himalayas for a year if need be.
Bike racing is now cancelled until at least mid summer, so their’s no real rush to head home. I currently live to race so am quite disappointed but also content to make the most of summer in other ways. If this lockdown eases in Nepal I have a couple solid high mountain adventures in store. Having lived and at high altitude (2400 M- 4800 M) the past 9.5 weeks the body is showing some interesting positive changes. Focusing on some select workouts, and a proper diet, to enhance the effects of the altitude, it is a science project in progress. This should have the system primed for some adventurous ideas on the bike in Canada this summer. With any luck we could have an epic fall season of racing and I’ll be frothing at the mouth when the puck drops!
The Wembo World Solo 24HR Championships are set for early November in Australia. This is a good long term goal at the moment, and maybe we could convince some of the top World Cup XCO and Marathon riders into joining us if this is one of the few races on the Calendar this year. I would love nothing more then to have a 24hr battle royal with these guys, especially after getting smoked at the World XCO Champs in Quebec last year.
Until then I’ll continue enjoying this extended trip in Nepal, being immersed in the mountain culture up here in the Himalayas. It’s interesting to see how relaxed the locals have been throughout this. Over the years the Nepalese have been through more then their share of bad luck with earthquakes, political turmoil, blockades and overall tough living conditions living day to day in poverty. They are really like chameleons, readily adaptable to whatever comes their way. Sometimes they seem a little too relaxed, especially in the regards to social distancing. This is tough for the locals as they are a really tight knit society, with often 10 + people living in a house and on the street every one holding hands or crowds gathering whenever anything at all is happening. If a backhoe is working on the road, 10-15 Nepalis will be right there supervising. For this reason it’s a bit shocking this Virus hasn’t exploded here because if it did everyone would be exposed to it.
As one of probably only 2-3 foreigners left in this region of Nepal, it has been interesting to see how the usually super friendly locals would react. At the start of the pandemic some local kids would hold their hands over their mouths if they saw me, seeming to think us foreigners were all infected. Little do they know not one case in Nepal has been brought from a Westerner, as all of them have been imported from Nepalis or Indians from abroad. Some suspicious locals would ask where I was coming from and how long I had been around. My girlfriend taught me some Nepali words so I could tell them I had lived in Solukhumbu for 2 months, had been in country for 5 months, and had a Nepali wife. This would immediately put their minds at rest and lead to another series of questions from their always curious minds. Some of the older woman still act weird, staring at me like I’m from another planet. I’ll give them a friendly Namaste, or hello, but will sometimes get nothing in return, just some long deep stares and whispering amongst themselves. What to do.. The locals around my age are mostly pretty cool. The toughest part has been keeping 2 meters away from all the locals when I do head out as they are so friendly, but until this thing passes it is better to be safe then sorry.
Food is still plentiful up in this region with the majority of it locally grown. Transport trucks have been limited so food stocks are going down in the small shops, especially in Kathmandu. Up here there seems to be an unlimited supply of vegetables, potatoes, beans, milk, eggs, cheese, buckwheat flour and rice. The stores are running low on some packaged snacks but this is just leading to a more natural and healthy diet for the time being. As long as we can keep walking down the mountain to the farmer below for fresh spinach, spring onions, potatoes and milk I’m sure we’ll survive just fine. His garden is overflowing with Spinach, he will let us grab all we can, likely over 1 kg, for just 40 cents. We often give him a tip as this sort of thing back home would be labeled “Organic” and likely cost $10-15! The fresh milk comes in at around 80 cents per litre, and the potatoes at 50 cents per 1 kg, spring onions are free. Imported eggs are 12 cents, while local eggs are shockingly the same price as Canada at around 50 cents each. Other than that Usha will head into the closest village, Phaplu, once a week to grab whatever we can’t find from the local farmers.
This intermission from normal life has been a great time to lick the wounds from years of self inflicted physical abuse. Not knowing when things will get back to normal is challenging but I’ll be doing my best to continue to take advantage of this break to reset the system. The motivation is starting to lag a bit the longer this goes on but it just means using a bit more mental toughness right now, remembering brighter days will be ahead. I’ve likely raced more mountain bike races in more corners of the globe, then anyone else this past decade, so their are no regrets coming from this end, just a very long movie reel of great memories. I love the career I’ve been able to live and have my fingers crossed for some more good years ahead!
One positive of this whole thing has been the healing of our planet as pollution levels are down all over the World. Some parts of India apparently haven’t seen pollution this low in over 20 years. At the current rate, more lives are being saved from the lack of pollution, then lost to the virus in places like Nepal and India. In these two countries pollution is said to kill between 1.2-1.5 million people a year. Governments seldom talk about that issue, but hopefully once this Pandemic passes there will be a big focus on it. Pollution, the “silent killer”, is a Pandemic that we have 100% control over. Riding a bike is truly one of the best solutions for the planet and our own health. Onwards we go to lockdown day 49 tomorrow. Stay safe, stay healthy and keep on dreaming of better days ahead!
For further updates from Nepal, a few stories, and a look into the future, check out this recent Podcast with Kona:
Picture credits to Patrick Means @ TrailhousePhoto.com