How We Got Home from Kathmandu for $104

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

After spending a few days in Kathmandu, we caught a series of flights over 35 hours that got us all the way back home to Denver. Even under the special circumstances, we were able to do like we did for most of the flights on the rest of our trip and book it using airline miles.

Booking the Flight

As we alluded to in a previous post, we had already booked a ticket leaving Nepal using miles. We were scheduled to fly from Kathmandu to Seoul, South Korea on May 12, which we purchased using United frequent flyer miles. United considers Nepal and South Korea to be in two separate regions, so it cost us 37,500 miles per person, plus $21.90 per person in fees. We got these United miles by transferring points from our Chase Ultimate Rewards account which we got by signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. We also had some United miles gained from signing up for the United MileagePlus Explorer Card.

Once we decided to head home, we had the idea to see if we could switch our South Korea ticket to one heading back all the way to Denver. Amazingly, there was United award availability for the day we wanted to leave, Sunday May 3. We called United customer service and fed them the flight details, and they agreed to change our ticket. We did have to pay the difference in miles and fees, as the new flight to Denver cost 42,500 miles and $52.20 per person. The United rep kindly agreed to waive the change fee once we explained the circumstances, which we were definitely grateful for.

The Journey

Our trip back to Denver required three flights: Kathmandu to Bangkok on Thai Airways, Bangkok to Tokyo on Thai Airways, and Tokyo to Denver on United itself. Both layovers were fairly long, and two of the flights were as well, so it would require over 35 hours of travel time.

We got to the airport in Kathmandu four hours ahead of scheduled departure, since we had heard that it had been very crowded and chaotic since the earthquake. As we headed into the terminal, we saw missing people posters, including one for Or Assaf, who rode our bus to Syabrubesi.

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There was already a long line at the Thai Airways checkin desk, so we were happy we got there early. But that was the main delay; immigration and security lines were actually quite short. We spent a couple of hours in a small lounge where we got a bite to eat and bought some souvenirs with our last rupees. We also ran into the Japanese tour group which had sheltered with us at Bamboo. It turned out they were on our flights to Bangkok and Tokyo!

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As we headed out to our plane on the tarmac, we got our last look at Kathmandu. We could tell the airport was still quite busy with relief supplies being ferried around. We had mixed emotions: happy to be going home to see family and friends, but sad to be leaving Nepal on such a low note.

Once in Bangkok, we had four hours before our next flight. We were excited to be able to sample our favorite cuisine from the Asian portion of the trip again, so we sought out a restaurant that served Thai food. We found a small Thai Muslim place and enjoyed some of our favorites.

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One part of the flight to Tokyo that we were looking forward to was the plane itself – it was our first time to ride on the giant Airbus A380. Our seats were towards the front of the bottom level of the double-decker plane, so we didn’t really get a feel for how big it was until we saw the outside after the flight. The flight itself was overnight, arriving in Tokyo at 6:30 AM, so we probably should have tried to sleep, but we mostly ended up watching movies on the fancy in-seat entertainment devices.

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Arriving into Tokyo was a little depressing, because Japan was to have been the final stop on our round-the-world trip. As we looked out onto Tokyo from the plane, we pondered what could have been. Our layover was ten hours, so we considered leaving the airport to get a taste of Japan, but ultimately we decided that we were too tired to really enjoy it. We would leave Japan for a full visit sometime in the future.

Our view of Tokyo as we flew in

Our view of Tokyo as we flew in

Instead, we used two United Club passes (another perk of the United MileagePlus Explorer Card) to spend the day hanging out in the United Club. This was much more relaxing that just sitting in the outside area. We were even able to get a nice nap in. As the day went on, we took frequent advantage of the free snacks that were placed out, including sushi. We also had some free sake and draft beer poured by a pretty neat machine.

The flight from Tokyo to Denver was thankfully direct, but long. It also went back in time, so to speak: since we crossed the dateline, we arrived in Denver (at 12:45 PM) earlier than we left Tokyo (at 5:00 PM). This flight was on another plane we were interested to fly on for the first time, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The interior was quite nice and new, and we had another good personal in-flight entertainment screen to help us pass the time.

We hoped for a nice, sunny day to welcome us back to Denver, but unfortunately it was cloudy and rainy. Nevertheless, it felt good to be home.

