After a long wait, I was looking forward to the journey of a life time experience – a trek to Mansarovar and Mt. Kailash. It is considered as the holiest of mountains and is believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva. This was also my first foreign visit. As part of a group of 39 pilgrims, our itinerary had in store a fortnight’s trip to Eastern Tibet via Nepal, passing through the Chinese border at Zhangmou.
Aware that it requires physical conditioning and medical fitness to adjust at high altitude, lack of oxygen and extreme cold, I was well prepared. True that re-assurance from people who had visited the place earlier provided some confidence, yet there was an underlying sense of risk camouflaged by excitement and adventure.
I work for a general insurance company, wherein, I take care of overseas travel insurance claims. With the intention to assist, should there be an occasion during the trip, just before my flight’s departure from Delhi, I had casually informed the tour operator about my professional background of having directly handled overseas travel insurance claims. However, I could never seriously visualise such a scenario to actually ever occur. The operator was experienced enough having conducted trips for past 5 years without issues and informed me that the travel insurance for pilgrims has been entrusted as usual to one of his acquaintances who in turn had done the “needful”.
The journey started well. Eight days into the trip and on the first day of parikrama, after a trek of 14 kms everyone was excited to have the close & clear view of the northwest face of snow-clad Mt. Kailash. The group camped overnight and prepared to proceed for the next 2 days trek. For many, however, the journey further was not possible due to steep climb and harsh climate and grateful that they could reach thus far and cherishing the majestic view, they decided to return.
And then the unimaginable happened.…
July 11, 17:00 hrs … several pilgrims who had returned to the base camp at Darchen earlier, decided to visit “Asthapad” - the South-Eastern side of Mt. Kailash. The vehicle carrying these pilgrims toppled and fell off a steep cliff. There were 3 causalities and 2 were seriously injured, in need of a immediate medical help.
The situation at the base was chaotic. After a 4-hour long search and rescue operation, bodies were retrieved from the accident spot. The medical facilities were almost non-existent, local communication was hampered due to language barrier - the doctors, paramedics, police and the local tour operator spoke only Chinese or Tibetan. The only English speaking guide was busy in coordinating with various agencies and arranging approvals and rest of the group was shocked, traumatized and dis-oriented. In addition, poor telephonic signals only made it more difficult for us to contact with the relatives of the injured and inform them about safety of other group members. It was almost late evening, time was running out and patience was wearing thin.
In the slow denouement of the events, compounded by helplessness, insurance was not even in our thoughts and much less in action. The tour operator had literally run out of foreign currency and was stretched to the limits- physically and financially. Clutching at the proverbial last straw, it occurred to me that after all we may try the route of travel insurance which might just be able to offer some help. In our daily routine, being in the shoes of a policy holder, we never actually think or are sensitive to his predicaments of such issues. And for once here I was, as a customer fervently praying somebody to respond.
After a struggle of 3-hours, we finally managed to connect to the agent in India and the incident was reported to the alarm centre of the insurance company’s assistance provider. It was comforting to get through to an English speaking executive who took down the details and promised to take over the case management. The timely help from the alarm centre expedited the process of contacting the Indian Embassy and the Chinese Administration in Tibet in securing the mortal remains of the deceased as well as in emergency evacuation of the injured to nearby medical facility. It also took the immediate burden of a lot of paperwork and formalities in an unknown territory with language issues. Finally, after around 16 hours of the incident, we left for Kathmandu exhausted with a tinge of sadness and relief.
Looking back, I always felt the mishap should never have happened – it snuffed out lives and spoiled such a wonderful journey. Yet that was possibly destined. At the same time, my belief and the underlying trust in Travel Insurance was redeemed in substantial measure as it provided relief when it mattered most.
I would urge everyone to say “Yes” to travel insurance before setting foot on a foreign land. It’s a choice of Life and assistance over helplessness and crippling finances. And to keep you walking.