MEN'S JOURNALOctober 19, 2003
The following article by Sting appeared in the November 2003 issue of Men's Journal magazine...
Walking on the moon - Beyond the Himalyalan peak of Annapurna, at the roof of the world, lies the kingdom of Mustang and the lost city of Lo Manthang...
The strains of Kenny G's Christmas album waft innocuously through the breakfast room in the basement of the Shanker Hotel, a charmingly run-down colonial palace in the centre of Katmandu.
"Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" are made strangely plangent this odd season, although the rains of the July monsoon have been drumming a tattoo on my window most of the night, replaced promptly at 7am by a distant cornet punishing reveille from the army camp across the road. A glimpse through the damp muslin curtains in my room revealed a low, brooding sky glowering over the green hills surrounding the city.
This is not Christmas, but none of the waiters in the breakfast room seem to mind, smiling proudly in their smart claret jackets. There is no one else in the restaurant to share the mildly depressing joke, this being the off-season.
My coffee arrives. "Dhanyabad." I say, "thank you" being my sole word of Nepalese. The waiter gives he usual response, "Namaste, namaste", his hands joined in silent prayer, his head bowed in traditional deference. The coffee isn't bad, and in between judicious sips I peruse the local English-language newspaper. "Suicide attack at Moscow Rock Concert Kills Eighteen." A quick scan for buzz words: "Putin", "Chechyna", "vengeance." Yes, everything is normal with the world. On to the local news: "Maoist Leader's Health Fails in Prison Hunger Strike." Oh yes, the other reason for the distinct lack of tourists: a violent Maoist insurgency in the west of the country, and the capital itself full of armed troops in their fatigues, guarding government buildings and major crossroads.
Kenny has just launched into "Santa Clause is Coming to Town" as I scan the paper for some good news. Here it is: "King's Birthday Celebration Today," but the new king's birthday seems to have had a somewhat schizophrenic effect on the ancient city, with counterinsurgency troops looking sullen and fearful underneath halfhearted bunting strung across the roads around the palace compound. The new king has been in the job for only two years, succeeding to the throne after one of the royal nephews took a machine gun to a family party, dispatching most of them to the next lifetime before blowing his own head off. Families are the same the world over, but owning an M16, I've noticed, tends to up the stakes in any family tiff.
Kenny is drifting into "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" as I see one of my travelling companions peering cautiously and dyspeptically into the breakfast room.
"Is that f***ing 'Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire'? demands Simon with a distinct tone of outrage in his normally charming voice. Simon Astaire is an old family friend, the elegant best man at my wedding and now known to the English press as a PR guru, advising, among others, members of the royal family on how best to navigate the egalitarian commercial waters of this 21st century. While sophisticated in many of the ways of the world, I don't think he's ever been east of Sloane Square, that soignée enclave at the end of Chelsea's Kings Road.
"Sleep well, did you?" I enquire.
"No, I f***ing didn't. Is that Kenny G?" he replies incredulously
"I think so. Why didn't you sleep?"
"A/C went off and two overfriendly mosquitoes."
As the nominal leader of this little expedition, I feel some responsibility for my friend's mood this morning, so I probe a little further, as sympathetically as I can.
"Why didn't you change rooms?"
"I like my room!" he fires back, as if I'd just propositioned his grandmother. There was some discussion last night as to the status of our respective rooms. Simon seems to have gotten the most palatial room via the luck of the draw, my son Jake ending up in something a little less grand, and yours truly drawing the short straw. However, the air conditioning unit attached to my own window works efficiently, albeit noisily, and there are no mosquitoes.
Simon orders a full breakfast and a pot of coffee.
"Have you seen your godson?" I ask, changing the subject to my 18-year-old, who is the primary reason for this visit to the subcontinent.
"No, I haven't seen the dear boy," says Simon, polishing his impersonation of a colonial English sahib and regaining at least some of his customary charm. "He went to bed just ten minutes before I did."
Jake and I decided to take this trip together in an attempt to resolve the usual alpha male struggles that exist between aging fathers and their taller, better-looking sons. Eighteen-year-olds have an annoying habit of flexing their taut new muscles in your face and sporting an unfair abundance of hair in ever more flamboyant display, while demonstrating a fine disregard for any wisdom that a father may be able to impart.
I of course am far from blameless in any of our tussles, resorting to wiseacre comments when genuine wit fails me and then to threats of macho pantomime violence when logical argument flies out the window, trapping us both in sullen and interminable silences.
"It's the way I was brought up," I pleaded unconvincingly. "Aren't I just doing my job as a father?"
"Take the boy away," they said.
"Where do you suggest?"
"Somewhere you've never been. To the end of the earth."
