Lockdown in Nepal Update #3- Monastery life, blocked roads and cancelled flights.

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Lockdown in Nepal turned into a bit of an adventure as I took off deeper into the mountains back in May to live at the Chiwong Monastery, about 50 km fromMount Everest. The situation I had been living needed to be changed, and no hotels or guesthouses in the region were taking anyone in due to the Corona Virus.  When our neighbouring Nepali family found out I was becoming homeless, they invited me to live with them. They already had 10-15 people in a pretty small house so it wasn’t ideal to cram in there.  Unable to head back to Kathmandu without proof of a flight out I was in a tricky situation. Having met the Head Lama a few times on bike rides past the Monastery, it became apparent they would be happy to have me up there during Lockdown. Having been in the mountains since February, well before lockdown occurred, I had been in isolation for months, thus took up the offer to go live with the Monks!

 

It was a weird not knowing what I was getting myself into, but the other option was to go find a cave somewhere to live in.  Leaving my extra luggage with our Nepali neighbours, I loaded my backpack with necessities,  hopped on my Kona and took off for the unknown.  It was a short but rough 20 km bike ride, gaining 600 vertical meters, climbing up a steep Himalayan road to the Monastery.  I was excited, but at the same time a bit unsure how I would be welcomed as an outsider during a global Pandemic.   The Monastery is perched on a cliff at 2950 Meters, surrounded by jungle, overlooking the Solukhumbu valley.  Its location is amazing, and the residents include 35 Monks of all ages, most of them young kids between the ages of 8-15.  They had been taken in from poor families in the surrounding villages and given a chance at a great life full of education, food and a community to live in.   Right from the minute I arrived they treated me like a brother, offering a Dhal Bhat for dinner and giving me a room with an epic view over the valley, lying over half a vertical km below.  To be living with a bunch of Monks in this setting was something out of a story book!

The first few nights were a bit rough as they had a 3 day Puja going on, which began with banging on a gong and ringing a giant bell at 3 am, which wasunfortunately right above my room. A Puja is a worship ritual to offer prayer and devotion to a belief system.  Thankfully these 3 am mornings ended after a few days, and they went back to their normal programming of 6 am Pujas. During this time I would practice meditation, to the tune of their Puja in the background.  The environment living in the Monastery was one of the most positive experiences of my life. The Monks have a great community, looking after each other, enjoying life, and radiating positive energy all around them. They would go about their days of Pujas, school, and work around the Monastery, while I would go out training in the mornings, building some trails, and then would meet them for meals and to visit.  The lifestyle was great, and I now had a new home as the Monks became my lockdown brothers.  

The Monks live a lot busier lives then I imagined, pretty much busy from 5am to evening, with a few breaks for food and rest in there.  On Fridays they have half the day off, and then Saturdays they have completely off. On Saturdays they always had a mission. One day we took off to the jungle for a hike, little did I know we were off to find new flag poles for their prayer flags.  It took 12 of us most the morning to haul back a couple huge logs. Once we arrived to the top of the hill above the Monastery they fired them down the slippery slope into the abyss.  

For riding the Monastery was the perfect basecamp.  There were 3 trails heading off the mountain from our location near 3000 meters.  One was ideal for riding, we had ridden it many times before as it switchbacked down the cliff in front of the residence.  There was one, the old access, which now had the Monastery road overlapping it, and then another one, fairly overgrown, as it traversed the mountainside to join onto the Ratnange mountain.  Ratnange is full of trails so this link was key, thus I spent a day cleaning it out, and soon had my trail from the Monastery linking to the epicentre of the Solukhumbu riding area.  It turned into a great lifestyle of training, living and experiencing life at a Buddhist resort in the Himalayas.  I fit in pretty good there, made me think I’m basically just a bike riding Monk! 

 

Wanting to give back to the Monks for giving a stranded traveller a home during the never ending Nepali Lockdown, I started thinking of different fundraisers to do.  With no racing on the schedule, everyone seemed to be doing Everesting attempts around the World. The Monastery access road was rough and steep at 13% gradient.  It was pretty ideal for an Everesting at 2.8 km, 366 M vertical gain per lap.  Getting special permission from the Solukhumbu police to do the ride during lockdown, I set off at 5am on June 10th for one of the hardest rides in recent memory.  The best part was watching the reaction of the Monks, and the workers on the nearby Stupa (A Stupa is an important form of Buddhist architecture which contains relics and is used as a place for meditation), as I repeated the climb 25 times, over the course of 18 hours. The Monks could see some suffering was going on so they brought out some hot food to keep me going.  Raising over $6000 CAD was a big bonus.  After this I figured it was time to try to get back to Kathmandu and then onwards to Canada if possible.  

