Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay – Obituary

May 24th, 2011 § 6 comments § permalink

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay (born April 17, 1929) died climbing Everest on May 9, 2011. As he liked to say, he was “82 years young”.

I first met Shailendra in Nepal in the summer of 2008 in Kathmandu.

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay

By any standard measure he was already an old man, but he was still actively involved in the political process of his country. And it was an tumultuous process. The king had recently been deposed. The Maoists who had been staging a multi year guerrilla insurgency that had extended to the majority of rural Nepal had been invited to join the government. Shailendra was right in the middle of these affairs, and he was the right person to act as the intermediary between the disparate parties.

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay

In the past he had been both a rebel and part of the government. In India he had been part of Mahatma Ghandi’s movement opposing British rule. In Nepal he had been jailed for his anti monarchic political views (1960) but then recruited to represent his country at the UN (1972-1978), as an ambassador to various countries, and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1986-1990).

Even though he was officially retired, he helped negotiate the power transition with the rebel leader Prachandra, based on his political credibility as an independent thinker.

In the summer of 2008 he was participating in the Constitutional Assembly of Nepal. After the King had been deposed, the military and civil government were attempting to define a new government structure.

Shailendra introduced me to the notion of constitutional consultants, professionals that go around the world to countries who are in the process of writing constitutions and try to provide parental supervision. He also introduced me to various dignitaries in Nepal, including a chairman of the Communist Party. (Intriguingly, there are a couple Communist Parties.)

I’ve also had the pleasure of his company on long hikes where he was always a fount of stories from his eventful life. For example, story time would start with me asking a question like, “Shailendra, how many times have you been married?” He would think for a moment and reply with a question, “Officially?” I’d clarify, “Officially OR unofficially.” And then he’d clear his throat and start the story.

As a product and refugee from the Soviet Union, I was also intrigued by stories about how as a member of the Nepali Communist Polit Bureau, he would raise money for the party from the Soviet Communist Party.

(Or raised chickens, or wrote a book Tryst with Diplomacy, or …)

In 2008, Shailendra mentioned that he had a dream of climbing Mount Everest. He also made an offhand comment about wanting to die there, but then laughed.

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay

Over the next couple of years his planning and training became more serious. When he came to fundraise in the US, he stayed with us at Langton Labs and I tried my best to assist him. Shailendra was starting to feel less relevant with age and wanted to make a bold statement. He would have been the oldest person person and the first octogenarian to climb the tallest mountain.

He died pursuing his goal and this is my memorial to him.


The following videos have been compiled based on interviews conducted when Shailendra stayed in San Francisco last year.

1. Are you afraid to die on Everest?

2. Thoughts on the Elderly …

3. Thoughts on Technology …

4. This was the promotional video for fundraising purposes, edited by Vika Evdokimenko:

5. Role of Nepal in world politics, Israel, the Maoists, the constitutional assembly …



  • A grandson’s obituary
  • BBC reporting
  • Daily Mail
  • Fundraising Site and here.
  • Andijan, Uzbekistan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan

    June 20th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

    Last year, a friend and I drove a car purchased in Europe over 10,000 miles east through most of Central Asia. In late September, we lingered at the eastern edge of Fergana Valley.

    I chose to curate a slideshow about this region, because news coverage of recent events have made place names like Osh, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Fergana Valley, Andijan and Uzbekistan, familiar.

    The territory between Andijan and Osh is the focus of the photographs presented here.

    Click on photos to see slide show. Use left right arrow keys to explore.

    Fergana Valley is known for its agricultural abundance. With so many ripe melons, it's fun to mull for a long time and choose the best one. (Bazar in Fergana, Uzbekistan.)

    By September the watermelons and the long yellow melons of Central Asia were ripe, abundant and selling at fire sale prices.

    Alternate Text

    Armed personnel carriers are a common sight in Andijan province. Life proceeds casually around them. (Margilan, Uzbekistan)

    Fergana Valley belongs to Uzbekistan and forms a large and fertile protrusion into Kyrgyzstan. Snowmelt from the mountains enclosing the valley on three sides irrigates the crops. At Fergana’s eastern edge the cities of Andijan, Uzbekistan and Osh, Kyrgystan face off across the border. It wasn’t long ago that the people who live in these lands knew no restrictions on movement. In the time of the Soviet Union it was all part of one contiguous Red block. Now, it is an international hotspot. Within 200 miles there are borders with Tajikistan, China, and Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is a lone and fledgeling democracy with an American Airforce Base and dictators for neighbors.

    Uzbeks treat rice as gourmet cuisine, pairing it with specific fruits, meats and butter in large cauldrons. Each town, and probably each family, has its own regional plov recipe carried down for generations. (Imagine doing GIS for recipes!)

    Silk Road

    Silk worm cocoons are brought to a boil in a cauldron. Each cocoon contains almost 2 miles worth of silk strand. It takes 13 strands to make one silk thread.

    Young girl operates a silk loom at the Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilan, Uzbekistan.