I admit I'd never heard of the kingdom of Mustang or its capital, Lo Manthang. In all my travels of a quarter century, on every continent, as a musician in the great cities of the world or a curious itinerant on the lonely planet, the name of the kingdom had never cropped up. In fact, it was little more than ten years ago that anyone from the outside had been allowed into this forbidden land, a high plateau nestling at almost 13,000 feet, hidden beyond the massive Annapurna Himal range and its famous namesake peak. The kingdom, which was independent until it was annexed by Nepal in 1795, forms a salient of Nepalese territory surrounded on three sides by Tibet. Unmolested by the Chinese, Mustang (known locally as Lo) holds intact the traditional Tibetan culture of monasteries, pilgrimage, and subsistence farming and, I was told, provides a glimpse of a way of life that has all but vanished. Tibet as it must have been before the Chinese invaded in 1951 and forced the Dalai Lama into exile in India.
I call my son in room 608. There are at least 15 rings before the handset clatters from the phone, a few more fumbled seconds, and then what sounds like someone talking with a tea towel in his mouth. "Yuurrrgh?"
"It's breakfast time, Jake. We're leaving in 30 minutes."
We have spent a few days acclimatising in and around Katmandu for helicopter weather, as well as for the arrival of my friend Bobby Sager, an old Nepal hand, flamboyant eccentric, inexhaustible world traveller, and practical philanthropist. It was Bobby who suggested Nepal as a destination, and specifically Lo Manthang.
The temple complexes of Katmandu have provided an interesting distraction while we wait, and the polluted chaos of the city, with its roaming sacred cows and armed troops in the main thoroughfares, has provided something of a culture shock for my son.
Not ten minutes from the airport, on the banks of the Bagmati river, is the massive Hindu temple complex of Pashupati and its burning ghats.
"Is that someone's arm, Dad?" Jake asks, somewhat incredulous as we sit beneath a Shiva shrine on the opposite bank, a shroud of white smoke drifting toward us from a bonfire surrounded by mourners. The smell is sickly sweet.
I nod as sagely as I can. "It's a cremation, son?"
"So, we're breathing in a dead body?"
He continues to stare at the spectacle, and I leave him to his thoughts as the temple bells clang and the crows circle the towers in graceful arcs.
There are crazed monkeys preening themselves and watching for food and mischief from vantage points high in the ancient architecture of the temple. Nearby sits a group of sadhus, the famously picturesque mendicants who wander among the religious sites of northern India and Nepal, with long, matted dreadlocks twisted grotesquely into sculptures on top of their heads, their naked torsos filthy with dust and ritual paint. They are lounging and preening beneath a stone colonnade, as they gaze at the world without seeing it, through the heavy-lidded eyes of those who dream awake.
Soon we are surrounded by a group of professional beggars. Some are maybe five years old, with even younger children in their arms as bait, their gestures rehearsed and supplicant, their beautiful eyes, outlined in kohl, a study in practised beseeching. You could almost believe that handing over a few rupees from your pocket would help them, but they are bonded to a slavery as pernicious as if they were chained to a loom in a stinking sweatshop. I smile as kindly as I can and tell them gently, "Go to school."
Jake is troubled and looks to me for advice. "Can I give them something Dad?" He seems skewered on the paradox our ridiculous wealth and the desperate poverty of these ragged children.
"Of course you can give them something," I tell him, "but if you hand them money you're only reinforcing the system. The money goes straight back to their pimp, the guy who feeds them, but just enough so they keep working. They're slaves Jake. Why don't you take them to a shop and buy them each a bar of chocolate? But you won't change their lives by giving them money."
Jake wanders to a nearby stall with a gaggle of waifs around his long legs, like an awkwardly smiling Gulliver in Lilliput.
The river is brown and swollen from the monsoon, and the ashes from the bonfires are swept into the flow along with rice offerings and the odd body part.
On the way back to the hotel the taxi weaves through the dense oncoming traffic, and we navigate around cows in the middle of the city streets, and packs of stray dogs, as well as unheeding suicidal pedestrians perhaps trusting that their next incarnation will be better than this one.
Jake has been silent for a while.
"You know, Dad. I never liked the idea of cremation before."
"And now you do?" I ask.
"Well, yes," he says, struggling with some change in his viewpoint. "It kind of makes sense."
The manicured lawn in front of the hotel is a welcome oasis inside the turmoil of the city. Simon, Jake, and I are sipping a genteel afternoon tea after a tiring day, when the tranquil scene is broken by a loud banging and a maniacal hollering from the back of a pickup truck that has roared through the open gates in a cloud of dust. There on the back is what can be described only as a psychedelic vision, a Martian in wraparound shades and a flowing tie-dyed monk's robe of orange and yellow, with a blue, sparkling bandanna tied pirate fashion around his head, arms outstretched like some messiah entering a conquered city. Bobby Sager, my old friend, has made his entrance, and even the crows are transfixed by this vision.
"I have arrived!" he proclaims at the top of his voice, a long-lost king returning triumphant to his kingdom. "Into the warm embrace of the Hotel Shanker."
"What the f*** is that?" says Simon, who has never met Bobby before.
