Connectivity in Nepal: Navigating the Himalayas as a Digital Nomad

It started with a simple question – What if I could run an online business in the Himalayas?

Well, here’s that story.

The first time I arrived in Nepal was in the October 2016. I was on a quest for love and adventure. The idea was to get out of the nomad circuit in SE Asia, and find some wild adventures in the mountains while working remote. I realized pretty quick that I couldn’t do both at the same time.

The issue wasn’t just internet, it was the way I had structured my business and developed my personal tendencies around digital connectivity.

 

DIGITAL FREEDOM

Sunrise from Through La Pass in the Annapurna Circuit
Sunrise above Thorough La Pass, 5400m (18000ft).

It was a good slap in the face – I had started my travels seeking more freedom and here I was trapped within a digital cage. I could go anywhere I wanted, but only if I had internet.

For many remote workers, this is fine, it’s an acceptable part of being a digital nomad.

But why limit yourself?

I realized that as long as I was online all was good, but whenever I was without internet I was stressed. I had acknowledged long ago that I didn’t want technology to control my life. I wanted to a live of adventure and freedom, and this was definitely a compromise.

Realizing this one thing and taking action was another. It took about half a year to digest these factors into my life. To step out of my digital cage, I tested out a few avenues in my life:

GETTING HELP

First, I needed help. I needed someone to take my place when i couldn’t be connected. So I hired an online assistant to handle any work needing constant attention. The bulk of this being customer service and communication support requiring a human touch. More on this process here. 

GOING MOBILE
Second, I went all mobile. If I had to climb 5000m on foot, there was no way in hell I was going to take my laptop. Going mobile meant transitioning my daily work to a leaner model. I revamped my mobile apps and bookmarks so I access the key parts of my business via mobile.
ONE CHANNEL
Third, I channeled my communications into WhatsApp. With limited internet, I needed a lean and easy way to communicate. As long as I had a 2G connection I could respond to issues via mobile without the headache of subscription and spam via email. I also found that communicating via text and voice messages was faster than writing email.

A NEW MINDSET

Walking through a landslide area in the Annapurna Circuit
A path to deeper connections. Alex, bottom right.

Jumping into the mountains wasn’t just about testing new work avenues. After a year of co-dependencies on cafes and co-working spaces, mountain life was a bit of a shocker… Even for seasoned travelers, trekking the Himalayas will require some mental recalibration. Here’s what I learned on that:

NO POWER – Power outages and power shedding is a common occurrence in Nepal, especially during the fall season. At its peak, these can last for several hours daily. Though backup generators do accompany bigger guesthouses in some towns.

HAVE PATIENCE – Navigating the Himalayas is equal parts patience and perseverance. This holds true for digital access and connectivity as much as it does for food and creature comforts. Everything up here is carried up a single track dirt road by jeep, horse or on foot. If you want something particular, be prepared to wait for it. Good advice for life 😉

GET AWAY – Let your coworkers and friends know what you’re doing. Taper response times. Let them know you may be unresponsive for 2-3 days at a time. If they must reach you, give them your WhatsApp, or a Rebel / Nepalese number to call.

BE HERE – Step away from you digital tendencies – no notifications, no messages, no games – connect to nature and connect with the amazing people here. The community and fluidity of making personal connections on the trek is really special. Open up.

 

DIGITAL OUTPOSTS

For better or for worse, connectivity is growing in the Himalayas. Many guesthouses will advertise WIFI, though the connectivity is often slow or non-existent. There are a few gems along the trail. With some proper planning, these locations can serve as a great rest day between long treks with creature comforts and a stable connection. Just don’t get stuck okay?

Great internet at Bod Marley Hotel / Freedom Cafe in Muktinath Nepal
Hotel Bob Marley / Freedom Cafe – Muktinath.

MANANG

Manang offers a great place for altitude acclimation, some creature comforts and some infrastructure for connectivity. The medical center in town offers an excellent clinic for altitude safety education and also provides diamox. This is also a great location to venture up to the Ice Lakes (Kicho Tal).

Hotel Manang is a good place to connect and jump online. The food is a bit pricey but the connection was stable. Do check around for other options as many of cafe and guesthouses had working internet here. Also, keep in mind the connection speed varies with the number of customers and the weather.

MUKTINATH 

A great rest after Thorong La Pass. Mukinath serves as a great base for day hikes to explore some local villages throughout the valley. The Aussie run Hotel Bob Marley offers excellent food (try the Yak Burger), steaming hot showers and great internet. I found the upload speeds were consistent and good enough to back up a good amount of photos. A good environment to get some work in the morning before venturing out in the villages.

