THERE IS A FESTIVE AIR INBHAKTAPUR TODAY. YOUNG WIVES ARE CROWDING THROUGH the tiny, dusty alleyways of the fairy-tale Nepali town, chattering excitedly, all in their Saturday finest, as they pose for cameras on brocaded swings or next to golden horses, while scores of others are standing in line to wander through a wonderland of silken canopies, next to a ceremonial pool, in front of ancient temples repainted in dazzling reds and golds. Little girls are huddled over bottles of hotel shampoo, and urchins are playing hide-and-seek around a silver van on which is written, simply, "TAO FILM." Usually, this is a grubby little square where men sell daggers, demon masks and other kinds of spell, the poorest, most medieval part of an alley that is the heart of one of the poorest countries on earth. But today, the "City of Devotees" is a blaze of colors, awash with gilded parasols, glittering with saris, like nothing so much as a toothless crone attending a wedding in her finest silks.
The five-mile trip back to Kathmandu takes only 45 minutes--traveling on a three-wheel motorized rickshaw that bumps and lurches and stalls over roads well-furnished with gods (in the form of cows). "Speak the Truth," cries the sign across the road. "Perform Your Dharma. Do Not Fall From Self-Studies." Most of the walls around it are scrawled with messages saying, "Vote for Sun" or "Vote for Tree," accompanied by pictures of these objects (since roughly three Nepalis in every four cannot read, political parties are designated by universal symbols, and ballot forms come with drawings as well as names.)
Back in the city, in the Hotel Yak & Yeti--an opulent fantasy of a place that looks like the overheated daydream of some Victorian-educated Calcuttan who spent his youth around St. Petersburg--a very different kind of show is taking place. Ponytailed Italians and Brits in leather jackets and a few bronzed trendies who look as if they've just stepped out of L'Uomo are sitting around chatting--as incongruous in this ragged town as a group of Nepali farmers would be along the Via Veneto. You can spot them from a hundred yards, with their expensive haircuts and silken scarves, talking, in accents redolent of Trastevere and Belgravia, of the Christian Dior wallet they've just lost, or the BBC broadcast they caught by mistake on the hotel TV.
Today is a holiday, but call sheets are already posted in the lobby for tomorrow's pre-dawn start. The two principals, Keanu Reeves and Rajeshwari, will have to be in Bhaktapur by sunup. This fairly typical day of shooting in Bernardo Bertolucci's latest epic, "Little Buddha," will also require the services of "208 Members of the Court, 50 Court Guards, 36 Palanquin Porters, 12 Grooms, 11 Indian Girls and 8 Kapadi Players." "Special Requirements," the sign goes on, "10 Horses. Props: Palanquins (minimum of 3). Lunch: for 140 people (and for 350 extras)."
Right now, as the streets empty out (it is nearly 8:15 p.m.), the people, if not the extras, are gathered in the Yak & Yeti's tiny nine-seat bar, half-lit by the erratic flickerings of a black-and-white TV. The techies are propping up the bar, telling dirty stories; the rich women are sitting down, telling even dirtier stories. Their voices drift above the Icebergs and Tuborgs they are drinking, above the chic assistants with their Tintin books, above the framed prints of maharajahs and slain tigers. "This man over here with an Australian accent--he is Italian!" "A fire in Windsor Castle? You've got to be joking!" "See, he thinks he's D. W. Griffith. Matter of fact, I think so, too."
IT IS THE DILEMMA THAT EVERY TRAVELER FACES--ESPECIALLY EVERY traveler who wants to tell his friends about the Hidden Paradise he's discovered: The very fact of giving a name--or a face--to the place you love changes it till it becomes a place you hardly like. Talk about how unspoiled somewhere is and you're almost inviting its despoliation. When someone gives you the address of the unknown Shangri-la he's found, you're forced to wonder whether he's serving its interests or his own.
And it is the dilemma that every developing country faces--especially a country as destitute and desirable as Nepal: When approached by the affluent modern West, do you take it in or take it on? Nepal has opted for the first solution and smilingly accepted so much of the outside world that tourism is its largest source of foreign currency; Bhutan, nearby, has chosen the second option and closed its doors so firmly that in all its history it has seen fewer visitors than go to Dodger Stadium on a single day.