We’re bound once more for Tang Ting, that place from the start of this tale. A bus to a cab to a bus to a trek, that’s how you get there. Even to the locals it’s a bit of a mystery - if you mention its name they’ll correct you; you must be looking for somewhere else. But it all becomes clear on that final ride over, filled with incense, packed to the brim, a busload of villagers with sugar and tomatoes in tow. The world is tiny and everyone knows everybody. Through the cruddy windows you can see the pale-faced Himalayas peeking through the trees; “the world isn’t tiny”, they say in Nepali, “but you humans sure are”.
Just up the dirt road a truck is broken down, so our bus stops too. There is no dialogue between the two automobiles. Only stillness. As I understand it these mountainside standoffs happen very frequently. Several years ago on the outskirts of Kathmandu I was heading downhill on a non-descript bus when we encountered another bus going uphill. As fate would have it, the road wasn’t wide enough for the vehicles to pass each other. Immediately acknowledging the conundrum they’d placed themselves in, both bus drivers shut off their respective engines, and resigned themselves to death. In all the years this road had existed and been trafficked, this irreconcilable dilemma had somehow never occurred. But now the worst-case scenario did in fact occur, and the road would surely be clogged by this impasse for the remainder of eternity. The passengers emptied out of the buses to inspect the unfixable reality that they had just been driven into. Some scratched their heads. Others threw rocks off the adjacent cliff. A few slapped the buses, searching for meaning that just wasn’t there.
A great deal of time passed. Ragtag committees formed and disbanded. And other downward bound buses appeared behind us, trapped. Alliances were forged, treaties were betrayed; plans were drawn, solutions were hatched, strategies were espoused and tactics were plotted, but deep down the crowd knew their efforts were in vain. The prognosis was obvious. The situation was terminal.
What’s there to do? We were only humans after all, how could we hope to affect something so heavy and grand as a bus? The forest beside the dirt road swayed back and forth and the clouds passed over us slowly. Turning your back to the buses you could see the grey contours of the Kathmandu Valley. If you yelled your loudest to any of those distant cities they wouldn’t hear you. And if somehow your voice was heard, what could those distant people possibly do? They too are only human. It would take a force far greater to remedy this gridlock.
Then a man put out his cigarette and got behind the wheel of the bus. He turned it to the right, then to the left. Then he straightened the wheels out, and we were instantly blinded by the flash of genius before us. He had out-maneuvered the paradox. Everyone cheered and whistled and slapped their buses and basked in the glory of man’s triumph over the riddles of the universe.
So, stopped once more, we empty out of our bus per tradition. Good Samaritans, armchair engineers, dirt road enthusiasts, crowd organizers, and prime ministerial candidates alike emerge from the woodwork to address the problem of the broken truck on the very steep hill. A secondary truck appears on scene, but has no intentions of solving the jam. This truck is carrying an actual prime ministerial candidate, really, here to rally his socialist base in the nearby villages. His longhaired neighbor, doubling as his campaign manager, steps out and makes us an offer that we cannot refuse.
We’re spectacles, no doubt, and can be wielded as publicity tools to lure people out of their homes along the campaign trail. In exchange the disheveled, longhaired man will welcome us into his entourage and give us a ride further up the mountain. Deal. Inside, the man shows me the nuanced campaign poster our guy is running on. I’m told to pay special notice to the part where it says that our candidate, who’s riding shotgun, was a boxing champion three years in a row. The man, who has a smaller man sitting on his lap, tells me all this while raising his eyebrow, as though to stress the obvious point that our man is bound for victory. It is a solid platform.
Soon we arrive at a peculiar junction that I haven’t seen before. The river has been shrunken inwards and a gravel road has been paved and an enormous construction site has sprung from what once was a field of boulders. In a spot so remote the sudden development is startling. It’s the Chinese they say, and which the Chinese signage confirms. They’ve marched up and over the Himalayas and into the valleys on the other side where they’re digging up earth and damming up rivers and making a real mess of a picturesque place. We stop here for lunch in a deteriorated shack where the Chinese workers must get their take out. This isn’t the road to Tang Ting that I remember.
The longhaired man begins shouting into his megaphone because the circus might as well be in town, “come, come, come, come all!” he shouts in Nepali before mumbling off the tenants of his campaign. The Prime Minister-to-be shakes hands and rattles off facts while we plot our escape and hit the steep trail ahead.
Its cold and overcast when we reach Tang Ting. The Himalayas are veiled behind a wall of grey fog and the usual sounds of village life are muffled. It isn’t abandoned – there’s still the cast of colorful old ladies tinkering around their porches and men chasing water buffalos and naked children eating rocks – but it feels significantly emptier than just a year prior, like the village is leaking. We zigzag through the narrow stone paths to my old house and meet Bhim Kasi, my old host sister, who seats us beside the smoldering hearth. From inside that smoke filled room you can hardly tell that the sun has set and the stars have crept back overhead and that where the Himalayas once were there is now a wall of blackness.
The men have cleared out of Tang Ting. As children they tiptoe along mountainous ledges and throw rocks and tame buffalos and terrace steep bluffs to the most beautiful backdrop on earth. As adults they clean windows in Dubai, stock refrigerators in Malaysia, sell shirts in Thailand and weld steel under Qatar’s glaring sun. The luckier ones are able to hatch out new lives with their families on flat ground in the nearby city of Pokhara. They are ancestrally bound to Tang Ting, and visit some times, but quaint sentimentalities alone won’t lure them back for good. It’s a hard life up there at the base of the Himalayas; a demanding, unremitting, and remote life full of labor and frost and hardship just to scrounge up enough food to live by. There are few amenities or modern perks and they are taunted by glimpses of the urban world below. Life is far less taxing in a city like Pokhara. It is a narrative known the world over. Chasing promises of comfort and leisure and even excess, they do what the majority of our species has now done. They leave their fields for the flashing lights of modernity.
It’s a leak that will eventually run Tang Ting dry. But for now the young and the elderly stick around, and so Tang Ting, though shrinking, is still here. On our last night there, a healing ceremony is held on the neighbor’s mud lawn. There the village shamans gather beneath a tent to purge the house of sickness. The whole village comes to watch. The shamans, weathered old men in colorful hats and worn sarongs, drag on cigarettes, bang on drums, and dance around a fire. To the side, a band of elders sacrifice a goat and split its innards into piles on a tarp. Its freshly bled hide is hung from the shaman’s tent, its severed head placed neatly in the dirt amongst the other ritualistic fixings – knives, beads, candles, herbs, a carton of cigarettes. Its blood is mixed with oil and left to simmer in a brass pot beside the fire, where one lone man spastically dances to the strange discordant sounds of chanting. Older women in the crowd draw the warm oil, from the pot and rub it on their foreheads. The children watch, and then do the same.
Nearly all of Tang Ting is here now, basking in the glow of this singular flame while the rest of the world is obscured in darkness. You forget about the other seven billion souls on this earth who aren’t here. As you know it, all of humanity is huddled together around this one lone fire, the only of its kind. In the flickering light you discern the silhouettes of Angry Birds, the curvature of Nike swooshes, the bows of Hello Kitty, the lonely blink of a passing weather satellite. These are the sole reminders that this is all taking place in the modern era. But if you expunge these icons from your mind you will find yourself in the audience of a timeless theatre, enmeshed in a truly primordial moment. This is beyond the scope of time. The faces here are illuminated not by the glow of monitors but by the radiance of this fire.