Walking into the Denver Airport

Walking into the Denver Airport

Postscript: Cancelling Our Japan Flight

As we said, we had planned on making our last stop on our trip in Japan. We had gone ahead and booked our return flight home from Tokyo as well. The booking on this was fairly complicated: we used American Airlines miles to book a series of flights from Tokyo to Denver, one on Japan Airlines and another on American Eagle. This was especially complicated because we couldn’t book it on the AA site, since it doesn’t actually show Japan Airlines availability. You can see it on the British Airways site though, so we got the flight numbers from there and had to call American and feed them the flight info. This cost us 32,500 AA miles and $44.90 per person.

Once we came home though, we weren’t going to go back to Japan, so we wanted to cancel this flight and get back our miles. Cancelling was easy, but American charged a “reinstatement fee” of $175 to get the miles back. We tried to explain to the representative about our extenuating circumstances, but she couldn’t change the policy. So, we would like to again thank United Airlines for being considerate and waiving fees, since other airlines apparently can’t.

We are wrapping up the story of our earthquake experience in Nepal. We were extremely fortunate to survive and to be able to come home to the USA. Our stories are now over, but those in Nepal are not that fortunate. Huge numbers of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Please take some time to donate (any amount, large or small, can help) to help this beautiful country recover. We’ve collected list of organizations that you might consider here.

After the Earthquake Part 5: Returns and Reunions

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

We woke in the US Embassy one week after we had set out on our bus ride to begin our trek of the Langtang valley. It had been the most comfortable secure night we had since then. The US Embassy was extremely solid and we didn’t even feel any aftershocks while we were in the building.

The Embassy was still serving hot food to all those still sheltering there, so we had a nice warm breakfast with our companions, Corey and Kathleen. After some discussion, we all decided that we wanted to head back into Thamel, the backpacker center of Kathmandu. Kathleen wanted to continue to support the businesses there by buying some more souvenirs and we (and Corey) wanted to see if it was possible to pick up our things that we left when we went on the trek.

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We had spent our previous nights in Kathmandu at the Hotel Bright Star, which we really enjoyed. The owner was an unbelievably kind man who had gone out of his way to help us. We still had his business card and were able to reach him on his cellphone. We were thankful to hear that his family were all safe and that he would meet us down the street from the hotel that morning.

We wrote a bit more about the hotel before and after the quake in our post Kathmandu: Before the Quake. But, it still breaks our hearts. Hotel Bright Star was still standing after the quake, but the hotel right next door was completely destroyed. Unfortunately, there was also quite a bit of damage to Hotel Bright Star and we do not know when/if it will operate again. The owner had sent his family to Pokhara, but was waiting near his hotel for us (and several other trekkers) who had left stuff with  him. His kind spirit in the face of his own personal tragedy is something we will never forget.

We also visited Corey’s hotel and he was able to pick up his things as well. On our way back, Eric spotted someone he recognized on a scooter zipping past. It was Valerie (the French girl who had just celebrated her birthday with chocolate pancakes in Bamboo with us the day before) and her guide Srijan!! We called her name and they stopped to share their stories. We were so glad that they had both safely made it back to Kathmandu. We weren’t overly surprised though, as we knew the French had been waiting on helicopters when we left Dhunche the day before. We had a brief but welcome reunion with them before we had to head on our way.

We carried our bags back to where we had been planning to meet Kathleen. While we were waiting for her, Eric spotted a group of our Bamboo friends in the back of a taxi flying past us! (Yes, Eric is really observant and has good eyes!) We tried to follow them, but couldn’t catch up. Corey and Della grilled Eric to see if he could tell exactly who was in the taxi. He was pretty sure that it had been the South African couple and the Australian sisters. We were disappointed not to have spoken with them, but so thrilled that they had also arrived in Kathmandu from Dhunche. It had been quite hard for us to leave our Bamboo family there the day before.

Corey had an idea for a place for us to eat lunch, so after we met back up with Kathleen, we headed that way. We had sat down (happy to see that the place was relatively undamaged and was serving food) and began to order. Suddenly, as we were looking out the glass doors of the restaurant we saw more people we knew: Aviv, Yonaton, and another Israeli friend from Bamboo! We ran out the doors (probably to the confusion of the wait staff) and called them back. After several hugs and brief summaries of rescue, they invited us to a reunion at the Chabad House in Kathmandu where the Israelis had already been planning to meet. We agreed we would see them there.