"That is Bobby Sager," I tell him. "And nothing I could have said about him would have prepared you for the experience, so welcome to Planet Bobby."
There is a loud screeching of brakes at the entrance to the building, and immediately what seems like the entire staff of the hotel comes out to greet the man as he vaults from the back of the truck, as if stage diving into a crod of handshakes and backslapping.
"Welcome, Mr Bobby! Welcome, welcome!"
I met this cyclone of a man four years ago in Brazil. He wanted me to help him get into the interior of the rain forest, where the tourists don't go, so I gave him a few of my contacts and we kept in touch.
Bobby began his working life scalping tickets to Boston Celtics games and ended up buying the hallowed parquet floor of the Boston Garden, before it was torn down. He made a fortune or three before the age of 40, and now he spends his time roaming the planet looking for projects to support that will in his words, "make a difference." He's funding the reconstruction of a monastery in Bhutan, helping the Dalai Lama's religious scholars learn science, setting up teacher training programs for Afghan refugees, assisting the people of Rwanda in rebuilding their justice system after the appalling massacres that have all but destroyed their country, and running microenterprise programs in South Africa, Nepal, and Rwanda. Bobby and his wife and their two small children are a travelling road show, sleeping rough in the neglected places of the world, with tutors in tow to satisfy normal curricular requirements - but, I would think, the kids probably learn more from their exposure to the culture of subsistence than they ever would in a classroom.
Bobby is travelling without his family on this trip. He has come to show Jake and me the "farthest-out place" he knows, on the rooftop of the world.
"Hey, big boy, how's Katmandu treatin' ya?" he asks me with an accompanying bear hug.
"How ya doin, Jake? And you must be Simon. Hey!" he shouts to no one in particular. "It's 4:58. If I don't have food in my mouth by 5pm, I'm gonna kill somebody, ya hear?" The staff takes it all in good humour. Clearly used to this treatment - as Bobby's been coming here for more than 15 years - they run giggling into their hotel.
The rain is coming down in sheets of yellow and blue neon, and the narrow streets of the Thamel district have a kind of Blade Runner intensity, as bicycle rickshaws covered in useless plastic sheeting scurry like panicked crabs in the alleyways, Japanese motorcycles weave dangerously across the paths of taxicabs, and sodden pedestrians run desperately into and out of the doorways of brightly lit bars, cafes, and esoteric bookshops. We find ourselves in an upstairs room with a rather earnest rock group from Tibet set up in the corner. We order some Tibetan beer and momos (vegetable dumplings) as the band starts into a passable version of John Lennon's 'Jealous Guy'. The beer - boiling water poured over tankards of grain an sucked through a straw - is revolting, so we change the order to four Carlsbergs. The momos are fine, but the band begins an interpretation of Phil Collins's 'Another Day in Paradise' so excruciating that Bobby, against my express wishes, decides that he will pay them to stop. I am horribly embarrassed.
The band agrees to take a break while we finish our meal in peace, and whatever Bobby paid them seems to have created smiles all around.
We head out into the rain looking for another bar. Another upstairs room, another live band, a packed, smoky club, and this time the band doesn't sound half bad. Any band is only ever as good as its drummer, and this one is surprisingly good. In the bio I pick up from the table he lists Vinnie Colaiuta, my erstwhile trapsman, as his main influence. I am duly impressed. The jazz-funk of the five piece vibes up the room nicely, and after a few Nepalese vodkas I am in the zone, although one of my fingers of my left hand is throbbing painfully.
We reflect on the interesting day we've had, whitewater rafting on the Bhotekosi River, which saw Jake and me catapulted into the flood. The boat was suddenly at the base of a deep trough and then almost capsized by a ten-foot wall of oncoming water. Only we two mugs in the front got thrown out, still clutching our paddles. But as a bonding experience for father and son it had to be in the top ten, the two of us struggling to stay upright in the raging torrent and the rest of the crew frantically trying to get us back into the boat before the next set of rapids. I was deeply proud of my boy though. He was calm and cool in a dangerous crisis. But I many have fractured a finger during the incident. Although I managed to wrench it straight when we got back into the boat, before feeling came back. I knew it would be sore tonight.
In the late afternoon, my finger in a splint, we went shopping for the provisions and equipment we would need on our trip to the forbidden kingdom. A few prayers were offered at a Hindu shrine in Durbar Square for good weather tomorrow, to get us through the narrow gorge to Lo Manthang safely.. But tonight we are determined to enjoy our last night in civilization.
There has been a buzz of recognition building in the club since we arrived and ensconced ourselves at a discreet corner table, but the buss has now percolated to the band. I'm a practiced reader of body language; I've grown used to detecting changes in room temperature when celebrity is recognised, subtle waves of energy and gesture that indicate who knows you and who doesn't, who doesn't care and who's pretending they don't. It's a complex and fascinating anthropological dance. The band now begins to play with an increased intensity and flash energy. There are a lot of smiles thrown in my direction. They know I'm here, and during the break the drummer makes his way over to our table.
