A long, long time ago, the great public intellectual Bob Seger once issued a powerful manifesto. He was fed up, he said, with “paying dues,” and also tired of “the TV news.” And it just so happened that those societal ills rhymed with Mr. Seger’s rousing call to action: “K-K-K-K-KATMANDU! That’s really, really where I’m going to.” The resulting hit single helped Detroit’s greatest visionary achieve his first of ten platinum albums.
Now, thirty years later, it appears those of Mr. Seger’s generation are now following his advice, and in droves. Judging by the decidedly senior appearance of most of the Western tourists stepping (slowly) out of the souvenir shops here, anyway. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked across the little road bridge from Tibet into Nepal. But I never would have imagined that eight hours later (more on that to come), I’d be standing in line at an ATM with an almost-retired couple from upstate New York who’d just taken two weeks to walk the Annapurna Circuit. Or that I’d rise at dawn the next day only to find the street vendors and breakfast joints already working to fill orders from the elderly early birds who’d beaten me out the door. Sure, there were plenty of young dreadlocked backpackers out and about as well, often wearing skirts (the gentlemen) or muscle shirts (the ladies). Whether seeking outdoor sports, spiritual enlightenment, or just a taste of India without the expensive visa, Nepal seems to have something for everyone. But I was still struck by the percentage of white faces I saw that were topped with some amount of grey or white or nothing at all. If I’m even making it out to the West Coast thirty years from now I’ll be pretty happy; let alone small South Asian countries in the Himalayan foothills.
Anyway, about that trip from the border. Crossing over the little bridge from Zhangmu to Kodari, I felt myself entering a warmer and brighter world. I was leaving cold, troubled Tibet behind, and moving forward into the hot, colorful chaos of the Indian subcontinent. I was also leaving my tour group. The new sense of freedom, of endless possibilities, was exhilirating. The fact that the air at this lower altitutde contained a lot more oxygen than I was used to was probably also a factor.
Most of the tour group members were set on finding a driver in Kodari to take them by private vehicle to Kathmandu. (They didn’t have to look too far, since there were about ten of them lined up on the other side of the bridge.) But not me. I was tired of seeing these exotic lands pass by through the tinted window of a Toyota 4WD. I wanted to see them pass by through the dirty windows of a bus. I was tired of listening to Akon.
One other group member and I (the only other one not travelling with a spouse) walked down the muddy street to where an old bus was parked. “Kathmandu?” The ticket seller affirmed, in English, and said it would leave in three hours. I smiled. After the strict travel regulations of Tibet, it was great to have the freedom to wait three hours to get on this decrepit-looking bus.
My fellow bus traveller and I made use of the time, climbing the steep stone staircases running up the Nepal side of the big valley and wandering the small villages tucked in the smaller valleys higher up. Back down on the road, we followed our noses to a guy with a pot and some picnic tables. Maybe I’d been eating yak momos and drinking 酥油茶 for too long (okay, just 7 days), but the tin plate of dal-bhat-tarkari the guy served up tasted like the best food I’d ever eaten.
With full bellies and a basmati rice-induced coma about to set in for both of us, we climbed onto the bus shortly before the announced departure time. The seats were starting to fill up, and we found ourselves in the vicinity of three Chinese tourists who were also making the trip. One was a middle-aged guy from Zhoushan, the largest island off Zhejiang and close to Hangzhou. The other two were a couple from Beijing. All of them had either quit their job or were taking an extended vacation, and all planned on crossing Nepal to go to India. Since out-of-China backpacking vagabond wasn’t a Chinese demographic you tend to meet everyday, I was pretty happy to talk to them. In fact, some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in Chinese over the last year-and-a-half took place outside China. This one was no different. After exchanging our impressions of Tibet, the young woman, who’d quit her job at a bank in Beijing four months ago and taken off with her boyfriend across Thailand before exploring Tibet, announced that she now supported full independence for the Tibetan people. Her boyfriend agreed. “What’s the point of controlling them?” She said. “They’re not happy, our government throws money at them, and the rest of the world is right to say that what we’re doing is wrong. We’re the imperialists.”
I told her she was crazy. Even the Chinese professors I had, who’d been educated in the UK or the US, and who’d come of age in the more liberal 80’s, were most definitely against Tibetan independence, Tibetan aspirations be damned. Even the couple recklessly pro-reform house Christians I knew, who hated just about everything there was to hate about the Chinese state, were generally mute on the question of Tibet. Never mind people of this young woman’s generation, including my classmates at school, who’d grown up with “Patriotic Education” programs and were determined to see their country become (re-become) Number One. Softer policies regarding religion and language, maybe. More autonomy, perhaps. But independence? No way. You don’t build a strong nation and a better future for all by letting the South secede.
The middle-aged man joined in. He declared that he was pro-independence too! But only if it could guaranteed that India wouldn’t take advantage of the situation to assert its own control. And US bases would have to be kept out. And then there’d be the question of settling the border. Maybe independence wasn’t such a good idea. But if China democratized, then there’d be no need for Tibetan independence, he said. Some agreement there. We discussed the Dalai Lama’s call for a federal system: a Tibetan state or republic with equal standing to the collective Han provinces, under a single government of “China.” Nodding all around. Somehow, on that bus, the Dalai Lama had the full support of the Chinese people.
The bus continued filling up, and the aisleway became crowded with people standing between us and blocking our conversation. I smiled at how yet another generalization I’d formed about China at some point in the last year — that practically nobody supports Tibetan indepedence — had met its anecdotal counterpoint. The generalization was probably still ‘generally’ true — or was it? — and I marvelled at the uniqueness of this very different encounter. We hadn’t even left yet, but I already considered taking the bus to have been a great decision.
A few minutes late, the bus engine roared to life. The driver disengaged the parking brake, and we began rolling down the valley road, hugging the side away from the drop-off. Elbows and hips swayed over each bump. The driver turned on the radio, cranked the volume.
And I kid you not: it was an Akon song. “That girl is so dangerous, DANGEROUS…” came the auto-tuned croon, as the bus pushed into a soft patch of gravel and lurched a few inches closer to the drop-off. I wondered: does Akon have any idea hot he is in the Himalayas right now? Listening to the catchy beat and facing imminent plunging-bus death in this remote little valley, I was reminded of my own insignificance and how little I’ve accomplished in this world. You know, compared to Akon. So following the conversation I’d just had, I resolved to do something! I’d write a blog post.
If I ever get out of here, I thought, that’s what I’m gonna do.