JOMSON & MARPHA

Jomson overdeveloped town with an airport. After two weeks on the trails, it’s hardy a welcoming a site. With all the souvenir shops, jeeps and groups we decided early on to skip town and head straight to Marpha. If you need to get online though this is a good place. Ncell and NTC both have full bars here and most cafes have working wifi.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a bit on internet. We found the small town of Marpha to much more authentic and beautiful, with steady connection speeds and some mobile coverage.

Easy day outside of town. Can you see Manang on the top right?

PACKING TIPS

Feel free to leave a bag at your guesthouse in Kathmandu or Pokhara with any extra gear. Let them know you’ll be back in a few weeks and they’re happy to keep them safe. I managed to cut down my existing carry-on pack by taking a single pack and leaving out some tshirts. Here some must dos:

ELECTRONICS – Seem obvious to one, but I felt the need to say this. Don’t bring your laptop. Even if it’s a light, carrying a laptop up the mountain will feel like 20lbs instead of 3lbs – same goes for any extra electronics and gadgets.

POWERBANK – Take a 10,000 to 20,000mah battery. It’s good for on the go charging and power outages. At higher altitudes where you may need to pay to charge your devices, powerbanks a good option to have.

PREPAID TOPUPS – Buy a few 500NRS prepaid packets in Pokhara or Kathmandu before you leave so you don’t need to hunt them down in the middle of nowhere.

Happy nomads in Muktinath Annpurna Circuit Nepal
Left to right: down, wool, wool, wool, down.

CLOTHES – As you’ll be wearing a jacket most of the time, I would keep the t-shirts to a minimal. Ditch the cotton any semi-formal clothes and trade up for a lightweight wool sweater and some activewear. One pair of shorts, one pair of pants and joggers is enough.

SUN PROTECTION – Don’t forget sunscreen and don’t forget your sunglasses. UV radiation increases with altitude and much of the trail is fully exposed.

JOURNALS / BOOKS – Great place to do some reading and writing. Let your thoughts wander free.

TREKKING POLES – You can buy a proper set of trekking poles in Kathmandu or Pokhara or simply pickup out a proper stick along the trail.

 

MOBILE DATA

Nepal Telecom and Ncell Sim Cards

The two main carriers are NTC (Nepal Telecom) and NCell. NTC has developed new towers in the Annapurnas and offers the best coverage while Ncell offers better coverage in the Everest region. Here’s what you need to know about sim cards.

REGISTRATION – Bring your passport and a passport sized photo to fill in the registration form. If you’re only staying briefly in Kathmandu or Pokhara before the trek, make sure you get your NTC SIM card first as it may take up to 24 hours to activate.

DUAL SIMS – Mobile data will be your most consistent bet for connectivity. Get NTC as your primary access point, and Ncell as the backup SIM.

CALLS – If you need to make calls for whatever reasons, consider using Rebel with local minutes for better call quality. The locals have no problem making calls in the mountains because they don’t try use 3G for VOIP calls.

PRICE – 1 GB of NTC data will cost 500NPR and 1 GB of Ncell will cost 250NPR. Cheaper rates are available for day or night time only data.

TOP UP – Prepaid topups range from 50-1000 NPR ($0.50-$10), but finding packets above 100 NPR can be a hit or miss on the trails. It’s better to buy a few 200 NPR / 500 NPR packets in Pokhara or Kathmandu before the trek to save headache of finding topups in small villages.

SPEEDS: Speeds will vary by location and weather. I found the average speeds to hover around 3-4 Mbps when the signal was strong but most of the time it will be lower.

Some data speeds for 3G speeds across Nepal – take these with a grain of salt.

Data NTC 3G Ncell 3G
Highest speed 8.94 Mbps 7 Mbps
Average Downlink speed 3.5 Mbps 3.3 Mbps
Average uplink speed 1.2 Mbps 1.5 Mbps
Ping (milli seconds) 56 58
Lowest Speed (without network communication issue) 200 Kbps 220 kbps

source: Nepal Telecom

A NEW OUTLOOK

Connecting to land through yoga outside of Marpha, Annapurna Circuit
Feel the earth. Feel the sky. Open up.

Navigating through the Annapurna Circuit was about testing myself and challenging my lifestyle as much as it was about the physical and mental endurance of walking for a month. I really believe the barriers we over internally are linked to our physical barriers.

My biggest take away from Nepal was being able to reshape the connections in my life. Rethinking and recalibrating my digital dependencies has allowed me to focus on my personal pursuits – be it more adventure or new creative outlets like blogging – while restructuring my work life to leaner and more efficient. The connections I have with technology, with nature and with myself are interwoven. Freeing myself in one sphere gives me more room to breathe in another.

I found myself breathless often on the hike – a lack of oxygen mixed with the heart pounding beauty of the landscape – and radiating with life. A life more connected to personal freedom.

Hiking outside of Marpha Annapurna Circuit
A vessel that moves freely is free in body and mind.


ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Prepaid Sim Cards in Nepal

Hiking Permits / Routes

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