Propellor-head How the Internet came to Dhasa Tibetans
by Dan Haig email comes to gangkyi dan comes to dhasa back to gangkyi and to work first Internet-connected LAN building and of course, web

Dan Haig, third from left, put together a high-tech team that went to India to help Tibet’s government in exile set up its own intranet. The other team members were, from left to right, Rick Schneider, Jack Burris, Stefan Lisowski and Ari Salomon. Photo Rick Schneider

Here is a bit of history of the Internet in Dharamshala from my perspective. I find this has turned into quite a long narrative, I guess it has been fun to remember all of this. Heady days they were!

1994 - Email comes to GangKyi

In 1994-95, Thubten Samdup of the Canada Tibet Committee (now head of the Office of Tibet London) worked thru ERNET, the Education and Research Network set up by the UN to provide internet connectivity to India, to arrange for a "net connection" for the Tibetan Computer Resource Centre (TCRC, now the Tbetan Computing Resource Centre) in GangKyi.

This was not a proper Net connection, but a UUCP dialup protocol that allowed them to ship "emails" to a center in Delhi, from where they could be properly piped into the Internet.

Anyone who wished to send email could do so, but they would have to go to the TCRC office, which was at that time on the roof of the Narthang building in GangKyi. And then sit down at the one machine that used the incredibly arcane and difficult "Pegasus" software, and execute a mystical 5 step (at least) process as I recall, after you were done actually typing your message, to get it sent out to the holding tank in Delhi. From there it would wait any number of days before whoever ran that box would pass the mails on. Also, there was just one email address to send mail to or from — I remember seeing it printed in an old Wired magazine article.

At this time, the entire subcontinent of India was running off of a 128 kbps internet connection to Europe!

1995 - Dan comes to Dhasa and gets hooked

I came to Dharamshala in late 1995 to study at the Men-tsee-khang, and met then with the TCRC manager Mr. Phuntsok Namgyal to discuss the state of things and what might be done. I had just quit my job at and was dying to get back into Tibetan medicine, my former dissertation subject. But I saw what I could do for the TGiE's communications, given my early work on the World Wide Web (I had actually built and launched with my own hand the very first ads ever featured in a Web publication, the now-defunct HotWired) so I set aside my academic interests again and committed myself to what came to be known among my crew as the "Gangky Wide Web project".

1997 - Back to GangKyi — and to work!

Dan Haig looks over the hardware and cable his group brought with them to India. Photo Rick Schneider

After a lot of planning and preparations, including sending one person to Dhasa in advance to measure the distances between buildings, find out what equipment we would need to bring versus what we could get there and so forth, I got on an airplane in April of 1997 with four friends, a bunch of network cards, routers and hubs, several modems, power supplies for all, lots of heavy lag bolts, hundreds of meters of steel messenger cable and all sorts of other stuff in our backpacks, and flew to India. We just walked thru the green "nothing to declare" zone at Indira Gandhi International with all our stuff :-) Pre 9/11 — good luck trying to get away with something like that today!

We proceeded to burn a whole week in GangKyi having tea with Ministers and Secretaries and Under-secretaries etc etc before we could get to work, explaining technology and showing hardware to a bunch of (almost all) guys, who with a few exceptions had no idea what on earth we were talking about.

When I first met him, Phuntsok Namgyal was the only guy I talked to in India who had heard of the Web, and very few knew anything at all about the Internet in 1997.

Finally, we had an audience with His Holiness, who was of course very fascinated and asked very perceptive questions even though it was something he could have known little if anything about in advance. It was such a high honor to meet him — I'd been studying Tibetan language and Buddhism in the states with a famous Geshe at doctoral level since I had gotten home from hitchhiking into Tibet in 1988 — but it was also a little terrifying to have him thanking us profusely for our help when we had not even been allowed to start and were far from certain the network would actually work! Man was my crew getting anxious, they only had four weeks left to work.

1997 - the first Internet-connected LAN

So, but four weeks later, after hanging off of the edges of buildings with drills and stopping GangKyi traffic with wires dangling in the streets, tearing our hair out over RAM mismatches for the server we built at the TCRC (Phuntsok Namgyal is a freaking technical genius) and installing stuff onto computers all over the place, we had built the first Internet-connected Local Area Network in the Himalayas. All 7 ministries, the Kashag, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and several other offices were wired, and we provided dialup connectivity to the Private Office, Norbulingka Institute and other important locations. All of these offices could now compose and send out emails to our mail server using a simple mail program (we gave everyone Eudora) on their own computer. And a satellite dish was on its way.

I stayed for four more months to be sure the system took hold and was not immediately neglected. My team left all the hardware needed and very good instructions on how to extend the network to other machines, including very detailed training to TCRC staff on how to properly hang, cut, and crimp ethernet cables.

and of course, web

Of course we set up a web server for the local network, and I built at that time a small website all in Tibetan. I had to make gif images for all of the text of course, but still, there it was. I believe this was the first ever Tibetan-language website.

and a bit of interest from the <gulp> Pentagon ...

It is worth mentioning here that one day, some weeks after I got back to California and was working at my old dotcom (they always kept my desk free, bless their hearts, until the company folded in the great dotbomb of 2001), I woke up one morning to find an email from a guy — yep, the Office of the Secretary of Defense — saying that they wanted to have a word with me about what I had been doing in India. I sure didn't need any coffee that day. It's a long story but I ended up flying out to Washington and discussing my little self-funded project in Dharamshala in front of some serious freaks, including President Bill Clinton's chief technology officer.

2000 - back again to build ...

When I came back in 2000 to head up the Tibet.Net project, I was very pleased and amazed to find that under Puntsok Namgyal's successor, Mr. Jigme Tsering, the network had been extended to over 120 computers! The wiring was messier than my wiring expert (the infamous Mister 3D) would have liked, and packets were dropping all over the place, but it was working and very busy indeed.

... and teach web development

After a brief delay to work on getting launched for His Holiness, I set up a training program and taught 30 CTA staff in the creation and maintenance of web pages on the site for their own departments. It took about four months, but just after New Year's of 2001 we launched the site, in English, Tibetan, and Hindi, with a very nice message from His Holiness.

I spent the remainder of my year in Dhasa — I was an official CTA staff member, not sure how many Injies can claim the same — in further training of staff and expansion of the website. The site has since undergone many transformations, but in essence it remains the same. There are still many pages I coded myself that have persisted, like the Tibetan Flag and Tibet at a Glance (you know, this could use a little updating!)

The News Flash provides the same function as ever, though I am not sure they have ever had an editor as good as the first, my old pal Tenam at DIIR, who lives in Paris now. They sure put the right man on the job there.

... and Dan keeps an eye on things at CTA ...

Anyway, one of the main reasons I went to all this trouble was that I was concerned that, left to their own, the CTA departments would have created a hugely chaotic series of web presences and email addresses and domain names which, once let out of Pandora's box, we could never do anything about. Also of course there were and are security issues. I think by and large the problems that might have erupted in an unmanaged growth of Internet and Web use in GangKyi and elsewhere in CTA offices have been successfully avoided.

... while His Holiness keeps an eye on tattoos ...

The Dalai Lama looks through 3-D glasses to get a better view of Rick Schneider’s 3D tattoo. Photo Rick Schneider

So here, as a final word, is an old news piece on the GWW project - the picture of His Holiness Dalai Lama looking at Mister 3D's tattoo with 3D glasses (which I took with Mister 3D's three-dimensional camera!) is not to be missed, truly one of the most hilarious moments of my life - I could hardly hold the camera still. [Story at]


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