We returned to our lunch but had to jump up again a few minutes later. We saw the Australian sisters walking by! Again, we ran to the street and experienced more hugs and short tales of helicopters before also inviting them to the Chabad house for the reunion. It turned out that the rest of our Bamboo team had all been taken from Dhunche to Kathmandu only that day via large Nepali military helicopters (aside from a few individuals who had made it on transports the day before). They told us that there was no one from the Bamboo team left in Dhunche when they left!

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At 1 pm on May 1, 6 days after the earthquake that stranded us all together, we met with our Bamboo team at the Chabad house. Unfortunately, not everyone was there, but through discussion, we now knew that everyone we had been with on the mountain had made it safely away. We had even been in touch with the Lithuanian brothers (who had walked out of Bamboo) via Facebook and knew they were on their way home. It was extremely emotional and we were all feeling thrilled to see each other in a safe place!

We left each other that afternoon, only after agreeing to meet again for dinner to share each other’s company once more before people started leaving Nepal.

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By this point, the support operations at the embassy were clearly winding down. There were only a few others still sheltering there, and the staff were starting to take some deserved days of rest, so it felt quite empty at times. The Marines who guarded the embassy seemed to be ready to not have to worry about our security as well. We decided we should either leave the embassy or head home, and opted for the latter, booking a ticket back to the States for Sunday.

We spent one more day in Kathmandu and went into Thamel once more. We made an effort to spend all of the cash we had brought with us on the trek buying souvenirs and donating to people who were working for relief. We said goodbye to Kathleen tearfully as she left for home. We shared a lovely meal at another one of Corey’s favorite restaurants before we too had to say goodbye to this beautiful but devastated country.

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On our way to the airport on Monday, May 3, we had a sobering discussion with our taxi driver. “Nepal is finished,” he said, “finished! Homes are destroyed, all tourists are leaving. There is no work. Nepal is finished!” We hope with all our being that he is far from correct. While we know there is a lot of effort needed to rebuild, we also know that there are a lot of dedicated people our there working very hard to do so. See this link for just some of the stories of people working to support Nepal. We hope that you’ll join them. In addition, Nepal is a beautiful country and will continue to be beautiful. Don’t take it out of your travel plans – they need tourism now more than ever. Let’s all help prove that taxi driver wrong!

We will continue to tell the story of our earthquake experience in Nepal. We were extremely fortunate to survive and to be able to come home to the USA. Our stories are now over, but those in Nepal are not that fortunate. Huge numbers of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Please take some time to donate (any amount, large or small, can help) to help this beautiful country recover. We’ve collected list of organizations that you might consider here.

Use these links to read the rest of our Nepal Earthquake story:

After the Earthquake Part 4: Rescue

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

On April 30, we were quick to rise from bed at dawn (5 AM). We had slept well, since there were extra blankets now that there were just 22 people left. The night’s chill was still in the air, but we didn’t dawdle getting going for the day because the Dutch man who was keeping control of the satellite messaging device announced to everyone that rescue was coming “soon.” It was a beautiful morning in the valley, so we figured weather concerns would not stop the helicopters.

In addition to making sure our personal bags were packed and ready to go, we also all worked on getting the camp cleaned up and things put away as if we weren’t spending another night. We folded all of the blankets and stuffed them into the small cave, put all the remaining bottled water in one big box near the rock, did all of the dishes, and got all the food in one location under the tarp.

We did have time for a special breakfast that morning. It was the woman from France’s birthday, and one of the Australian sisters figured out a way to make pancakes as a special treat. They even made a special pancake cake with chocolate sauce on it, and we all sang “Happy Birthday.” It was another of those moments where it felt for a little while like a fun camping trip with friends as opposed to a survival situation.

Two of the Dutch people decided that it would be a good idea to post people constantly at the beach helipad to wave down any helicopters, especially if it was a large helicopter that couldn’t land at the small helipads that the other helicopters had used. They volunteered for the first shift out there.

The big worry for the morning (besides whether the helicopter would come) was the battery for the satellite message device. It originally had been draining slowly, and we had plenty of personal power banks to charge it, but with the increased message traffic as we all contacted loved ones, the battery had gotten critically low. Luckily, one of the side projects people had worked on over the past few days was getting the solar power systems from the teahouses set back up. Some of the inverter technology was broken, but they finally found a device that would charge the phone. One of the Dutch sat by the charging phone and made sure no one bumped it and broke our connection to the outside world.

As the morning went on, we got more and more antsy. No one wanted to do too much work since we thought rescue was coming soon. The skies were crystal clear, but not a single helicopter had come down the valley. (As it turned out, the delay was due to bad weather in Kathmandu). We all just sat, staring at the skies and straining our ears for the sound of rotors.

Around 8:30, there was a fairly significant tremor that caused a small landslide down the trail. By this point we were much less tense about the sound of falling rocks (once we knew it was in the distance), but it still didn’t help with the anxiety.

Finally, around 9, we heard the sound of a helicopter (one we had all become very familiar with, along with landslides). It took a moment to spot it – and then we saw it was coming in low! Not as low as the others though and it passed by Bamboo. But then it circled in the air near the beach helipad where those waiting had been waving flags, and then landed.

There was then a huge flurry of activity. The group that was drawn to go first grabbed their things, and so did the two of us, in case it was a helicopter for just the Americans.

Under normal conditions, to get to the beach from our camp took about a 5 minute walk over rocky ground. We guessed that the helicopter wouldn’t wait that long for its load, so we all ran as fast as we could praying that we wouldn’t trip. The more fit members of the group did an excellent job of pushing us all to go faster.

When we got to the beach we could see that it was another small, private Nepali helicopter, so we scanned the landing area to see if there had been a coordinator on board who could explain what the situation was.

We spotted two tall men, both wearing baseball caps (one for the University of Alaska), so we figured it was a helicopter sent by the Americans! They quickly found us and their accents confirmed it. They were two members of the Special Forces who were helping with the rescue operations. They confirmed that we were the Americans on our list and told us to get in.

The mix of emotions at this point was very powerful. On one hand, we were extremely excited to be rescued, and were not going to pass up the helicopter that had been sent for us. On the other hand, the thought of being whisked away while the rest of what now felt like a family to us sat back on the beach was heartbreaking.

But then as we headed to the helicopter, one of the Special Forces guys assured us, “Don’t worry, everyone is getting out!” With huge relief in our hearts we got on board. It was a very small helicopter, with three seats up front (one for the pilot – a Nepali) and only a small cargo area behind. We crammed into the small cargo area (with our bags). Soon after, three members of the first group crammed in the back with us, and one up front along with one of the guides. The Special Forces guys stayed back at camp to coordinate the rest of the rescue (and to take pictures of the camp and surrounding area as documentation to the higher-ups as to why our rescue was worth paying for).

The mood on the helicopter was jubilant. We all couldn’t believe we were getting rescued. The helicopter took us down the Valley we had hiked up five days before, and we tried to look out and see its current conditions.

We were taken to the army base at Dunche, the same town that we had passed through on our bus ride to get to the start of the trek. When we landed there was a flurry of activity as we had to be registered on the lists of a bunch of different uniformed men (probably from the same groups that were the checkpoints on the bus ride).

One stood out though – Tom, a US consular officer. He was the one coordinating the efforts of the Special Forces guys for the embassy. Della somehow heard him say he was the ambassador, which was later proved incorrect but made us feel pretty special at the time! He explained that the US had rented the Nepali helicopter for a block of time, which they would use to get all of the people from Bamboo out plus anyone else they could find in the valley.

The rest of his news wasn’t as great. They really only had authorization to get us out of the dangerous situation in the valley and to this town of Dhunche, which had been affected by the quake but was not still threatened by landslides since it was on top of a mountain. He said there was shelter in town, plus restaurants were open. Getting to Kathmandu was up in the air though; the road was (not surprisingly) broken, so we could try to walk for six hours down the road to Kalikasthan where there were buses. Or, there was a rumor that the Nepali Army would use big helicopters at some point to get the tourists out, so we could wait around in Dhunche for that. He did tell us to stay close though – the helicopter did have to go back to Kathmandu, and there might be some extra spots that we could squeeze into.

We left the army area to go see what the situation was. Up a small hill was a collection of big blue tents with bricks as the floor. There were some other trekkers there who we bombarded with questions to try and figure out what was going on. What we heard wasn’t great – it was pretty cold at night, and there wasn’t a clear way to get blankets. You basically just had to grab a tent and hope for the best. It was safer on paper than Bamboo, but actually seemed like it would be less comfortable.

As we evaluated the situation, we could see the other Bamboo people landing on their rescue helicopters. As they emerged from the army area and we saw that everyone was there, there were big hugs all around.

We had cell phone service, so we texted and eventually called our families. (A special thanks to T-Mobile, our cell provider, who after the earthquake established free calls and text to and from Nepal, so we and others in our group could get in touch). At first they didn’t even believe it was us, because their latest message had been that no rescue was possible due to the bad weather.

