Some notes on Nepal

Miscellany

  • Western toilets are dearly missed in Nepal as well. Since my squat isn’t great, I’m put at a slight disadvantage relative to the locals.
  • Somehow, Nepal was never on my radar as a “very poor country”. But Nepal’s per capita GDP is only ~$900 p.a. That’s less than $3 per day per person.
  • 35.3% of Nepalis are still illiterate. That’s much more than I had expected. And even that is a strong improvement: “Adult literacy rate of Nepal increased from 20.6 % in 1981 to 64.7 % in 2015 growing at an average annual rate of 34.70 %.”
  • Anecdotally, it seems to be quite common to migrate to Malaysia. At $10,000 per capita annual GDP, Malaysia is roughly 10 times richer. And it probably has a much stronger capacity to absorb workers than Singapore.
  • Remittances are roughly 25% of Nepal’s GDP. I was aware of this statistic from my work in migration economics.
  • Unlike in the west, people seem actually concerned about climate change. At first, I thought this was just a convenient thing to blame natural disasters on that also serves as a buzzword for tourists. That said, I should check the state of evidence. In 2018, Nepal had its first ever tornado. Could be chance, but certainty a data point in favor of real climate change effects.
  • I never realized how incredibly geographically and ethnically diverse Nepal was. There’s over 100 recognizable ethnic groups. The main clusters call each other “long noses” and “flat noses”. Flat noses are the ones you see on a typical picture on a tourist book in Nepal – ethnicities originating from Tibet and Mongolia. I didn’t know that the plains in the south (the Terai) were home to most of the population and generated most of economic activity.
  • Surprisingly many students at what is definitely one of the better schools in Nepal want to join the British military. The British still maintain some 3,500 Gurkha soldiers and it seems to be a childhood dream of many top join their ranks. And it doesn’t seem to be only about the pay. People in Nepal are very proud of their military history, especially their successful resistance against the British East India Company. Many like to point out that even Hitler was afraid of the Gurkha.
  • Hydropower is a very promising sector in Nepal. Nepal’s hydropower stations currently generate just above 1 GW. For comparison: Norway (6x smaller population) has a capacity of 30 GW. Temelín generates 2 GW.
  • Many new plants are being built at the moment. A 460 MW plant should open in November 2019 (I’m pretty sure it won’t). Help on a 762 MW plant was promised during Xi Jinping’s visit.
  • There is demand for clean energy demand from India, Bangladesh and China. A new 400 kV transmission line with India was promised in a new agreement.
  • “As per the power utility’s estimate, Nepal will have a surplus of around 8,000 megawatts by 2025 as the country’s generation capacity is expected to reach 10,924 megawatts while peak demand is likely to be 2,981 megawatts.” I bet this is too optimistic, but points to good prospects.
  • Exporting energy might be a good way to improve its massive trade deficit.
  • Of course, most of the plants are being / will be built by the Chinese who have the necessary machines and skill.
  • Bhutan is an example of a country that successfully capitalized on hydro potential. It installed a massive 1 GW power plant. Since it is a tiny country (750,000 people), this and other developments make its per capita GDP 3 times larger than Nepal’s. In the year of the power plant’s opening, GDP grew by 22%.
  • Even though the prospects for emission-free energy generation are promising, it’s hard to imagine a transition to less polluting motor vehicles anytime soon. Cleaner motors are likely still prohibitively expensive to most and it’s hard to imagine the government taking very strong measures in this situation. I would imagine that subsidizing cleaner motors could be a relatively effective measure for foreign aid agencies.
  • It’s hard to appreciate how much geography shapes life before you visit a country like Nepal. It’s extremely hard to build roads and railways. “Landlocked” seems to be one of the first words the Nepalese learn in English. The only source of petroleum and many other materials and machines is India. And even with India, there are only ~5 border crossings where goods can be transported. This makes Nepal extremely vulnerable to India’s whims.
  • Even people with limited vocabulary tend to know the word “haphazard”. The reason is that it describes Nepal’s development extremely well. This is especially true in Kathmandu. The city is sprawling so fast that most of the new suburbs are still classified as rural areas and don’t have the regulations and planning that could lead to reasonable urban development. Half-built houses are everywhere (partly, I think, because of the 2015 earthquake).
  • I was surprised that Himalayas are so young. The Indian subcontinent crashed with Eurasia 50 million years ago.
  • The monkey population in Kathmandu is suffering from an epidemic of HIV/AIDS.
  • Tuberculosis is still prevalent in some poorer rural areas, especially in the West.
  • An epidemic of Dengue fever is underway at the time of writing – mostly in the jungle areas of the south, but most
  • “What’s your name” is often followed by “what’s your caste” and “what’s your religion” in interrogations by curious high schoolers. Often it seems that my asnwers provide the first introduction to the concepts of caste-free society and atheism. Kids tend to find it very funny.
  • Most marriages are still arranged.
  • Watching the burning of fresh corpses in Pashupatinath was one of the most impressive sights I’ve seen in my life.
  • Buddhist prayers (observed around the Boudha temple) have and interesting element of physical exercise to them. It looks like a strange mixture of planks and burpees.
  • Solar panels are reasonably common, even among rural households. It’s nice to see that solar power is becoming competitive even in developing countries.
  • It was fun to be in Nepal during Xi Jinping’s official state visit. China promises big investments, especially in roads, tunnels and potentially a railway (though all are awaiting a “feasibility study”, so who knows if they will ever be built).
  • China seems quite popular these days, especially after the 2015 economic blockade allegedly imposed by India.
  • People seem confident that Nepal’s communist party (the leading party with strong majority following the last elections) is “not really communist” and “not a threat to democracy”. I hope they’re right.