    The pattern card above the vertical loom guides the weaver. Carpet weavers tie several hundred knots (pixels) a day for a few dollars of pay.

    Rustan (on the right) grew up in an orphanage in Uzbekistan. His father is North African and mother is Russian. He is currently studying English. The ethnic mix in the region includes Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but also Russians, Tajiks, Chechens, Uighurs, Dungans, “Soviet Koreans”, and Turks. (I also met a red headed Kyrgyz.)

    Waitress at Istanbul Lazzat in Andijan. Fatima lives with her mother and daughter, while her father and brothers are working abroad in Russia.

    Men are notably absent, and women staff their positions, as if it were war time. Most of the capable men are working in Russia. They send articles of clothing to their beloved mothers, wives and daughters for their birthdays and money for the household year round.

    Central Asia is to Russia as Central America is to the US, a cheap source of labor.

    On the last night of Ramadan, over 10,000 Uzbeks gathered at the central mosque in Andijan. Andijan is less than 20 miles from the border and the southern capital city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

    Of the men that remain, many find themselves in the mosque. According to the Uzbek government Andijan is a stronghold of an Islamist militant group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. At least this reasoning was used to justify a 2005 military operation that turned deadly for the people gathered in Andijan’s Babur Sq. There is still palpable resentment over the governments actions in conversations about that incident.  The consequences were severe: the local radio was immediately shut down, international news organizations were soon forbidden to operate in this area;  the Peace Corps folded its operations; many western NGOs left the country; and, the US Airforce base was closed in Uzbekistan.

    Internet cafe operator in Andijan, Uzbekistan. Andijan is less than 20 miles from the border and the southern capital city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

    The border was closed for the religious occasion, and our hosts in Andijan convinced us to stay the night. We wanted to camp by the road near the border, but one of them said, “you don’t want to do that.”

    When I asked why, the other answered, “It’s hard to explain, but you just don’t. Believe me. I don’t want it to be that way, but it is.” He had an apologetic look on his face. “Common, we’ll take you to the mosque and you can see for yourself.”

    One of our hosts exhibited his agility…

    … while the second served us water.


    Female cotton pickers. Uzbekistan is the world's second largest exporter of cotton. Wal-Mart has removed Uzbek cotton from its supply chain, due to labor practices resembling slavery.

    Tristan and I pulled over to get a closer look at the cotton fields. We walked around and took pictures. When we were about to leave, an Uzbek man who seemed like he was in charge of the operation approached us rapidly. Initially it seemed like he was going to reprimand us for trespassing, but it immediately became clear that he was the one in fear of a reprimand. “Dear sirs! Are you inspectors? Which Agency are you from?” I had passed for a local before, but it was the first time I was taken for a government agent. He was relieved when we told him we were inostrantsi (foreigners) and invited us for some tea in a field kitchen.

    Alongside the women picking cotton, you can spot young boys and children.

    Uzbekistan is the world’s second largest exporter of cotton. Wal-Mart has removed Uzbek cotton from its supply chain, due to labor practices resembling slavery. (But what Wal-Mart will not buy, China will, and sell it back to them.)

    Heroin Route

    Marijuana grows alongside the cotton. I stumbled on this patch while photographing cotton pickers.

    The marijuhana grows but few pay it any attention. Everyone knows the real drug problem is the heroin snaking up from Afganistan through the Pamir region of Tajikistan. From here it winds north under the cover of snow capped mountain ranges and steppe and eventually enters Russia around Western Siberia and my hometown. The northern Silk road traversed the Fergana pass between Kashgar and Osh because it was accessible to camels. Ironically, the Heroin Route takes advantage of the porous borders and the cover of mountains which are impractical to patrol. Organized cime groups in Osh squable for control of this leg of transit.

    To make an analogy to something closer to home, what Afghan heroin is to Russia, Columbian cocaine is to the United States; and the Heroin Route is like the speed boats in the Caribbean.

    The fact that heroin production of Afghanistan has only increased since the United States invaded the country, is a sore point in Russia’s US facing policy.

    Porous Borders

    One of the many pre-border checkpoints in the ever tense Fergana Valley.

    These checkpoints are  a joke really, since the actual border is porous. We met an Uzbek, who introduced himself as Frank, on both sides of the border. When he was denied crossing at the checkpoint, he cursed at the guards, assuring them he’d find another way to cross. It tured out as easy as paying a local farmer a few dollars to show you the way though the fields. The bribe suggested by the guard was an order of magnitude larger.

    This border guard has not seen a US Passport before. (Pre-border checkpoint within Uzbekistan near Osh, Kyrgyzstan.)

    When a rather large Uzbek approached our car and said, “Border is closed, but you can go wave your big American cocks around,” I thought he was being belligerent. But then he changed to a softer tone and said, “Please, go wave your big American dicks around. Maybe they’ll open the border, and I will get to go too… Maybe you can even tell them I am with you, as your translator.”

    By the time we arrived, hordes of Uzbeks were amassed at the closed border crossing with Kyrgyzstan. Those who could afford it, would make private side deals with the guards. This accelerated crossing. One girl was protesting, “You know me. I go through here three times a week to attend classes at the Russian University in Osh!”