Someone suggested going into town for some food. We were torn, because we wanted to stick with our “family,” but Tom from the embassy had told us to stick close. We thought we might have time, so we headed towards the village with the rest of the group.

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On the way though, the group started talking to two other people who had been in Dhunche the previous night. Their accents sounded familiar – they were other Americans (from Alaska). Della told them that the US ambassador was on the helipad (again, not actually true but what we thought at the time) and they were very interested to hear what he had to say, since they had been having trouble getting in touch with the embassy.

We reluctantly split from the Bamboo group and headed back up to the gate of the army area with the other Americans. We tried to peer inside and see Tom, and we also asked the guard at the gate, but he wasn’t there. We couldn’t figure out where he had gone but stayed waiting outside the gate. Finally we saw him inside and called him over. Unfortunately, his news hadn’t changed, and our best bet was to wait until the next day or walk.

Some of the other Bamboo people were also waiting near the gate. There was a large group of French people who had been told by their embassy that they would be helicoptered out, and the Dutch (who still had the satellite device) had heard the same thing. It was interesting how quickly we shifted from “Team Bamboo” to allying ourselves by country. It was a little sad, but seemed to be the reality of how the next steps were being handled.

We were sitting in the gate area but with not much hope of anything happening. Then, Tom appeared again! He said they would have three spots on the helicopter taking them back to Kathmandu. At this point there were five Americans: us two, Corey from Bamboo, and the other American couple. The couples weren’t going to split, so it would be Corey and one of the couples. We offered to let the other couple go first, since they had been in Dhunche a night already, but they said they didn’t think that was necessary. They proposed a coin toss, with an American quarter. Eric called it in the air – “heads.” It was heads.

We gave hugs to the others, and headed back inside the army area with Corey, Tom and the Special Forces guys to wait for the helicopter, which was out doing something else. We ended up waiting for quite a while and having a nice conversation. Tom and the Special Forces guys were just the nicest people and so calm – it really helped in the situation.

We got word that the helicopter was delayed, so Eric and Corey went down to use the restroom behind an army truck. Just as they were finishing, one of the Special Forces guys came to find them – the helicopter was landing! They raced back up to the helipad and jumped on board with the rest.

We think they must have had to do some special convincing, because they crammed a huge number of people on board the aircraft. The two of us lucked out and got to sit up front with the pilot. In the back, they fit Corey, the two Special Forces guys (not small guys and with big bags), Tom, a Nepali woman with a broken arm, and a ground coordinator.

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The ride back to Kathmandu, which had taken over eight hours by bus, took about 20 minutes. We felt very lucky to be sitting up front and getting great views. (We also remarked on the irony of us getting a helicopter ride – we had only a couple of weeks earlier discussed that taking a helicopter ride would be fun some day). We looked out at the countryside as the ride went along. There were plenty of flattened buildings along the terraced hillsides.

We held our breath a bit as we crested the final hill and got our first look at the Kathmandu valley. At first glance, it seemed like the devastation was less than we had feared, as most buildings were still standing. Upon closer inspection though, we could see many distinctive patches of orange, which were the tarps that the residents were sleeping under, too afraid to move back into their cracked homes.

We landed at the Kathmandu airport, which was abuzz with activity. There were many planes from other countries, including big ones from the Chinese and Thai Air Forces. We rode on a pickup to the parking lot of the airport, where the commander of the Special Forces unit met us in a different pickup (which turned out to be armored) to give us a ride to the embassy.

Our eyes were wide open on the ride to the embassy, taking in the sights of Kathmandu and trying to ascertain its status. There was actually less damage than we expected, but we did still see many people living outside. The embassy itself was quite a sight to see – it looks like your average American office building, which stands out quite a bit among the traditional Kathmandu atmosphere.

After going through a security check and a registration with the front desk, we were taken into the consular area for a debriefing with those who had been working to get us rescued. We were asked for any information we could give about the large number of unaccounted for trekkers, but we had to say that unfortunately we hadn’t seen them, since we were just on our first day and had just trekked a short distance.

Someone went to go find Kathleen, the American woman who had gotten out on the Israeli helicopter. She had been staying in the embassy since her rescue and had been feverishly working to get the rest of us out as well. It was a very emotional reunion for all of us.

