CHYAMTANG, Nepal – I don’t believe it’s possible to create a time machine.
Not the H.G. Wells type, anyway. But last month, I traveled backward – over the years, decades, centuries. Time peeled away the farther my fellow trekkers and I pushed into this land bypassed by modern civilization.
Paved roads became rocky dirt roads became trails of commerce became ancient handmade stone stairs as we continued to the doorstep of Tibet.
It is in this most distant land in northeastern Nepal, inhabited by Tibetan people known as Lhomi, where our Durango dozen settled, albeit briefly in the greater timeline continuum. Our yellow Kelty tent encampment offered a nonsequitir among the primitive stone-walled homes with straw roofs and nonvented cooking fireplaces set into the floor, their smoke filling the dark living rooms.
Our mission, led by Nepal native Karma Bhotia, was to open the inhabitants’ minds to the future, to the realities they will soon encounter with civilization quickly finding them. Look not into a mirror, Bhotia repeatedly emphasized; reject the fatalism that threatens to bind you. Instead, look through a window and understand the possibilities you can embrace to change your world for the better.
Our group left the United States on Oct. 20, bound to do what we could for the people of the upper Arun River valley and to support the vision of Bhotia, an unlikely Durangoan who grew up in Chyamtang in a stone house where only a foundation remains. With a couple dozen guides and porters and a string of mules, we trekked five days from the lofty ridgetop village of Num. Each day found us in a more primitive, pristine place.
While the area’s dwellers use farming and cooking methods not far from those of the Stone Age, this is not the whole picture. For instance, even among these homes, far from the relative mainstream of gritty Kathmandu, you find:
Metal roofing, mostly a sky blue, but one home that has used red – a help for the disoriented visitor.
Solar panels and a TV satellite dish or two. Small solar rooftop panels are ubiquitous, and at night, there are a handful of scattered LED lights to see among the village of 600, which sits on a sloping mountainside below the grade school where we settled.
Water running from black PVC pipes. It’s taken from streams above town, gathered in a concrete cistern and distributed to many houses, although not yet all.
Squat toilets, porcelain pieces set flush into the earth and surrounded by rickety wooden frames, and closed with a sliding metal bolt.
People have cellphones, too, and communicate when the signal is good, at least several hours per day after the cell tower warms up mid-morning. Internet is a little harder to come by, and too slow yet to be of real utilitarian value.
Oh, these poor, poor backward people, you may think. But there’s a beautiful simplicity to this lifestyle that we quickly learned to appreciate: Few lights to compete with the stars. At night, excepting the rare barking dog, a sound-free sleep. No traffic to threaten bodily harm. No blaring media. A life lived mostly outdoors in the fresh air of the Himalaya.
Because of this lifestyle, the Lhomi are tough beyond any scale most Americans would comprehend. The loads they carry, the daily physical labor they endure, would run the typical city dweller into the ground quicker than you could say “oxen and yoke.”
Many in our group wrestled with the nagging feeling that to change them was to ruin them. But the reality is that change is coming their way no matter what we do. Best to prepare them however that’s possible. A key component is education, without which they’re ill-equipped to deal with a computerized age that is bearing down on them.
The physical evidence of that unavoidable change is a road coming at them from two directions and soon to link. (“Soon” being an ambiguous word in Nepal. Two years? 10 years? No one can say.)
We’re not talking superhighway, just a rough, narrow road that a sturdy vehicle and driver can endure if the cause is justified. The 4-year-old, 20-mile track from Khandbari to Num is the domain almost exclusively not of passenger cars or even delivery trucks but of “taxis” – Range Rovers with balding tires and failing door handles that pack 14 or more people in not so many seats and even atop racks designed for luggage. Imagine if the road from Durango to Silverton was not a paved highway, but more or less like driving from Silverton to Lake City via Engineer Pass. And imagine if vehicles were available not to the average person, but only to business interests.
Num, where the road now more or less ends, offers a look at what can happen when modernity comes without planning. It’s a sprawling village with little focus but for the town square with a mishmash of shops. Trash in many forms – wrappers, toothbrushes, plastic bags, old shoes – are ground into the poorly drained road base. Elsewhere, under trees, empty bottles of Tuborg beer are stacked high, with seemingly no place to go. Recycling? Still a foreign concept.
About 1,500 feet altitude below Num, a hydroelectric dam is under slow construction, a few workers with hand tools the only visible sign of progress. According to one source, the power created will be owned by business interests in India, the locals will earn a pittance of the profits.
It is this scenario, of ruination from lack of vision, that Bhotia wants his homeland and his many remaining relatives to avoid.
Chyamtang and its neighboring villages have a chance to prepare and plan. Obstacles abound. They must unite, rapidly educate themselves and learn to be stubborn and persistent in the face of slick outside developers and investors who offer a quick profit for their land. No easy task.
Bhotia, who before last month hadn’t been to Chyamtang for 25 years, sees how time has stood still while the outside world has moved on. The time machine phenomenon saddens him. It’s time, he believes, to roll the clocks forward.
Next week: What the Durangoans and the Karma and Jyamu Bhotia Foundation accomplished during their stay in the area, and what lies ahead.
[email protected] John Peel, along with 11 others from Southwest Colorado, trekked in eastern Nepal for nearly a month, returning home Nov. 20. For more on the foundation, visit www.facebook.com/bhotiafoundation.