Roads

To say that the roads are bad doesn’t even begin to describe the situation. For illustration, I originally wanted to go trekking to the Langtang area in the north. I changed my mind after watching videos like this:

Even after changing the plans, it was impossible to escape situations like that. The whole road from Tatopani to Beni goes along cliffs like that. The 22 km stretch takes 2-3 hours.

This is a pretty typical speed in Nepal. Even the main road from Pokhara to Kathmandu (200 km) takes 6-7 hours on a good day and, as I discovered, ~11 hours with evening congestion in Kathmandu

(unless you want to take an airplane whose track record in the Himalayas is not exactly reassuring)

Teaching

  • At least in my school, there seems to exist a very interesting local variation in English. It seems that they understand each other, but I have a very hard time following.
  • Most kids seem to have a smartphone or another type of access to the internet, but they seem to have no idea that this can be used for self-education.

Food and nutrition

  • It’s really true (almost) that everyone eats dal bhat all the time. Breakfast, dinner and (often) lunch. Usually, it’s a huge pile of rice, a relatively small and watery portion of lentil soup and a tasty (oily, soily and mildly spicy) curry.
  • Generally, the amount of protein people get seems to be very small. Although legumes are a staple, they are used relatively sparingly. Meat is not very common and portions of chicken tend to be small. Dairy and eggs might be the biggest source. That said, although I see a lot of both in shops, I haven’t observed people eating too much of either.
  • People seem to eat a lot of vegetables – greens (they call it spinach but it’s some other green), cauliflower, raddish, squash.
  • Fruits are quite familiar. Apples and bananas are the most common. Guava, and pomegranate are also reasonably easy to find. Mangos less so, unfortunately.
  • Cancer rates are very low – about 30-40% of those in Western countries. Some of this may be underreporting and genes, but I suspect that diet is a reasonably large factor.

Resources

  • I’ve been impressed with the quality of Nepal’s journalism. Himalayan Times, Kathmandu Post and Nepali times are all good periodicals written in reasonably good English.
  • Michael Palin’s Himalaya (the TV series and the book) are both great, although Nepal is only 1 of 6 parts. Especially interesting are his notes from a British gurkha recruitment event during the time of the Maoist insurgency.
  • For economics, http://sapkotac.blogspot.com/ is a good source of statistics.
  • World Bank’s page on Nepal has lots of good analyses and progress reports.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s