But we didn’t have too long to sit and reminisce, because the PR woman at the embassy asked if we would be willing to immediately do an interview with Good Morning America. We were a little shocked that our story would be of that much interest to anybody, but she explained that we were one of the first feel-good stories that the embassy could promote. Before we even had a chance to shower, we were whisked away to a filming location outside of a fancy hotel for our interview, so if you watched it, you saw us as we looked on the mountain. We also discovered how the media can misinterpret things – for example, we were not living in an “ice cave” like the ABC news report said, and we had to correct a few people that we were not caught in an avalanche on Everest.

After the interviews, we returned to the embassy where Kathleen showed us around. The embassy had been doing a remarkable job of sheltering people in Kathmandu, both tourists and those who lived locally who were afraid to move back into their homes when aftershocks were still going on. Kathleen told us that maybe 200 people had been spending the night; this isn’t a normal thing, so people were having to sleep in hallways and share the one shower per gender. By the time we arrived though, many people had either left the country or moved back outside the embassy, so the PR woman found a nice conference room with air mattresses that we could stay in for as long as we needed to.

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One great thing the embassy had was a library with computers that had Internet that we could use. We opened up our email and Facebook for the first time since before the earthquake, and we were just blown away by the amount of activity we saw. One thing to understand is that we were living in a bubble out at Bamboo, with the only contact being Della’s father. We naively assumed that he was making a few phone calls and perhaps had let a few people know on Facebook that we were safe. We had NO IDEA how many people had mobilized to help, or were even just posting messages of support. If you were one of these people, and you are reading this, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We can’t say it enough.

Our glimpse at Facebook was overwhelming, but was interrupted by an in-person visit with a reporter from Time Magazine. He wanted to write an in-depth story, so he let the two of us and Corey tell the story of our time at Bamboo as we wanted to. This was the first time we had really gotten a chance to tell the whole story to an outsider, and we overloaded him with overlapping narratives, diagrams, and so on. We even had to finish the interview over the hot dinner being served by the embassy. The resulting piece was a really good representation of our story. (The dinner itself was also really good, even if it was just served out of cafeteria trays – we skipped the rice and went straight for the mashed potatoes and meat dishes).

While we were finishing up our interviews, one of the Special Forces guys came by and asked to talk with us when we got the chance. We were worried this meant we had done or said something wrong, so we were nervous as the conversation began. But as it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. He just wanted to make sure we were doing ok, since he was worried that he had rushed away after the rescue. He told us that after they got everyone out, they had taken the helicopter further up the valley to Langtang village and seen the devastation there. He seemed to be a bit shaken by this, and reiterated to us how happy he was to have been able to help us. He did ask us for one thing… a big hug.

Then, we finally, blissfully, got to take our first hot shower in days. The amount of dirt that came off was pretty gross. Luckily the two of us had saved an extra clean change of clothes that we could get into.

As night fell, the embassy got pretty quiet as most people headed home. It was hard for us to believe, as we sat in nice padded chairs, that just earlier that morning we had been sitting under a rock in Bamboo Village. After such a long day, we figured that we would crash, but we all felt still too full of energy. Eric and Corey worked on catching up the journals that they had been keeping throughout their respective trips, comparing notes and trying to remember the details. The PR lady hosted us in her office for a debriefing session with a secret stash of beer and wine. We did another brief check of email and Facebook, then went to sleep, not on top of rocky dirt under a tarp, but rather on top of an air mattress with the solid roof of the US Embassy overhead.

We will continue to tell the story of our earthquake experience in Nepal. We were extremely fortunate to survive and to be able to come home to the USA. Our stories are now over, but those in Nepal are not that fortunate. Huge numbers of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Please take some time to donate (any amount, large or small, can help) to help this beautiful country recover. We’ve collected list of organizations that you might consider here.

Use these links to read the rest of our Nepal Earthquake story:

Kathmandu: Before the Quake

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

Usually after we visit a city we like to write a nice summary post about where we stayed, what we did and where we ate. We’d still like to discuss some of these things with regards to Kathmandu, but it feels weird to talk about the city without mentioning that just a few days after our visit a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit and did a lot of damage in the city and the country as a whole. So we’ll try to balance our discussion of our time in Kathmandu with what we know of what happened to the sights after the quake.

We arrived in Kathmandu late on the evening of April 20, on a Dragonair flight from Hong Kong. (We really enjoyed using the personal entertainment device on the flight and were able to watch Into the Woods and four episodes of Downton Abbey).

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We didn’t get in until almost midnight, but the owner of our hotel, the Hotel Bright Star, had stayed up to check us in. We had a small room on the top floor – the stairs were a nice preview of what we expected to be a lot of uphill hiking on our trek.

