Tengboche Monastery is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Nepal. Founded in 1916 by Lama Gulu, the building itself has been destroyed and rebuilt twice. Today it is home to 50 monks and hosts about 22,000 visitors each year
There are two ways to get to Tengboche. The first requires a trip to Katmandu, a quick flight to Lukla, and then a brisk three-day hike up the trekkers’ highway toward Everest Base Camp.
I recommend this route. The monastery is located at 3,867 meters; from the ridge on which it’s situated there is an incredible view of rhododendron forests framed by Ama Dablam (a stunning 6,812-meter snow-covered peak that dominates the skyline), Lotse (the world’s fourth-highest mountain), Nuptse (No. 19) and Mount Everest itself. The panorama is well worth the dull throb of an altitude headache.
But less adventurous souls can get to Tengboche via a second route: the Internet. That’s right. The monks at Tengboche have decided that the road to enlightenment runs through cyberspace. Their Web page (www.tengboche.com) has information about the region, trekking in the area, religious holidays and events as well as the monastery itself and its development plans.
Best I can figure, e-mail can only be sent to the monastery; there is no keyboard available for real-life visitors to send e-mail out with. That isn’t too inconvenient, though. Namche Bazar, the Sherpa capital that is only about three hours south of Tengboche, has a cybercafe for travelers.
I’m pretty ambivalent about that. You’ll notice that this article isn’t datelined Namche Bazar or Katmandu. I take vacations to get away from the world. On more hazardous outings, I’ll let the folks know that I’m still alive, but I have little desire to check mail while on the road. And to my mind, two or three hours of vacation time can be better spent wandering the streets than parked at a keyboard.
I may be in the minority. My companion was less doctrinaire about such things, but he was frustrated when the cafe owners decided that it was club time and shut down the Net connection. In the Thamel section of Katmandu, where most trekkers hang out and shop, every other storefront advertises Internet connections and e-mail services.
Of course, I see the point of offering the service. The Net is a great business opportunity for small entrepreneurs: Lure customers in for some e-mail and they might buy something else. Even if they don’t, the few dollars a traveler spends to log on and off goes a long way in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia. For many of the lodges and trekking companies, the Net is their best window on the world.
In fact, the Net made my trip possible. I used it to solicit the opinions of all my friends who had ever been to Nepal (and they are scattered across the planet) about where to go and which team to hire — a key consideration when you are going to rope yourself to someone at 6,000 meters. All my arrangements were made through e-mail — not a single phone call or fax. (There is no harm in picking up the phone, but everything was so easy this way: no expensive calls, no dropped connections, no lousy communications. I never waited more than a night for a response.)
A quick stroll through Thamel might get a visitor thinking that Nepal is pretty wired — or that the word “e-mail” has Nepali origins. In the thin air, all those remotely situated lodges with Net connections look like the crest of a cyber-tidal wave rushing through the lowlands. (I got a jolt in one tiny village where a small child had given up on asking for chocolates or pens — a favorite plea — and was hawking “Do you Yahoo!?” stickers.)
The reality, however, is that Nepal is desperately poor. With a per capita income of $1,200, the United Nations Development Program ranks Nepal 144th among 175 nations in its Human Development Index in 1999. It is the third-poorest country in Asia, after Bhutan and Bangladesh. More than half the population lives in poverty.
There is one phone per 100 citizens, and 68 percent of the phones are in the Katmandu Valley, which has only 2.7 percent of the country’s residents. Ninety percent of the population lives in rural areas, which have only .05 phones per 100 residents.
Unofficially, there are about 50,000 computers in the country and there are reported to be 10,000 Internet or e-mail subscribers. It is estimated that about 200,000 people use the Internet, out of a population of 23.7 million. There are four ISPs, and two more in the works. There is a Net users group that seems pretty savvy.
The UNDP highlighted the digital divide between developed and developing countries in the Human Development Rport issued last summer (“A grotesque gap,” Cyberia, July 21, 1999). All those problems were plainly visible in Nepal.
Stores charge 30 rupees a minute to go online (with a three-minute minimum); that’s only about 150 yen. But in a country where a full day of back-breaking labor (hauling gear up a mountain) earns 300 rupees, even that tiny sum is too much for locals who might want to go online.
The Net makes life easier for trekkers, but it does little for a population in which 40 percent of the adult population is illiterate. I read letters to my guide because he couldn’t read or write; his 8-year-old daughter already speaks pretty good English, but I wonder how much of a disadvantage she will still suffer because of her nation’s poverty.
My lodge in Lukla had a dandy little computer setup that allowed it to correspond with guests around the world, but it only worked when the generator ran: early in the morning and after 5 p.m. One afternoon, I hunkered down by the stove (trying to keep warm) and watched as the computer kept blowing the fuses. First, the CPU would overwhelm the generator; then it was the monitor. It was amusing for a short while, but then it got disturbing. All that talk about developing new technology to skip big infrastructure investments sounds awfully silly when entire parts of the city go dark on a regular basis because there is no electricity.
Strolling through the tents on the knoll that slopes down from the Tengboche monastery, I heard a trekker explain that she “writes the stuff for the Web page and her friend takes the pictures.” Nice thought, but she won’t be able to JPEG those memories back to her new pals in Nepal. That’s more than a pity.