"That was very cool," I tell him. "My compliments to you and the band."
"Man, I can't believe you're here. It's such an honour for us."
I look suitably abashed and proceed to sign autographs for him and the band - and now that the ice has been broken, for everybody else in the club.
"Hey, man," says the drummer, "would you play with us?"
I raise my bandaged finger in the air and explain: "Boating accident."
"Aw, man, that would have been solid. How about singing with us?"
"And what would you like me to sing?" I ask, stalling for time.
"'Walking on the Moon', man. It's one of our favourites."
"I can't sing that song at this altitude. It's too hard. It would kill me. How about a 12-bar medium-tempo swing, in F?"
"You bet," he says. "You're first up after the break."
The blues standard 'I've Been Down So Long Being Down Don't Bother Me' has served me as an impromptu jam on many an occasions like this. Nor does it let me down tonight, even with a throbbing finger.
Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you, for the first time in Katmandu, international singing star...
Bobby can hardly contain his excitement on the phone. It is 6am. "Look out of window motherf***er. That's a patch of blue sky out there, and that means one thing: We're going to ther lost forbidden f***ing city of f***ing Lo Manthang."
The helicopter is a nine-seater Kawasaki BK-117, the pilot a young Nepalese, Captain Sabin, who trains the Himalayan rescue pilots who push these fragile machines to their structured limits, up where the air is deadly thin and the wind and clouds create conditions as dangerous as any on the planet.
I'm strapped into the front with Captian Sabin. Behind me are Jake, Simon and Bobby, and behind them an engineer and a protocol officer from the Nepalese government. We are visiting a restricted area; not just the capital city but also the area to the north, on the border with Tibet, where the Chinese military is very sensitive to incursions.
We overfly the massive stupa that is the temple of Boudhanath, where the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha are daubed onto the side of the shrine. They gaze up at us as if we were a passing bird, and we head for that patch of blue sky, which holds the promise of Shangri-La.
Getting out of Katmandu valley is difficult, as the mountain ridges that circle the city are often hidden by the drifting cloud base. We dodge and we weave until we find a way through, and then the view stretches to the horizon. The morning sun is reflected in the rice fields, which are contoured to the valley sides like the lines on an ordnance survey map. Tiny hamlets appear stranded on the tops of ridges, miles from the nearest road.
An hour passes like this as we head west. Over the city of Pokhara, Captain Sabin radios for permission to head northwest through the narrow gorge to Jomsom. The verdant green of the jungle gives way to rising pine forests reaching up to the snow line, and we follow a winding river to the north. Yet another hour passes.
"This is the deepest f***ing gorge in the world," says Bobby over the headphones, as Annapurna looms out of the clouds to our left like a terrifying white god, its cruel northern edge rising vertically into a black sky. The helicopter feels like a tiny insect suspended over the valley below as the wind begins to pick up.
Bobby is raving behind me, the Chemical Brothers blaring from his oversize Sony headphones. Simon is silent and stoic, taking in the vastness of the Himalayan peak above us. Jake is just psyched. He can't stop grinning at the adventure we're having. The engineer and the protocol officer in the back look miserable, as if they'd rather be anywhere else but here. And I gaze ahead through the clouds as we climb and climb toward the land to the north, on the roof of the world.
The town of Jomsom below us is literally the end of the road. Beyond that, if one wanted to reach Lo Manthang without the aid of a helicopter, it would be several days of hard trekking through the most inhospitable landscape. We continue to climb, through gorges and over endless desolate ridges.
The terrain below us has changed dramatically. We've gone from the lush greens of the valley and the stark black and white of the high peaks to a shockingly lunar desert of orange and red, a windswept plain in the rain shadow of the mountains. We traverse vertiginous canyons buttressed like Gothic cathedrals weathered by eons of wind and sandstorms. The headwinds get stronger and stronger, and the little craft is buffeted from side to side like a plaything.
"There it is! There it is!" screams Bobby.
Bobby's excitement has been caused by what seems like an oasis in the distance atop a narrow, steep-sided bluff separating two dry riverbeds. In the centre of a complex field system a walled city has appeared, as ancient and remarkable as anything I have ever seen or that my imagination could conjure.
The helicopter turns wide arcs around the city below. It seems to have grown out of the earth itself. There is a central palace of whitewashed walls and two large temples behind it of earthen red. Around these main buildings, huddled inside he ramparts, is a warren of narrow streets and flat-roofed houses. A thousand prayer flags on long masts invoke the gods of an endless blue sky.
Captain Sabin looks for a place to land outside the city walls as field workers scatter. The curious among them move closer, the rotors slow to a standstill, and we step out into another world.
Only a few stands of poplar and the green cultivated fields around the city break up the bleakness of the landscape around us. We have landed on the moon.
A delegation arrives from the city, and from the welcome it is obvious that Bobby has been here many times. He receives a warm hug from a man in western clothes. "This is my man here in Lo Manthang, Pema. He'll look after us here. Namaste, namaste."