This was only a preview of the generosity that the owner showed us during our three days in Kathmandu. He provided plenty of good advice, and walked us halfway to the tourist office (so we wouldn’t get lost) to pick up our trekking permits.

Hotel Bright Star on its quiet street

Hotel Bright Star on its quiet street

That made it that much harder to see him again after the quake. We had left two bags at the hotel while trekking, and we went back into town on May 1 to pick them up. He said on the phone that he and his family were ok, but when we got there it was clear how close they had come to disaster.

The hotel next door had collapsed during the quake, and all that was left was a pile of bricks and tangled wires. The owner, clearly shaken, told us that 10 people had died inside. We ran inside our hotel to get our bags, and it was clear that it was the first time that he had been back in. He didn’t want to linger, and neither did we; one of the walls of the lobby on the side of the collapsed building was bulging inwards.

The same view after the quake, with the hotel just beyond in rubble

The same view after the quake, with the hotel just beyond in rubble

He said the rest of his family had been safely moved to Pokhara, but he would remain staying in a building down the street until all of the left baggage had been picked up. Hopefully the people who left their bags will return soon…

The Old Quarter

On our first day in Kathmandu we did a self-guided walking tour (led by Lonely Planet) through the old part of Kathmandu. We quickly decided that Nepal was way different from any other country that we had visited on the entire trip! Bright colors all over the place, smells both good and bad in the air, people hawking items, bicycle rickshaws asking for rides, centuries-old temples in every nook and cranny… it was almost overwhelming!

After the quake, we only ventured back to the more touristy part of the Old Quarter, called Thamel. There wasn’t much physical destruction, but the change in the atmosphere of the streets was palpable. Half of the shops were closed up, and the foot and vehicle traffic was maybe half of what it once was. The sense of calm as compared to before was eerie.

Durbar Square

The main historic attraction in Kathmandu is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Durbar Square, a collection of temples and palaces that was one the home of the Nepali royalty. We spent a whole afternoon exploring the different sights.

The earthquake did a great amount of damage to Durbar Square. We didn’t make it back to see for ourselves, but the pictures we have found online show the devastation.

Kasthamandap

This temple, built in the 12th century, is what gave Kathmandu its name. To us it felt a little bit more like a pavilion, with a large awning sheltering an open space with a few shrines.

Outside of Kasthamandap

Outside of Kasthamandap

From news reports, it appears that Kasthamandap has been completely destroyed.

Kasthamandap

Not our picture – photo source http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/27/nepal-earthquake-destroys-kathmandu-valleys-architecture-buildings-heritage. Note the same two statues as in our before picture.

 

Maju Deval

This tall Hindu temple dominated the center of Durbar Square. We joined the crowds of locals at the top and used it as a nice platform to rest our legs and watch the buzz of activity in the square.

The Maju Deval was completely destroyed in the earthquake, and only the platform remains.

King Pratap Malla’s Column

Near the entrance to the square’s museum was a small area with more temples and a large column with a statue on the top. The statue is a representation of the famous Nepali king from the 17th century.

The column with the statue of King Pratap Malla on top

The column with the statue of King Pratap Malla on top

During the earthquake, the statue fell off its pedestal, but it appears that the surrounding temples are standing.

Hanuman Dhoka

In the center of the Durbar Square area is the Hanuman Dhoka complex, which contains the buildings that make up the Royal Palace. We visited the museum here, which was a collection of dusty artifacts from the last kings of Nepal (before the monarchy was dissolved). Inside the complex were a few nice courtyards.

It’s a little hard to figure out what happened to this complex during the earthquake. It sounds like there was major damage, but it is still standing. A few of the towers collapsed though. You can see some of the same scenes in this video:

Swayambhunath

We took an afternoon to walk out to this Buddhist temple located on a hill overlooking the city. The final climb up the steps was pretty strenuous, but definitely worth it! The iconic face of Buddha stares down at you from the stupa above. There are many other pieces of sculpture with both Buddhist and Hindu themes. On both the walk up and down we saw a few of the monkeys that give the temple its nickname of the “Monkey Temple.”

Swayambhunath was damaged during the earthquake. The large stupa itself looks ok, but many of the buildings surrounding are in ruins.

