Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mera Peak, Trekking, Maoists in Nepal

Above is my favorite pic from a trek in the Everest region. For a few more nice, if unexceptional, pics, click here:

The initial plan was to climb Mera Peak, perhaps the 2nd highest non-technical (i.e. no serious climbing skills required) summit in the world. Aconcagua in South America is probably 1rst, though the distinction between "technical" and "non-technical" is, naturally, fuzzy.

Unfortunately, we were hit with heavy snow after just one day of trekking. You can trek on rock, you can trek on heavy snow, you can trek on ice (with crampons), but there's no easy way to trek a steep, rocky, snowy, icy trail. Our porters clearly didn't want to continue.

We settled for an "ordinary" trek in the Everest region. Having done it before, it was a bit of a disappointment. I was mentally and physically primed for a fairly serious challenge, a new experience, and a first hand view of the amazing postcard pics of Mera that initially inspired me. On the other hand, it's difficult to complain about this part of the've got to be awfully dense to be un-amazed simply because you've seen it once before. I remember very little of the initial trek 15 years ago. I guess that's a blessing.


While we were trekking, Nepalis were voting. The mountain folks were glued to their scratchy-sounding radios for a number of days (results poured in slowly). When things were sorted out, the Maoists had won a plurality of parliamentary seats, against most Western predictions.

I'm puzzled by the Maoists, and those who voted for the Maoists. Prachanda and his disciples are supposedly responsible for 13,000 deaths over the last decade. I've spoken to folks who have lost relatives via a Maoist's kurkri knife to the neck. I've spoken one-on-one to a Maoist who sought to eliminate religion, the opiate of the masses, from Nepal. Just below, in my previous post, you'll see an ancient mani stone defaced with Maoist graffiti. Though trekkers weren't killed, they were forcefully asked for "donations" (typically around $100) in the days when Maoism was more underground.

So how could the Nepalis vote Maoist? Some have claimed a "Stockholm Syndrome" of sorts. Others claimed voter intimidation...though Jimmy Carter and friends monitored the election in big cities, the myriad smaller villages were supposed hotbeds of manipulation. Less conspiratorially, it seems that the Maoists simply offered better slogans, were better funded, more motivated, and more PR-savvy. And they offered bigger promises, right on up to a $3,000/year standard of living. That's awfully hard to deliver in a country where the average income comes in at about a sixth of that.

Finally, the Nepalis dislike their King. Polls showed that this dislike was limited to roughly 50% of the population, but you've got to wonder about the accuracy of such a poll in a country where, not so long ago, anti-monarchists were persecuted. This time, none of the four major parties supported anything other than a ceremonial monarchy, but the Maoists were clearest on this issue...they seek to remove the King from the palace and dismantle the monarchy in its entirety. There seems to be some debate as to whether the King should receive some sort of yearly stipend or not.

In any case, I didn't meet a single Nepali who seemed horribly concerned about the result. Perhaps that's because, in terms of promises/policy/platform, this "Maoism" seem to have little
in common with historic Maoism. You know, MAO Zedong, government control of land and wages, loony agricultural policies, cultural revolution, suppression of human rights/religion/voting, one-party state, etc. The Nepali "Maoists" have yet to show the slightest inclination toward totalitarianism, socialism, etc. So either the Maoists really have nothing to do with Mao/Maoism, or the Nepali people will be seen to be the victims of a supreme con. Or something in between. We'll see.

The tendency is to suspect a Chinese hand behind all this. The Nepalis deny this, and there aren't any known links between Prachanda and the Chinese. On the other hand, I was surprised to run across Chinese folks on trails and buses. I have no memory of ever meeting a Chinese national in my previous travels to Nepal. Perhaps I'm just seeing the result of increased Chinese affluence and the freedom to travel beyond Chinese borders. Perhaps not. Even if there's no Chinese version of the CIA manipulating events in Nepal, it'll be interesting to see if Prachanda and crew attempt to strike deals with China in an attempt to raise the living standard in Nepal.