Bobby already has three digital Nikons sling around his neck, like totemic fetishes from our world. Our bags are removed from the back of the helicopter, and we make our way in a file toward the city gates.
"Namaste, namaste." Everyone greets us on the way, with the praying hands gesture and wide open smiles. A l lot of them recognise Bobby, and I'm struck by how much like the Navajo these people are: old faces as lined and weathered as the distant hills, deep, soulful eyes, and an engaging self-assurance even among the young.
The city gates are a ramshackle Indiana Jones affair of carved wooden beams and crumbling brickwork. Bobby meets an old friend. He has a mouth with three twisted and derelict tombstones for teeth, filthy matter hair, and a face as wrinkled as a brown paper bag. "Khukri, Khukri, look what I've got for you."
Bobby digs into the bowels of his bag and pulls out a small bottle of rum. Khukri's eyes light up as if his prayers have been answered. "And don't drink it all in one go, like last time," says Bobby. Khukri smiles and nods, smiles and nods.
Walking into the city is how I imagine walking into biblical Jerusalem might have felt, narrow lanes between mud houses painted in the colours of the surrounding mountains. The winding streets are full of children, barking dogs, and horses. Tiny highland cattle are being herded around the corner as we find ourselves in the town square. A young girl is washing pots and dishes under a running spigot in the centre of the square, and beyond her is a quaint structure that announces itself as the "Lo Manthang Guest House". We shall spend the night in this three-storey mud dwelling with prayer flags fluttering bravely from the roof, tiny windows with blue painted frames, and what looks like a WANTED poster nailed to the front door.
We stoop inside and find ourselves in the shade of a small courtyard. The words POST OFFICE are painted on a door in front of us, and I wonder how long it would take a letter from here to reach London, which seems now to have existed in another lifetime far removed from this one. A steep and uneven staircase leads to the upper floors. There is an open fire stove surrounded by some pots on the landing. This is the kitchen. An older woman in a black cotton smock and striped woollen apron, her head wrapped in a brightly coloured scarf, is brewing yak butter tea in a large copper bowl. She points toward a room on the left, behind a blue and white curtain. We lower our heads and enter a chamber with two tiny windows, a dirt floor, and a series of benches around the walls covered in narrow rugs. This is where we shall sleep. On the wall above me is a poster of the Dalai Lama's old place in Lhasa, the Potala. Every home we visit in the city will have this image on the wall, keeping alive the memory of a lost homeland, like Masada to the Jews after the Diaspora. On the other side of the room are posters of the Nepalese film stars Rani and Preity.
All of us lie down, exhausted from the journey and the altitude. We are, after all, almost two and a half miles above sea level. We've been taking altitude sickness pills for two days now, 250 milligrams of acetazolamide. But we are still feeling lightheaded and a little dizzy. Captain Sabin gives us each a hit of oxygen from a tank he has brought from the helicopter, and we will doze for the rest of the afternoon.
The toilet, if you can call it that, is a hole in the ground above a midden. I pray that none of us will be spending too much time squatting here in this bare room.
I learn later that the guy in the WANTED poster nailed to the front door is actually a local politician standing for re-election. I knew he looked like a crook.
Toward dusk I wander the streets like a time traveller, getting lost, doubling back, blundering into monastery courtyards. Nowhere seems to be off limits: "Namaste, namaste." Smiles and welcome.
I find myself back at the town gates. Khukri and his friends look well pleased with themselves, idly watching the womenfolk as they trudge back in from the fields, weighed down with massive loads of assorted grasses on their backs, like pack animals. Some of the older women are permanently bent double from a lifetime of this work.
Tonight Simon cooks spaghetti with tomato sauce, al dente, with some good French wine Bobby haggled in Katmandu. The entertainment is provided by a group of three girls and three boys singing local folks songs accompanied by a one-string banjo. The girls wail in a high-pitched, keening unison that is both sexy and unsettling. As the wine flows, we all end up dancing, and the girls seem to take fancy to my son. Bobby and I end up dancing together, and Simon takes some horribly incriminating photographs.
It is 6am. The sound is almost like a distant flock of birds. A murmuration growing louder as I wander the empty streets in the chill of the morning. A sign on a metal gate reads GOMPA OF GREAT COMPASSION MONASTIC SCHOOL. BEWARE OF DOG.
I enter the courtyard cautiously as the chanting reverberates around the walls. I peer through an open doorway, and inside a large, dark hall are 50 young monks seated in long rows below a shrine to the Buddha. They are chanting rhythmically and reading from long strips of printed scripture. They are not chanting in any kind of unison, and do it sounds like an orchestra warming up atonally before a performance of something by Messiaen, but the musical effect is far from unpleasant, and strangely intoxicating.
