Epic trip to get 450 oxygen cylinders to Nepal despite border delays and landslides
KATHMANDU, JULY 22
When Sean and Mary Hotung began their campaign in June to raise funds for and to collect medical supplies in Hong Kong to send to Covid-hit Nepal, they asked Nepal's then health minister as to what was at the top of the 'urgent' list and they got 'oxygen cylinders' for an answer.
The duo then jumped into action partnering up with Nepali businessman Yem Gurung to finance and transport 450 large oxygen cylinders to Nepal.
To get the cylinders to Nepal was a journey of more than 3000km from the factory they sourced in Shandong province in northwest China, to the border between Tibet and Nepal and then on to Kathmandu. Furthermore, there were plenty of challenges along the way.
However, due to the initiative, the aforementioned cylinders are now being used in rural hospitals around Nepal to help Covid patients breathe.
"Even if I live away from Nepal, I'm an ex-Gurkha, whenever there is a natural disaster or whenever the country is in trouble, we've always been supporting and doing our level best," says Yem Gurung, a longtime Hong Kong resident and the Patron of the Hong Kong chapter of the Non-Resident Nepalis' Association.
Hong Kong has an historic link to Nepal with many Gurkhas serving with the British military here over the decades since the 1960s.
Many of those servicemen stayed back in Hong Kong as dis their children and grandchildren making up a 20,000 strong community here.
Yem previously helped with reconstruction of a village in Nepal after the devastating earthquake in 2015. As such, he is accustomed to helping fellow Nepalis and also getting supplies into geographically challenging areas having grown up in a mountain village himself.
"We purchased these oxygen cylinders from Shandong in northern China and after purchasing them we contacted a logistics company and started our journey from there."
Albert Lam, the chairman of the Hong Kong Ex-Servicemen's Association picks up the shipment
"It is a long way from Shandong to Nepal. But it was easier to go via China than India," he says. Also the supply of cylinders was ready to go, so there was no waiting time.
"The roads are very good all the way up to Sichuan. However, the roads from Sichuan through Tibet to Nepal are deteriorated and could be heavily affected by the weather conditions."
The blue cylinders were manufactured in the city of Linyi in Shandong province and then loaded on to the back of a truck on June 6.
Sean and Yem were in daily contact with the driver to track his progress as he travelled to Yunnan, then Lhasa, on to Shigatse and then Zhangmu, the last city ahead of the China-Nepal border.
The driver would provide them with daily short videos as he made his way across thousands of kilometers. At Zhangmu the cylinders were transferred on to two smaller trucks to better navigate the smaller roads ahead.
"We then had to go through so many challenges," said Yem. "Firstly, our truck was stopped at the China border for three days."
"There was a new protocol that had just been activated the day before, which meant the driver needed to take a Covid test before he could travel on."
He further added, "On the second day, the weather was so bad, the border customs on the China side didn't open. Similarly, on day three, the heavy rain continued and then things very slowly got going again. Due to the hold-ups the oxygen truck was now behind a whole series of apple trucks."
Life-saving oxygen cylinders were trapped behind trucks with apples and this was a frustrating time for the team. Meanwhile, the challenges were only just beginning.
Once the trucks were on the other side and into Nepal, Yem was informed by his driver contact that due to the onset of monsoon, there had been a landslide and the road was impassable.
"We had to arrange porters to carry all of these 450 oxygen cylinders from part of the road, across the damaged part and get over to the other side. They then had to be reloaded on the truck. So that was a very hard job," says Yem.
Screen grab of the video footage sent by the truck driver shows porters individually rolling out the oxygen canisters which are then carried 800 meters down the road and then taken by two smaller trucks
For Sean and Yem, it now meant the end of any opportunity to send more medical supplies overland. But the cylinders had made it through.
The trucks then drove towards Kathmandu. "There was another landslide near Kathmandu. We had to call an excavator to clear all debris from the road and that also took three to four hours," says Yem. "The next morning, around five o'clock, at last we were able to get our cylinders to Kathmandu."
When Nepal was hit this year by a second wave of Covid 19, the country was unable to cope with the acute shortage. And while it does have access to an oxygen plant, there weren't the cylinders to be distributed to the hospitals.
"Once the cylinders reached Kathmandu, on June 20, the very next morning we started distributing these to very hard-hit areas and very remote areas with limited medical access."
It was a challenging time for Yem. Daily checks to the driver, to the authorities, to customs, to keep pushing this vital shipment on. And Sean also laughs as he kept on Yem's back, too. "He said we needed to get these oxygen cylinders to Nepal as soon as possible," says Yem. "So he was always pushing me and I was really working hard."
Out of this vital cargo, some 125 cylinders were sent to eight hospitals in Karnali Province, which has had the highest mortality rate during the country's second wave of Covid-19. The others have been distributed across the country to remote areas where there is very limited access to medical care.
Relieved that the cylinders have reached the intended destinations, the contributors express satisfaction that they've been successful in rescuing lives now and that gives them immense pleasure.