It was tough leaving the Monastery in mid June, but I had been given special permission from the government office and the local police to ride my bike backto Kathmandu.  Requesting a permit, they said there was no permit for cycling and that if I got into any trouble to just call the head of Police in the Solu and he would get me out of it.  Sounded like a plan!  Heading out on June 16th, I first gathered my luggage from Phaplu, organized transport to Kathmandu for it, then took off to Pattale, a small village on top of a mountain 40 km away.  Here the Police had organized a homestay. Unfortunately I was caught in a huge rainstorm and showed up drenched, well after dark.  Following a tasty Dhal Bhat and short rest I was off the next morning at 6am as the mountainous 240 km ride to Kathmandu was going to be a big day and take 12-14 hours if all went smoothly. 

 

 

Hitting the first checkpoint 30 minutes into the ride, my aspirations were dashed as I was stopped along with 30 other people.  Calling the Police in Solu, they talked to the checkpoint police, but I was told without a pass there was no way to get by.  Thus I turned around to head back and soon saw the truck which had my luggage on it. Pulling a U-turn I chased them down, yelling pretty loudly.  Thankfully they heard me and pulled over.  Here, I sorted through my 3 bags on the side of the road, gathering basic supplies, loading my 60 litre Klymit backpack for another stint at the Monastery.  After nearly 4 hours I arrived back at the Monastery. The monks were pretty shocked to see me but also seemed quite happy. It was disappointing to be banned from Kathmandu, but heading back to the Monastery life felt like a homecoming.

Another week in the Himalayas was great, although the Monsoon rains were turning the riding more into mud sliding, and I had now missed a possible flight back to Canada. Heading back to the government office, I requested a proper pass for the next attempt for Kathmandu and finally received the documents needed. Driving could have been an option, but the thought of spending 12 hours in a jeep, with likely 6-8 others, who would surely not be wearing masks, and likely coughing, didn’t seem smart given the Covid situation. Besides the fact the winding rough roads in Nepal are far more enjoyable on a bike then in a
vehicle. 

On June 24th I set off for Kathmandu again, first organizing my luggage transport in Phaplu.  Organizing the luggage transport was difficult this time as the jeep I used the trip before, was refusing to take my stuff again.  I was confused so had my girlfriend call them.  She found out they thought I was a sketchy guy, and likely transporting drugs, as when I sorted through my bags on the side of the road, they saw my bags of white protein powder and chia seeds, thinking it was drugs. What to do. She got it sorted and thus I headed off to Pattale for the night.  

The next morning I left at 6am, arriving to the first checkpoint, holding my breath as the police checked my permit.  They stamped it, and waved me through! Yahoo I thought, one checkpoint down, still 7 to 8 to go, but it was a good start.  Next up was a mammoth descent from 3000 meters down to the valley below at 300 M.  I had been worried about rain on this ride, but instead it was a sunny day, the first one in over 2 months.  This was unfortunate as the heat down in the valley was over 40 degrees celsius.  Having lived in the cool temperatures of the Himalayas for the past 4 months, my body was not ready for this.

Over the course of the next 5 hours my body slowly unraveled.  My buddy Roan was riding out from Kathmandu to guide me through the checkpoints for the last 100 km.  By the time I reached him, my body was in a full meltdown.   He pulled me along for another 50 km, with a couple stops to dunk my head in water, but it was too late, my system was shutting down for the day.  Arriving in Bhakunde Besi, 50 km short of Kathmandu, at nightfall, we decided we best call it a night if possible.  The problem was that it was lockdown and all the hotels were closed. Even if they were open we’d likely not be invited as travellers during this sketchy time.  Too our luck, we had noticed a sign for Katumba Resort a few kilometers back.  We thought we’d give it a shot so we asked some locals for directions and rode a couple km out of town to find the shut down resort.  The owner was out watering his plants, so Roan got his attention and told him our situation.  Suprisinginly the guy was stoked to see us and opened up the resort for the night.  This was a life saver as I was not looking forward to riding another 50 km to Kathmandu though the night. With another 2 checkpoints to go, it could take hours if they decided to stop us.  Up to this point the checkpoints had been a breeze, especially after Roan had met me.  Every checkpoint he would just start yelling some Nepali words and the police would wave us through!

 

Katumba resort treated us great, feeding us Chicken Dhal Bhats, giving us a place to rest for the night, and in the morning we took off for Kathmandu.  It was a short 3 hour ride, although the sky opened up and we got drenched, and amusingly a bit chilled.  Where was this weather the day before!  Getting back to Kathmandu was a shock to my system after 4 months of mountain life.  Being in lockdown I barely recognized the usually chaotic city. The traffic was down to 20% levels, there was little pollution and most stores were shuttered. Roan helped me grab my luggage, and off  I went to find my new home, Anna Lisa’s condo.  She had been evacuated to the UK a few months back due to the Pandemic, and had generously offered her place until I could find a flight back to Canada.