 

Where We Ate

As in Myanmar, part of the fun of visiting Nepal was retracing the steps of Della’s parents on their round-the-world trip. Their favorite restaurant in Kathmandu was Utse’s, a Tibetan restaurant. We were happy to see that it was still there and was even in the Lonely Planet. We went there for dinner and enjoyed our Tibetan meal. We went back to check on it after the quake; the building seemed intact but they were not yet open for business.

Enjoying the Tibetan set plate with delicacies such as steamed momos

Enjoying the Tibetan set plate with delicacies such as steamed momos

Another dining highlight was a bit of a splurge for us. We had a nice dinner at the Thamel House, located in a charming old building. What drew us here was the free dance show that went on throughout our meal. This time we got a Newari set meal, and got to sample local specialties such as dal bhat and other curries. When we walked by after the quake, it seemed like the building was in good shape and they were re-opened already.

Final Thoughts

If you had asked us before the earthquake, we probably would have said that we found Kathmandu to be a bit dusty, crowded and chaotic, but at the same time a fascinating place to explore years of history and an intriguing culture. But now with the damage that the quake did to some of the sights we saw, we just hope that this city can recover and rebuild to allow others to see and experience this treasure for themselves.

We will continue to tell the story of our earthquake experience in Nepal. We were extremely fortunate to survive and to be able to come home to the USA. Our stories are now over, but those in Nepal are not that fortunate. Huge numbers of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Please take some time to donate (any amount, large or small, can help) to help this beautiful country recover. We’ve collected list of organizations that you might consider here

Using Points to Fly Cheaply Around Asia

In the past we’ve tried to use our frequent flyer points for as many flights as possible, but within Asia we have actually struggled to find ways to fly for free. The points we have just didn’t help for flying to the places that we would have liked to go. But recently we’ve been able to figure a few out!

Phong Nha to Hanoi for $6.58

This one was a last-minute decision. To get from the caves of Phong Nha to Hanoi in northern Vietnam was not as easy as we had originally anticipated. We thought that there would be multiple transport options, but as it turned out, the only bus from the village was a night bus, and the train (from the closest city of Dong Hoi) would take 11 hours and either involve an overnight stretch or take an entire day. All sounded like grueling options.

We were really struggling to choose the best of these limited options, and then we thought outside of the box. Using the wikipedia page for Hanoi’s airport (a top tip for figuring out what you can do), we saw that there was a direct flight on Vietnam Airlines from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. We ran an award flight search on Air France, and saw that we could use their Flying Blue miles to fly on this flight (since Air France and Vietnam Airlines are partners) – for $3.29 in fees plus 10,000 Flying Blue miles per person.

Even with a private transfer to Dong Hoi airport, this worked out as cheaper than the train (which we had been leaning towards) and got us there significantly earlier. To get the Air France Flying Blue miles, we were able to transfer our existing points from American Express Membership Rewards that we had gotten as a signup bonus for a couple of different American Express cards.

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On a propeller plane!

 

Hanoi to Hong Kong for $64

With Vietnam Airlines being a Sky Team alliance partner with Air France, our flights within and from Vietnam were prime targets to use the Flying Blue miles on. We were also able to snag a ticket to Hong Kong on a Vietnam Airlines flight using the Flying Blue miles as well. We got the necessary 10,000 Flying Blue miles each by transferring some more of our American Express Membership Rewards points. The fees were $31.90 per person.

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Hong Kong to Kathmandu for $79

Hong Kong’s airport is the hub for two major airlines that are a part of the oneworld alliance, so we figured that using points for one of those alliance partners would work well for our flights to or from there. We were able to use this to our advantage to get a flight from Hong Kong to Kathmandu in Nepal.

We found a reward flight on the Hong Kong-based airline Dragonair that we were able to book using our British Airways Avios points. We were able to get the required number of Avios by combining some Avios we had left over from signing up for the British Airways credit card with even more of our American Express Membership Rewards points that we could transfer in. The final cost was 10,000 Avios and $39.47 in fees per person.

Airline Alliances and Transfer Partners

These three examples just go to show how flexible you have to be when booking an award flight. Knowing which airlines partner with other airlines through alliances is huge – we greatly benefited from Vietnam Airlines being in an alliance with Air France and Dragonair with British Airways. Here’s a good infographic explaining the different alliances.

Having points in a program that can be transferred to multiple partners is also a great benefit. We didn’t have to earn Air France miles or British Airways Avios directly; instead, we could just use our American Express points for both. For more information on transferable points, check out this resource.

We have a few more award flights lined up that we are excited to share with you soon!