Iris Murdoch once wrote "There are two types of people, those of the sea and those of the mountains". Obviously that's nonsense (what if you're Mongolian?) but I think I definitely prefer life in the mountains. Nepal is almost unique in never having been conquered by anyone else. The British of course tried and failed (so asked the Gurkhas to join them) but despite being able to see the worlds highest mountains from the Indian border Nepal was strictly closed to foreigners and as late as the 1950's very little was known about the country. Under an all powerful King Nepalis weren't allowed to leave the country and any sort of development was strictly prohibited even to the extent that road construction was banned. As a result the various tribal cultures stayed virtually intact, protected by the country's mountainous geography, so perhaps only Tibet features more prominently in the Western idea of the hidden or mystic East.
The problem with cutting themselves off for so long is that modernity has arrived very fast and in many ways the country just isn't geared up for it. As late as the 1970's there was no electricity, motorized vehicles or roads and so whilst most countries have built their infrastructure and organizational systems up over a long period in Nepal it's had to happen very quickly. As a result things don't run as well as they might so getting things done isn't always easy and in the cities it can be a surprisingly stressful place to be which I wasn't expecting after India.
As you're probably aware one of the unfortunate side-effects of this surge to modernity was a 10yr civil war between a peasant based Maoist group and government forces which finished in 2006, it devastated the economy and as much as 1/3rd of the population fled to India to escape the fighting. The Maoists eventually won the war and gave up their arms in favor of the ballot box although the country is currently in a political deadlock with no government formed for over 100 days after very close elections. Knowing all this Nepal seems quite a strange place for a Communist uprising to occur in the first place.
I realized a long time ago that seeing 'poverty' doesn't really upset me but seeing unjustifiable rich poor gaps really does. This can take different forms, from the barbed wire and armed guards to keep the poor out of rich neighborhoods in South Africa to the disgraceful conspicuous consumption in The Philippines where if people have the money they will buy those flashy pair of Nikes or build that gaudy concrete mansion, totally oblivious to the grinding poverty around them. None of that applies at all in Nepal; something likes 2/3rds of the population live on less than $3 a day and you simply do not see any ostentatious displays of wealth or even many people who look/act wealthier. About half the bus journeys I've done in Nepal have been on the roof because each and every bus is crammed to the rafters- because barely anybody can afford a car. There isn't a 'landowning class' to rally against as the King nationalized all forests and parklands in the 1950's so it definitely feels likes an odd place for Communism to be successful.
The Maoist justification for starting the war was that for years Nepal was run by an overly powerful occasionally corrupt succession of Kings but the Royal Family aside it's hard to see who their ire was aimed at. The Royalists didn't really do themselves any favors however when famously in the midst of the fighting in 2001, the Crown Prince got drunk, got hold of a machine gun and downed almost his entire family after his parents rejected his choice of bride. Afterwards he turned the gun on himself but Royalist Nepal drew international ridicule when they crowned him King whilst he was in a coma, which he didn't come out of. Not really a surprise they didn't last much longer.
If anything the real economic gap in Nepal is between tourists and locals. Since the end of the war visitor numbers have shot back up and a few large 'tourist ghettos' have formed in a couple of the more popular places. In these areas whether you use the internet or buy a haircut or an apple the locals will quote you prices which are simply ridiculous relative to what the locals can afford. As in the poorer countries in SE Asia (Laos,Cambodia) you come to realise there's a dual economy in operation and once again I felt very uncomfortable in shops and restaurants where the only locals are staff. Food is where you notice the divide most as Nepalese restaurants normally only serve the very limited chowmein, momos (Tibetan word for dumplings) and rice and dal; but if you go to a tourist restaurant you can get things like pizzas and nice cakes- but at minimum 3x the price. The profit margins on food are so high that they've perhaps come to expect too much and even got greedy- particularly on the trekking routes. Certainly signs in your hotel saying 'If you don't eat in our restaurant you room bill will be charged x10' or hotel owners coming into your room at 10.30pm demanding to know why you haven't eaten dinner yet (we'd sneaked out) isn't something I expected in Nepal.
I have done some really cool little things this month- seeing 3 scarily massive rhinos in the wild in a national park and 'completing the set' of the 4 holy Lord Buddha sites (birth, enlightenment, first sermon and death) being particularly memorable. But of course the main attraction to tourists in Nepal is trekking and that's what I've spent half my time doing. This is one area where Nepal have got themselves very organized and are pretty much the world leaders in setting up trekking routes and facilities. The two most famous are the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna circuit which join the likes of the Inca, Appalachian and the Santiago as the most popular treks in the world. I didn't actually know it before I came to Nepal but Oct/Nov is peak season and after deciding to do the 2wk/250km Annapurna circuit there were a few points where you lost the 'wilderness feel' amidst the crowds. But that's only the most mild of grumbles in what was a truly outstanding couple of weeks. Unlike virtually everywhere in South America there are nowhere near as many opportunities to see amazing natural sights in Asia but those couple of weeks really bucked the trend. On the first day I got very lucky and met a very amiable Frenchman who walked at the same pace as me. As you trek up through fields of cannabis (which made the nights so much more bearable) and begin to see wonderfully fluffy yaks which do great cheese and you find yourself having to fight the urge to steal the insanely cute Tibetan children you feel wonderfully free in the indescribably beautiful landscape.
Following a request from my Gran I switched the format of the email from the Sunday Times to the Daily Star so I hope you enjoyed the shortest email I've sent on this trip. I can't see the next one being miles longer as I now head off to do the Everest Base Camp trek so will have no email contact for a while.