Sunday, January 26, 2003

This piece from the New York Times, about installing an internet service at Mt Everest base camp, is particularly interesting to me because I have been to most of the places mentioned in the article. I went to the Himalayas in late 1997. There are no roads: you fly in to Lukla, and then you walk steadily up the valleys, through the towns and villages, and eventually you get to places too high for permanent human habitation and it is just mountains.

Of course, it is not the lack of roads that makes everything so different from what you are used to so much as the lack of electricity. When you lack this, you simply go to bed when it gets dark as there is nothing else to do. You get up early, perhaps at 6am, in order that you take advantage of all the sunlight you have. Cooking is done entirely with fire. And of course there is no communication with the rest of the world. In the month I was trekking, I was in unable to communicate with the outside world, and no news got to me. It would have been possible to take a short wave radio and listen to the news on the BBC, but we didn't. I quite wanted to, but the people I was travelling didn't. They were people with high powered jobs in Australia who wanted to leave it all behind them. I on the other hand had spent the previous six months sitting in front of a computer workstation writing my Ph.D. dissertation, so I actually felt like being hit by some information.

After a few weeks of this, we walked down the moutain into the town described in this story, Namche Bazar. Actually, before getting to Namche Bazar you get to the town of Khumjung, which is on a plateau, and you then walk down a steep path to Namche itself, which is in a valley directly below. Both Khumjung and Namche are very different from where you have been for the last few weeks, for the simple reason that they have electricity.

It shouldn't actually be very hard to provide electricity for everyone who lives in the mountains in Nepal, for the simple reason that you have mountains, from which snow is constantly melting and flowing down rivers and streams into the valleys. Therefore, small hydro-electric plants are relatively easy to built. And there is a vital environmental reason for building them as well. Due to something of a population explosion, large areas of Nepal are suffering from deforestation, as people chop down trees and use the wood for heating and cooking. Provide electricity instead, and two things happen. One of them is that deforestation stops, and another is that people's lives improve dramatically. Oddly enough, people in Nepal do not wish to spend their lives chopping down trees and carting fire wood by hand any more than you or I would. Give them electric heating and cooking, and they don't have to. However, there are obstacles to building the infrastructure, many of them bureacratic. There are plenty of foreign donors willing to provide equipment and expertise, but the government Kathmandu typically wants a cut of any western money going into the country. If you go trekking, they charge climbing fees. If you want to build a power station in the mountains, they charge a lot for permits and the like. This seriously hinders progress in the mountains. (The NYT article talks about the "seemingly endless bureacratic requirements for importing the radios to Nepal". Everyone always complains about this). Plus there are also Maoist rebels.

In any event, there is a power station near Namche and Khumjung. As you walk into Khumjung from higher up, suddenly everything changes. (This was in 1997. It's probably more dramatic now). You have eaten little but cabbage and potatos for three weeks, and there just off the train is a German bakery. You go in, sit down, and order some pastries and you imagine that you are in the Austrian alps. (This is easy, given that many of the other people in the bakery are German, Austrian or Swiss). After a while, you get up and look around. Compared to anywhere higher up, Khumjung is a large town. (The article in the NYT talks about moving the internet equipment to Namche in the off season, and then beaming the signal "over a hill to a nearby school". This is likely the Hillary School in Khumjung, which was founded and is funded with money raised by Sir Edmund Hillary).

Khumjung is largely a residential town, probably supported by agriculture. You then keep walking, and walk down the steep track into Namche. Namche is different, as it is a market town. It contains shops selling climbing equipment. It contains quite comfortable accommodation. It contains restaurants, and another bakery. And, it even contains a little nightlife. There were signs all over the town advertising something called "Sherpa's Spot". At night, there was a large neon sign outside "Sherpa's Spot". We went in, and the inside was something like the bar out of "Cheers". We sat down and had a couple of beers. They had refrigeration. I don't know if the "drunken climbers who tripped over the wires" in the article had just stumbled out of "Sherpa's Spot" but they may have. It is quite possible that they had just had their first beer for a month though, so it is kind of understandable.

What is my point? Well, compared to the places we had been for the previous few weeks, Namche felt like a modern town. There was still essentially nothing in the way of communication. There was an Inmarsat satellite phone that you could use if you were desperate, but this was so expensive that it was for emergencies only even for westerners. There was television: not in every home, but in a few of the lodges. The television was Star TV, the satellite service that Rupert Murdoch owns and which is based in Hong Kong, but which broadcasts a lot of its programming in Hindi and/or English. I suspect that television watching is a very communal experience in Namche, but by 1997 it was there. Basically, though, we were still cut off. There were no newspapers or magazines or anything like that, and no internet (although there apparently is now). But still, it felt enormously different from the electricity free towns a little way up the path. The advance brought on by a nineteenth century technology, electricity, seemed at that moment much larger than the communications revolution.

The friend I went to Nepal with is trying to encourage me to come with him on another trip. It might be interesting to see how the country has changed since 1997.

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