I join the end of one row and site next to what seems to be the youngest child. He's probably around six or seven, dressed as the others are in the red robes of novice monks. The eldest of them, 15 years old at most, ladles out powdered breakfast cereal from large aluminium bowls and pours yellow tea into plastic cups as the novices rock backward and forward and continue to chant. No one moves to eat yet. A young monk pours me a cup of the tea, I assume made from yak butter. It is really not to my taste, but I sip it with good grace. The tiny companion next to me, with his shaved head and enormous dark eyes, gives me a shy smile as he continues the complex mantra that is the morning's task. I'm amazed at the level of focus and discipline in the room. There are no adults present but me. As an ex-schoolteacher I find it baffling that 50 boys left alone in a room aren't by now staging a full-scale riot, yelling, fighting, throwing missiles and food across the room, and making an unholy row. But they are utterly concentrated on their task, the older boys helping with whatever difficulties the younger ones have with the text. My eyes begin to feel heavy, so I rest my head on the wall behind me. I hardly slept last night and, lulled by the continuous chanting, I fall asleep.
I don't know how much time has passed, but the room is empty when I'm nudged into consciousness by a smiling older monk with the drawn and cultured face of an ascetic.
"Where are you from?" he asks in good English, and it takes me a moment to gather my thoughts, as if I've forgotten or even who I am.
"I'm from London," I say eventually. "I must have fallen asleep."
"It is difficult to sleep here when you first come," he tells me kindly. "After a day or two you will find it easier."
"A dog was barking the whole night, " I tell him. "I think it was in the palace."
"Ah, yes," he says. "The mastiffs, very fierce. They guard the king. Would you like to meet the abbot? I believe your friend is already there."
I follow him, his red robe slung across his shoulders as the wind blows dust across the courtyard, and I shiver in the cold.
A rimpoche in Tibetan belief is a reincarnated being who has chosen to return. The abbot, it is said, has had many lifetimes. As I enter a small upper room I hear Bobby's voice, speaking to a translator. "Can you ask the abbot how long it takes for a soul to find a new body?"
The room is dark, and seated in a corner near a curtained window is the rimpoche, the head of the monastery. He is a big man with large, fleshy ears, and he is draped in the folds of his long robes. He has a welcoming, extraterrestrial smile and his shining eyes seem to fill the room with their own light. I am bidden to sit by my friend, and the abbot begins to speak in a rich baritone that is infused with a subtle laughter.
"The abbot says the soul will wander for exactly 49 days before it finds a new host," explains the translator. I recall hearing that after 49 days a human embryo develops the pineal gland, the mysterious organ in the centre of the brain that was traditionally known as the seat of the soul - this being the kind of arcane scientific fact that has always fascinated me.
I have to admit I've never really taken the idea of reincarnation too seriously. I think it's a useful poetic myth that can inform and guide a worthy life, but I can't swallow the idea whole. But looking into the depths of the eyes of the rimpoche, and struck by the sheer power of his aura, my rationalism seems somewhat diminished, and I realise that at least some acceptance of the idea of karma is the key to understanding any of the religious and social culture of the subcontinent.
I want to ask him some practical questions about the kids I spent the morning with.
"Where do the novices come from?" I ask.
"They are mainly from poor families, from the villages. Some of them are orphans."
"And how many of them will eventually become monks?"
"Not all of them. Some find the studying too difficult, and some of them will fall in love with the local girls," he says with a genial chuckle.
"But we will need to raise the money for a new dormitory soon," he adds after a short pause, demonstrating that he is practical as well as the spiritual leader of the community.
"What reincarnation is directly below that of a human being?" asks Bobby, perhaps thinking that he may not qualify next time.
"A goat!" replies the abbot. "Now, about my dormitory¬Ö"
Simon and Jake are still sleeping when we get back to the boarding house. We don't disturb them, and had for the two temples inside the northern wall of the city.
As in all the temples we shall visit in the kingdom, some of them more than 600 years old, the walls are covered from floor to ceiling in the most stunning religious art. Mandala after mandala, thousands upon thousands of Buddhas, demons, gods, and goddesses, tantric images of the power of creation, all indicating a highly sophisticated and artistically accomplished society. In the distant past Lo Manthang was an important trading city on the salt route from the Indus plain to Tibet, and its importance was reflected in its religious buildings, and particularly in its art.
Gigantic Buddhas tower over lesser deities, all draped in ceremonial scarves of woven silk and honoured night and day by the flickering lights of countless butter lamps. Even though the buildings are decaying and some of the frescoes have crumbled, this is still a living religious culture. People still worship here, in the presence of artwork comparable to anything you may see in the Uffizi or the Prado.
For the next few days we take the helicopter to tiny villages around the capital, and as far as the Tibetan border, and find more and more temple complexes - some of them built inside caves, underground, or suspended precipitously on the edges of clifftops - made all the more special by the spectacular and brutal landscape that surrounds them.
It is lunchtime, and we find Jake in the monastery school, playing volleyball with the novices. They're pretty good, and my son, ever gregarious, seems to be honing his socialising skills, even without speaking the language.
