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‘The only option is to walk six days to Kathmandu’ Hundreds of Russians descended from the mountains in Nepal only to end up in coronavirus isolation. Now they can't get home.

Source: Meduza
Natalia Belokrenitskaya's personal photo archive

The spread of coronavirus has stranded more than 100 Russian nationals in Nepal. For the most part, these people are tourists on backpacking trips who hoped to climb to Everest Base Camp. Russia has no immediate plans to bring these citizens home and some are now running low on funds to pay for accommodations and food, without any idea when they might be allowed to leave. Meduza spoke to a handful of the Russians now stuck in Kathmandu.

Zlata Vasilieva and Tamara Asanova

tourists from St. Petersburg

Our trip was supposed to be about backpacking to Everest Base Camp. We'd dreamed about it for the last four years. When planning, we read up about the country, chose our route, thought hard about all the little details, got in shape, and got together our equipment. We bought our plane tickets to Nepal in August 2019 and immediately bought the other tickets we'd need. We booked our hotels, looked for a guide, and planned every other step of the trip.

We were a bit concerned [about coronavirus], but we didn't expect a pandemic on this scale. This isn't the first pandemic I can remember. Before, we went through bird flu and then swine flu, and I don't remember any interruption to air travel back then. So, this time around, we naturally didn't expect anything like this.

We flew to Nepal a month ago. The situation here was pretty calm. They were still issuing permits to backpackers and letting them into the mountains. The only difference is that they were taking people's temperatures. As far as I know, though, a lot of airports were doing that, too.

We ascended the mountain in a group of three (we already had a guide who was leading us). The first days of our climb were pretty smooth. We couldn't really follow what was happening with the rest of the world because we had almost no signal in a lot of places. It was only on the way back down when we realized the pandemic's scale.

We flew in a small plane from Lukla to Kathmandu on the last day that air travel was allowed. By the next day, there were no planes in the air. A few days after we got back to Kathmandu, Nepal declared a lockdown and completely suspended all air traffic.

Now we're staying in a hotel where we also get all our meals, and we're paying for everything out of our own pockets. The staff are very kind and they've offered all kinds of help. All they ask is that we don't go outside. From the doorway of our hotel, we can see that the streets are almost empty now. There are virtually no cars or people, though a patrol car drives by, from time to time. It's very different from the Kathmandu we used to know.

When we got back from base camp, we'd hoped to catch our planned flight home. We pretty much lost hope, though, when we saw the news about all foreign departing flights getting cancelled, knowing we won't be able to get home with flights between Nepal and Russia suspended. Now they've resumed the flights and we're waiting again and hoping we'll soon get some clear information about when we're going home.

Natalia Belokrenitskaya

tourist from Sochi

It took me a few years to plan this trip, not because of money but because it was just that hard to make time. A lot of people here, though, needed several years to save the money for their trips. Backpacking to base camp normally costs at least $2,500.

I landed in Nepal on March 9, when the situation around the world was tense, but it was focused mainly in China and parts of Europe. At that point, Nepal had only one confirmed case, and there were no travel advisories recommending trip cancellations. Nepal itself hadn't imposed any restrictions. People were living their lives as usual.

I never lost my signal while I was backpacking and we were all following the situation. A lot of tourists who go into the mountains cut down on their mobile connection, but we stayed online. We were still out there when we found out that entry visas were being halted on March 14. On the 20th, they announced that Nepal was closing its borders. We were at Everest Base Camp when we got that news. We contacted the Russian embassy and were told that there would be a flight for Russians out of Kathmandu on March 22. We knew we wouldn't be able to reach Kathmandu until the 25th, but they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out when you get here.” So we didn't panic.

We got into Lukla on the 24th. That was the day Nepal shut down all travel throughout the country. The only way to get out of Lukla was to walk six days to Kathmandu. The embassy offered us the use of a military helicopter at a cost of $600 per person for the two-hour flight. Meanwhile, the Nepalese offered us another option of $425 per person for a 1.5-hour flight. But as it happened, that same day, a plane was being sent for French citizens. We asked ourselves: why is an airplane being sent to pick up French citizens, but we have to fly in a military helicopter? We contacted the embassy. After two days, we were told that a plane was possible, but we would have to make arrangements with the airline ourselves — no one would charter a plane for us. The most that the embassy would do was write a letter stating that it supports our application and requests assistance. We sent all this to the airline.