I figured I’d be in Kathmandu for a week and could find a flight out within that time. I’ve now been here over a month.  My goal had been to avoid supporting the charter flights as they were being operated by travel agencies trying to make a fortune off other peoples misfortunate situations due to the Virus.  The government had set a cap for these flights, but no one was following it.  Canada had one repatriation flight back in April, but it was close to $4000 CAD back to Vancouver.  Prices were now down to $2100-2600 CAD to Toronto.  Luckily my friend Snowmonkey helped me find a bit better deal through a friend.   Not sure what happened but I subsequently ran into a natural hat trick of cancelled flights.  The first one I think there wasn’t enough passengers so it didn’t go.  The 2nd one they told me was cancelled and didn’t go, but later I found out through calling Turkish Airlines that they did fly that day.

 

The problem with these flights is that there are 3-4 middle man making money, and for some reason they canned my ticket, possibly because they sold a ticket at a higher price last minute then cancelled the cheaper ones.  What to do.  The 3rd flight was apparently 100% guaranteed to go on July 21st, but the government decided to ground all charter flights the day before this one left. They apparently did this as the charter companies had been ripping a lot of people off, and disobeying the governments cap on fares, thus they just stopped everything. It was time they did this but it has left a few of us stranded again.  This coincided with them lifting the country wide lockdown which was a surprise as previously they had a 5 step plan to get out of lockdown, and we were still on step 1!  

 

  

Now the struggle is to get my money back from the travel agency, every day they have new excuses 3 weeks after paying them nearly $2000 CAD in cash, I have just over half back.  Questionable business.  At this point the government claims the airport will open August 17th.  This seems like the next chance out. The government has changed the opening date for the airport every two weeks since March so it’s anyones guess for what might happen. Rumour has it this August 17th date might actually be legit.  Throughout the Covid 19 pandemic, the Nepali government seems to be following whatever India does, and since India started flying International flights again, it is a good sign for Nepal. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

What has been awesome is the riding in Kathmandu over the past month.  With little traffic or pollution it has opened up one of the best cycling cities in the World for us bikers.  Kathmandu has a pleasant climate being set at 1300 meters. Surrounded 360 degrees by mountains, there are endless tracks and trails to explore. For a marathon rider it doesn’t get any better.  I had always dreamed of being in Kathmandu without pollution or traffic and all it took was a global pandemic to do so!   Now that the lockdown has been abolished overnight, the city is unfortunately pretty much back to normal. Pollution is down thanks to the monsoon rains, and the tourist hub of Thamel is empty.

 In a few days the tourist activities such as trekking and mountaineering will apparently resume as the country is trying to gear up for the autumn tourism season.  It could be pretty cool being in the mountains, as it will surely be a very quiet tourist season.  The only problem is that Covid 19 isn’t controlled here and the possibility of another outbreak is real.  With the governments trigger finger ready to shut down the airport at any moment or pull another lockdown, any trip to Nepal, or probably any place in the world right now is like opening a Kinder surprise.  It’s really a tough situation to be in as Nepal depends so much on tourism dollars to keep the country going.  For some miraculous reason Nepal has only reported 45 Covid 19 deaths so in comparison to other problems such as hunger, poverty, landslides etc, it is still a relatively minor problem outside of the economic hit.  It must be all the Turmeric, garlic and ginger the locals are eating πŸ˜‰ 

 

What to do now?  I had a summer planned out in Canada with some adventures after quarantine, but it looks like I will be absent for a while longer.  2020 has been a gong show thus far, the past 4 months probably warrants a book.  I can’t help but think back to the water pipe that took me out on a bike ride back in February and changed the course of my life with a dislocated shoulder.  It’s still unfolding so I don’t know if I should thank that water pipe or not, but up to now I’m grateful for the experiences since then.   Canadian soil will feel that much better every day longer I’m out riding this Covid 19 wave. For now I’m resting for a few days as I rode my bike pretty hard the past 3 weeks, always thinking my time in Nepal was limited and trying to make the most of it.  We’ve now had 3 going away parties, 3 epic “last day” rides, and I’ve packed and unpacked my bags numerous times.  What to do but to continue rolling with it…

Over and Out.

Aug 5th update:  After being rumoured to be shut until Aug 17th, the airport is now accepting a few charter flights but none to Canada have yet to leave. Do I attempt to support this questionable business practice and gamble again on a $2000-2500 CAD ticket to Toronto, or now wait till regular flights operate from Aug 17th.. The other idea was to try and hop on an empty flight leaving Nepal, as there are 6-10 of these leaving a day which are bringing stranded Nepalese back from abroad.  For some reason the government has banned anyone from leaving on these flights, but at the same time are telling us foreigners that if we don’t leave within 2 weeks of normal flights opening, that they will fine us $8 usd a day in Visa fees since the start of lockdown.  $1300 USD is a hefty fine for being in lockdown.  It’s a weird situation as they are also trying to promote tourism and get more people to fly in here while the Covid19 is still not under control.   Crazy times…  


 

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