When we return to the guesthouse Simon tells us that he is not feeling too well. He has a headache; his stomach is playing up. We think it's the altitude and tell him to rest as much as he can.
Apparently the crown prince visited is this morning while we were out and invited us to stay at the palace.
"How was he?" I ask.
"Absolutely charming," says Simon. "Said he'd send the family doctor over this afternoon, when we move into the palace."
The fastest social climbers in the history of Lo Manthang move their backpacks over the road to the palace, while the huge black Tibetan mastiffs that kept us awake last night glower at us from the second floor balcony.
The palace is a warren of dark stairways and inner courtyards connected by long corridors and built from the same mud as the rest of the town, but it's an imposing and intimidating structure nonetheless. Climbing three sets of stairs with backpacks and sleeping bags at this altitude leaves us all breathless when we reach the prince's living quarters.
He is every bit as charming as Simon Said he was, and in addition speaks excellent English and is a charming host. We meet his mother, the queen, a quietly patrician woman with long dark hair dressed in a braid and falling over one shoulder.
The prince shows us to what will be our room. It's paradise compared with what we've become used to. Two large windows overlook the town and the surrounding countryside. We're definitely on the up. The same poster of the Dali Lama's palace is pinned to the wall, and in the centre of the room is a set of plastic garden furniture, a table and four chairs. This will be our home for the duration of our stay, and as the mastiffs have been moved to another wing of the palace we ought to get a good night's sleep.
Bobby's man Pema pays us a visit after another one of Simon's excellent spaghetti dinners. The two of them retire into a corner, whispering in quiet conference about "Z stones".
A Z stone is a much sought after-after crystal with striking abstract patterns of lines and circles that occur naturally. The more circles (or "eyes") the stone has, the more valuable it is, and the more powerful, for such things are considered to bestow psychic protection on those who wear them. Almost everyone in the village seems to wear one of these strange rocks around his neck. Two or three eyes are common, four or five are considered rare. Pema has told Bobby that a stone may be for sale in the village with as many as nine eyes, a crystal with considerable totemic power.
There are no streetlamps in Lo Manthang. We take our flashlights to avoid the vow and horse dung that litters the streets and follow Pema through the narrow alleyways. We reach a s cul-de-sac where we enter a small courtyard. Pema pushes open a creaking and ancient door. There are a number of cows grazing on hay strewn across the mud floor. All the cattle in Lo Manthang live on the ground floors of the houses. There is not enough acreage to allow them to graze outside the city walls. The loads of grass we have seen the women carrying into the town are separated from the wheat and barley in the cultivated fields and used as forage for the cattle. The cows and horses spend their days wandering in the alleyways and their nights as the downstairs tenants of their owners. I dare say they may add a little heat to the houses in Lo Manthang's fiercely cold winters.
A crooked wooden staircase leads to an upper floor where an old man greets us, his face weirdly lit by the butter lamp in his wizened hand. We are ushered into his living quarters. When my eyes accustom themselves to the gloom, I see that there is a tiny baby swaddled in rags asleep on a simple cot. The old man has a deeply lined face, and his craggy, piratical features suggest a harsh and uncompromising existence. His matted and filthy hair is plaited in a long ponytail that looks as if it has never been cut. He asks if we want some tea and leaves us with the tiny baby, who is breathing quietly in the corner. It can't be his; perhaps it's a grandchild, but I don't see any signs of a woman's touch in the place. He returns and we politely sip the yak butter tea. After a sociable moment of time he reaches his right hand into the neck of his smock and pulls out a rough woven cord with, on the end of it, two inches long and encircled in abstract lines and circles, like a design by Miro. Pema takes in an audible breath at the sight, and as the old man turns the stone in the flickering light we count nine distinct eyes. If this is genuine then the stone is rare indeed. But how to verify it?
The solution is as startling as the stone itself. The old man pulls a long hair from the back of his head and ties it around the Z stone. If the stone is genuine, when a match is taken to the hair touching the stone it will not burn. Bobby takes out his lighter and places the flame under the line of hair pulled tight across the surface of the stone. He holds it there for one second, two, three, four seconds. The hair neither shrivels nor breaks. I don't pretend to understand the physics of this experiment, but when Bobby moves the flame to the ends of the strand, away from the stone, they vaporise.
"It's genuine!" says Pema and the old man laughs mirthlessly.
When the Chinese invaded Tibet in the early fifties there was fierce resistance - although the rest of the world turned a blind eye to the genocide and the wholesale destruction of an ancient and extraordinary culture. A lot of the resistance fights moved into the kingdom of Lo, living and hiding in the ancient caves complexes and carrying out guerrilla raids across the border. But despite their fierce courage, their medieval cavalry tactics and weapons were no match for the communist troops, who were well armed and ruthless. The resistance fighters (or khampas) were all but wiped out. The caves they hid had been used as dwellings for thousands of years, and we ride on horseback to visit some of these ancient sites, now abandoned.
