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Remembering the hardy and friendly Nepalese

WHEN news of Nepal's earthquake broke on Saturday, my first thoughts turned to the many Nepalis I met on my two trips there.

I'm not the most extroverted person, but you can't help but make friends with locals in Nepal, especially if you do long treks among the country's famous Himalayan mountain range, as I did in 2010 and 2012.

Each trek I did took three weeks, during which I met a new family every night because I stayed at a different lodge along the circuit.

This is on top of the dozens of guides and porters I ran into as we moved from village to village.

My heart is especially heavy because of my trekking experience. Nepal's mountains are stunning, but they're so remote that they are not accessible by car. Any help needed in those areas would take a long time to arrive, I immediately realised.

I had a first-hand experience of the difficulty of a helicopter evacuation during my first trek along the Annapurna circuit.

About eight days into our trek, as we crossed 4,000m, my friend developed acute mountain sickness, a potentially fatal condition brought on by low oxygen levels at high altitude.

Our guide decided my friend needed to see a doctor that morning, but Manang - the nearest major village where we could get help - was a half-day trek away.

With my friend drifting in and out of consciousness, we frantically grabbed our heavy bags and hurried to Manang, finally getting there past lunchtime.

The clinic may be the best one for miles, but it was tiny, with basic facilities. After a quick check, its resident doctor said my friend needed to return to the capital Kathmandu. The doctor used the village's only telephone to call for a helicopter.

"It may not come if it is too dark, or if the weather suddenly changes," he warned. "Let's hope for the best."

Thankfully the weather did hold up and the chopper just made it before dusk set in. I was allowed to accompany my friend, but the helicopter couldn't carry any more people, the pilot told me.

That meant our guide and porter needed to make the long trek back to Kathmandu themselves, spending another three to four days on foot and bus.

In some ways we were lucky. Lucky that Manang was just half a day away and not further. Lucky that Manang was one of the few villages along the circuit with a helicopter pad.

If this much effort is involved in evacuating one person from the mountains, the logistics needed to help the hundreds trapped on Everest, and to airlift those in need of urgent medical help, would surely be onerous.

As I'm writing this, the death toll has passed 2,000, with most of the news coming out of Kathmandu and Everest base camp. But these aren't the only affected areas and the toll is certain to climb.

For those who survive, there are worries about basic necessities like shelter, food and water, in a country whose GDP per capita is 3 per cent of Singapore's, and where electricity supply in the best of times can be patchy.

It is difficult, even for a hardy people who are used to the vagaries of the mountains and its sudden weather changes.

Just as devastating for the locals would be the sight of their capital and its Unesco World Heritage-listed Durbar Square being levelled.

Many Nepalis strike me as deeply religious, regularly praying and giving offerings at the many centuries-old Hindu and Buddhist temples and shrines in the square. Their spirituality helps them to cope with whatever cards life deals them.

Much of the square is now sadly rubble.

But they can be sure many people who have been touched by their resolve and hospitality will be praying for them.

chengwee@sph.com.sg