    We, as Americans, were an amusement to them. I asked an older dignified gentleman in a traditional hat about the situation in the region. “We’ve got problems on top of problems. Our border crossings are plagued by shootings and delays. But, we don’t want to tell you about any of that so you won’t make a big deal about it internationally, while misconstruing it to make us seem like we’re trapped in the 13th century.”

    “But we are trapped in the 13th century,” interjected a dissenting voice.

    “Shut up. Can’t you see we have guests? They’ll spread the news and get us in trouble.” It was good to know Russian as they couldn’t kibitz without me understanding.

    Following the guidance of the wise elder, a consensus soon emerged. I should put away my camera and stop talking to them, and instead work on the guard.

    The border was opened soon after we drove our car up to the gate. The Uzbek guards were nice to us and offered us cigarettes by way of making friends. They didn’t care that we didn’t have official registrations from local police precincts for each day in Uzbekistan.

    On the Kyrgyz side, my camera almost got confiscated. To be completely honest, I was taking photos where the local law so did forbid. But I couldn’t resist. A Kyrgyz guard had wedged an Uzbek girl against the wall with his body and was berating her loudly. Instinct brought the camera to my eye.

    Through the viewfinder, I saw him turn and realize I was taking a picture. My hand quivered and the picture came out unacceptably blurry.

    He took the camera and led me to his commander, whom he addressed as “Number 1”. But, before he did so, I managed to flip the camera latch open and let the memory card fall out in the car.

    Number 1 looked at me and grinned. “So we caught you, eh? Let me see your passport…

    “You are an American? And, you speak Russian?” No. 1 was impressed.

    “Why were you taking pictures?” he asked.

    “Instinct,” I said, “everything here is new, unusual and interesting for me. I appologize for having taken photos at the border and I won’t do it again.”

    He checked my camera; froze in thought for a moment; and eventually uttered, “go”. During my drive across a quater of the world, I was pulled over, stopped, detained, arrested, taken to court over two dozen times, and on every single occasion I ended up getting off without having to resort to a bribe. The guard who brought me in sneered, “So he let you go? Lucky bitch! Just let me catch you again. I’ll deal with you myself.”


    Cyrillic letters 'О' (o) and 'Ш' (sh) mark the entrance to the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The truck on the right is made by КАМАЗ. KAMskiy Automotive Zavod (factory).

    Alcoholism is common in these parts as are its consequences. The white embroidered hat is a traditional Kyrgyz hat called "kalpak" Sign on the top right advertises Bavarian beer. (Osh, Kyrgyzstan)

    Uzbeks are the merchant class in Kyrgyzstan. They run a lot of the bazar. It is a historical divide between the settled peoples (Uzbeks) and nomads (Kyrgyz). But until 16 years ago, they lived together as part of one larger Soviet Union without the notion of themselves as nations with a border in between.

    Street scene at Osh bazar, Kyrgyzstan. These hats (tibeteikas) identify ethnic Uzbeks.

    The pavilions, shops and storage spaces in Osh Bazar are assembled from thousands of shipping containers. Osh is on the terminus of a train shipping line from China via Kashgar.

    It’s hard to generalize about the street experience in Osh. It feels like a rugged place, and in contrast to Uzbekistan you see a large spike in Chinese influence. Buses advertise the fact that they are made possible by a gift from China. The entire bazar is constructed of labyrinthine walkways and pavilions made from stacked shipping containers, also from China.

    Flirting in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

    The streets, a visually powerful experience to the reconnoiterer.

    A man plays a Weltmeister accordion in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

    “No money, no crisis” reads a young man’s t-shirt on the streets of Osh, Kyrgyzstan where hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks were killed and thousands fled to refugee camps across the border over the past two weeks.

    Sometimes the calmest, most hospitable, peaceful situations can transition instantaneously to chaos and violence. Social puppeteers can excite these phase transitions with a slight nudge, like calm water nearing its boiling point.

    A gas station in Osh, Kyrgyzstan offers a broad spectrum of octane. At another gas station, I saw 72 octane for sale.

    A gas station in Osh, Kyrgyzstan offers a broad spectrum of octane. At another gas station, I saw 72 octane for sale.

    In the evening we drove north and met the crew of a transport hauler in a Chaikhana (tea house) by the side of the road. They offered to guide us to a camping spot up the road while leading the way in their massive truck. Their one crew seemed to have most of the ethnicities of the area covered.  “We’re all friends.”  I heard this phrase uttered too often, and spoken almost defensively.

    "We are all friends. He's an Uzbek. I'm a Kyrgyz. That one's a Tajik, a Dungan, and a Kazakh." (Osh, Kyrgyzstan)

    We skirted the Uzbek border heading around the valley though Jalalabad and then north across at 14,000+ foot pass through the mountains to the capital city of Bishkek. The following day, Osh caught up with us:

    Prison break in Osh.

    I can leap onto a 10 ft platform ;)

    April 4th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink