Words and photos: Beth Puliti
Originally published in Issue #41
It was Saturday, and Bishnu Tiwari was visiting his hometown 50 kilometers northwest of Kathmandu, Nepal, to attend his cousin’s wedding. Shortly before noon, as he and his brothers were preparing for the ceremony at their uncle’s home, the ground started vibrating. Subtle quivering gave way to violent shaking that nearly knocked Bishnu off his feet.
“It was like a swing, but terrific,” he recalled. “Houses in the village moved like branches of trees, and some of them even disintegrated before our eyes.”
Helpless against the powerful forces of nature, people cried out in despair as they watched their homes topple to the ground. In the distance, Bishnu saw the hills surrounding his village crumble into dust. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the Himalayas that day killed 8,000 people as the Indian tectonic plate was forced underneath the Eurasian plate. It leveled cities and caused a massive avalanche on Mt. Everest.
When the ground finally settled, Bishnu’s mind panicked: One kilometer away, his young son and daughter were in his family’s home which, a look in that direction confirmed, had been reduced to rubble.
“It was my life’s saddest moment,” Bishnu said. “My brothers and I ran as fast as we could down toward our completely destroyed house thinking it might too late to rescue our family members.”
Fortunately, their family survived, but they weren’t the only people to suffer such devastation. When the brothers traveled house to house to check in on their neighbors, they found out every home in their village had collapsed. “But everyone was safe,” Bishnu told me, “because of the marriage party.”
In a show of solidarity common in his village, everyone had been out helping to prepare for the wedding ceremony at the time of the natural disaster.
Nepal’s national mountain biking team was training for an upcoming national championship race a handful of kilometers outside of Kathmandu in Chobar when the earthquake struck. Initially dazed by the destruction, the cyclists immediately sprung to action when they heard screaming. Using their bare hands and ignoring neighbors who told them it was too hazardous, they worked together to free Pramila Nepali and her 7-year-old son Roshan, who had been buried alive.
The story caught the attention of the media, produced a flood of donations and inspired the team to continue relief efforts. “We were motivated to rescue earthquake victims in many different areas of Nepal,” said Ajay Pandit Chhetri, five-time Nepalese national mountain bike champion and five-time winner of Yak Attack, the highest mountain bike race on earth.
Utilizing their racing, cycling, guiding and tour company connections to form a massive relief effort, (NCRR) was born. This NGO consists of the Nepalese cross-country national mountain bike team (Ajay Pandit Chhettri, Roan Tamang, Narayan Gopal Mahajaran, Raj Kumar Shrestha, Suraj Rai, Laxmi Magar, Rajan Bhandari); as well as Santosh Rai, mountain bike guide and co-owner of Himalayan Single Track; Jenny Caunt, co-owner of Himalayan Single Track; and Jevi Limbu, mountain bike guide and Himalayan Single Track staff.
It took months before any form of government assistance reached some of the most heavily damaged villages in the aftermath of the earthquake. Roads were blocked by landslides and a fuel crisis kept potential aid vehicles at bay. The group took matters into their own hands and used the form of transportation they are most comfortable with to deliver help: a bicycle.
“It can reach everywhere,” said Ajay, NCRR president. “We could move fast and get to remote areas in the first few weeks before the roads were properly open,” said Caunt. “But we were limited in what we could carry.”
Much-needed supplies such as first aid, food, tents, blankets, roof sheeting and water purification were delivered to villages via bicycle. Additionally, temporary schools were provided with books, pens, clothing, school bags and more. In addition to racing, the cyclists are also mountain bike guides with intimate knowledge of almost all trails. Were the mountain bikers the ideal first responders? No, but they were the only responders.
“Mountain bikes are not ideal in mass emergency situations. Helicopters and government assistance and relief plans would have been much more efficient—but none of that happened,” said Caunt. “The entire time we were working [in our project area], we saw one helicopter, but it never landed, just circled around and went back.”
Ajay said the group did its best in a difficult situation to rescue and support victims. Today it is continuing to provide services to the villagers by building schools. Volunteers are using bicycles to travel to the village and supervise the construction work.
“It’s a 120 kilometer trip with about 2,000 meters in elevation gain. The boys use it as a training exercise as well to keep them fit for races,” said Jenny.
Five months after the earthquake rocked Nepal, I traveled there with my husband to see first-hand what made this country notoriously unforgettable among travelers. In a land where corruption is rampant, visiting the country’s hotels, restaurants and shops was also one of the best, and most direct, ways to help ensure the money we were spending reached Nepalis.
While we were there we planned to ride some of the country’s lesser-traveled dirt roads. As we mounted our bikes in Kathmandu, a cornucopia of conflicting sights, sounds and smells assaulted our senses as we made our way out of the city. Vibrant rickshaws pedaled on top of dusty brown streets. Burning incense tangled with smoldering trash in the air. Incessant honking harmoniously mingled with Om Mani Padme Hum chanting. And during our visit the sawing, drilling and hammering of new construction was interspersed throughout the chatter of daily lives.
Outside of the city we navigated the earthquake-riddled hillside over mud bogs, away from cliff drop-offs, up technical vertical terrain and through tiny villages. We passed hand-carved terraced rice paddies and massive swings made from bamboo set up for Dashain, Nepal’s greatest festival.
When the sun started to set about 50 kilometers outside of Kathmandu, we searched for a place to spend the night and came up empty—April’s earthquake had wiped out our options. At a local restaurant, we met a lawyer/college professor who offered to let us stay with his family after learning of our situation.
“My home is your home,” he told us. “There is plenty of space to sleep.”
Five kilometers down the road, in a partially rebuilt home, with wide smiles and heaps of food, Bishnu’s brothers, wife and young son and daughter waited for us to arrive.
Give and Go
Among the seven schools being built by Nepal Cyclists Ride to Rescue, four are completed and three are currently under construction. While contributions surged immediately following the earthquake, donors have since lost interest. The organization is in need of funds to complete the project and support victims.
“Most of the people helped only during the earthquake … but we are still helping by providing services,” said Ajay Pandit Chhettri, NCRR president.
To support NCRR’s efforts, you can donate directly through nepalcyclist.com.
“In spite of the government’s passive nature, we did our best to recover earthquake damages. It’s been one year, but the government has not provided such services. We did and we are still doing it,” said Ajay.
After the earthquake, Nepal saw a dramatic decrease in tourism, but contrary to would-be travelers’ fears, the country is open—and waiting—for business.
“Everything is normal. It is safe now. A bicycle is a vehicle that can easily reach anywhere and everywhere. So, cyclists can come without any fear!” said Ajay.