We were in Lukla until March 28, by which time all the Europeans had managed to fly out. Thanks to the Nepalese government, we had free room and board in local hotels starting on the 26th. Before lunch on the 28th, we boarded a plane out of Lukla. I want to point out that the Europeans who left in the evacuation to Kathmandu didn't pay a dime. But we were charged $200 each.

Natalia Belokrenitskaya's personal photo archive

We've been in Kathmandu since March 28. We were taken to hotels that hadn’t closed yet – there are very few of them left. We're staying in our hotel and being fed, but we are paying for everything ourselves. In the evening, we're allowed to go into the city for one hour to buy essentials. The city is absolutely empty — everything is closed. In the evenings, some shops open illegally, but as soon as the clerks see the police, they close up. The streets are empty. It’s a dead city now. No pedestrians, no businesses — nothing at all.

Right now, the whole problem with getting home is that there are no direct flights between Nepal and Russia. So the airlines can't just send a plane for us — that would require permission from the Nepalese authorities and a license to land in Kathmandu. An alternative would be leaving on a flight operated by the Russian military or Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2015, when there was an earthquake in Nepal, this is how they got Russians out. The embassy is now working closely with Moscow and they thought they could get us home through India, but they couldn't get permission. We'd hoped new outbound flights would be announced on April 6, but there was no evacuation timetable announced as of this evening [on April 6]. Every day, the chances of getting home soon seem to melt away.

The only acceptable alternative I can see now is a flight out on Qatar Airways. They're the ones flying out Europeans and Americans, and there are at least two flights a day. Many of us are prepared to pay for the tickets immediately. Plus, European countries have instituted a policy of allowing their citizens to pay for their tickets after they get home. For the time being, we don't have any of this. This option isn't being offered to us and it's not clear why.

We are realists and we understand that the best case scenario is that evacuations will start after April 15, when Nepal is supposed to lift its restrictions on international flights. It’s possible that we'll then have the chance to return home through some European country on our own and at our own expense.

We've set up a group chat — there are like 150 Russians here — where we talk about all these problems. At first, accommodations and funds weren't much of an issue, but money for hotel rooms is running out for a lot of people. They're moving to less expensive hotels, hostels, and so on. The embassy has now offered a hostel option that costs about 100 rubles [$1.35] a day per person, but you've got to buy food yourself. That costs at least 1,000 rubles [$13.50] a day. If you really pinch your pennies, you can get by on 1,500 rubles [$20] a day.

The [Russian] government has promised 2,400 rubles [$32.50] in daily assistance, and we all applied online at “Gosuslugakh.” We were supposed to get the aid within 48 hours, but I submitted my request more than 50 hours ago and I don't see anything in my bank account.

They've also set up a tent city on the premises of the Russian cultural center, where they're admitting Russian citizens at no charge. But you still have to pay for food, of course. We went and had a look; it's well equipped. As far as I know, two people from Russia have said they want to stay in the tent city. They'd been evicted from their hotel and only have enough money for food.

Accommodations aren't the main problem, though. The main problem is the lack of quality medical care. The health insurance plans that most [tourists] bought have already expired, they're running out of essential medications, and they can't find the meds locally. The health services here are very low quality. Officially, they've confirmed nine cases of coronavirus in Kathmandu, but the whole country has only a few thousand tests. That's why we're afraid that the real number of cases is much higher. They simply aren't testing people. That said, none of the Russians here has any symptoms. We're all healthy. We're staying in hotels where they're constantly disinfecting everything. If you go out into the city, they work you over completely [with disinfectant] when you get back.

Based on the available information, the Russian embassy in Nepal is doing everything that it can. For some reason, though, we can't get the same results as the Europeans. I don't know why that is. The embassy isn't abandoning us, but the main thing is that we can't get even an approximate timeline or any information about the conditions for an evacuation. I can afford to stay here for an extended period, but not many are in the same position. The vast majority of the Russians here are strapped for cash. And not everyone has relatives who can offer financial assistance. Russia is in the second week of its own quarantine and many people there aren't working, either. People are cutting back on everything.

Transcript by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Tracey Orr

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