He dry heat of the day is oppressive, and at 12,400 feet oxygen is hard to come by. I'm glad we're not walking. Simon is still feeling unwell. The prince's doctor visited him yesterday. The doctor was a monk, too, with shaved head and scarlet robes, an expert in Tibetan medicine. He felt Simon's pulse in both arms and announced that the altitude was disturbing his metabolism to a dangerous level. He recommended a diet of plain rice and prescribed a course of Tibetan pills that he would send over. The doctor also gave me a brown paste to take down the swelling in my finger, which had progressed to an angry shade of purple and black.
Poor Simon spent the night hallucinating, throwing up, and sleepwalking. "One of the longest f***ing nights in my life," he moaned in the morning. "Do you think I should keep taking those pills?"
"I don't think you much choice, old son."
Simon was determined not to spend another day ensconced in the palace and by midday, despite the heat and dust, had regained his customary good humour astride a scrawny-looking mule.
From across the valley the cave complexes look like Flintstone city carved into the Cliffside, and as the horses slowly climb nearer and nearer, our first impression seems to be correct.
We dismount and gaze upward at the enormous cliff, then enter what proves to be a multi-storey apartment complex a hundred feet high, with wooden stairs and tunnels connecting a vast number of living chambers, with windows cut into the rock. The people who lived in these caves must have been seriously tough, especially to survive any winter here. The caves are empty now except for the ghosts of a war fought long ago and a few shattered pots.
The king himself has returned from a trade mission to the Tibet border, and Simon, who has now become our chief cook, has offered to make one of his famous pasts dishes in honour of his return. I wonder, perhaps uncharitably, if our PR guru isn't trying to drum up a little business with the local royals.
The king seems a kind and wise elder. He speaks no English. He is extremely devout, meditating for many hours every day in his private shrine room. Walking with him in the city, it is clear that he is loved and revered by his people, the men doffing their hats and women rushing to kiss his hand. More important, the affection appears to be reciprocal. He has time for everyone, and the kingdom is small enough for him to know almost all of his subjects. Apparently, a lot of work involves arbitrating disputes over the precious irrigation channels, without which there could be no agriculture. The best fields and access to water are organised on a rota system, but disputes will inevitably arise when there is such a scarcity of resources. The way of life here has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, and for us it feels as if we've been transported to the Middle Ages, to a place where people still believe that the earth is flat and that spirits haunt the night.
The crown prince, while having been exposed to the modern world, has spent most of his life in the enclosed kingdom. Of a similar age to me, he only ever heard of The Beatles or the Rolling Stones long after their influence on modern culture had waned.
His son is studying in India, and he speaks to me of his fears for the kingdom.
"A lot of the young people want to leave," he tells me. "There's less and less for them to do, and when that happens the kingdom will die."
Tourism to Mustang has been restricted by the Nepalese government to 1,000 people a year, but in the last two years, because of Maoist violence, the numbers have barely reached 200, hardly enough to keep the city solvent. The kingdom's remoteness reduces the most destructive aspects of tourism, but the people here desperately need something to survive. A sign written in English in the town square seems to encapsulate a partial solution to the conundrum. It reads NEPAL IS HERE TO CHANGE YOU, NOT YOU TO CHANGE NEPAL...
In other words, it's pilgrims rather than tourists that Mustang needs, those who can bring much needed dollars into the region without demanding four-star accommodations or burger outlets.
Bobby has another solution. The next morning we fly to the village of Charang, probably a day's ride on horseback but only a few minutes in the helicopter. The king is in the front seat; Bobby and I sit with the crown prince in the back. Bobby wants to find the best weaver in the village: He wants to set up a micro enterprise program using local textiles, starting a training course among the local girls, and looking for a market outlet in the West for traditional handicrafts. While the king pays a visit to a near relative, the prince takes us to a little house on the outskirts of the hamlet. In the yard is an ancient loom, straight out of a museum. Roughly crafted in wood, the shuttle lies in the middle of a half finished piece of woollen cloth.
The prince knocks on the wooden door of the cottage. It can't be every day that the heir to the throne knocks on your door, and the woman who emerges into the sunlight with three small children at her feet is somewhat taken aback. She is strikingly beautiful, with the high, broad cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes of her race, full lips, and an enchanting smile. She is like an Oriental deity, and it our turn to be taken aback.
After the normal courtesies, offers of tea, and a strange mark of respect in the showing of her tongue to his highness, he asks her to demonstrate the loom. Again we feel as if we have walked into history as the shuttle flies through the warp and the woof of the cloth. She sings as she works, and for some fathomless reason I feel like weeping.
Bobby asks her to provide the material for two coats, one for me and one for him. It will take her about a year. He gives her $200 (a prince's ransom in the kingdom) as a down payment, and with the prince's help will begin the training program as soon as enough traditional looms can be constructed. Bobby will provide the seed money.
Our practical philanthropist spends the rest of the day photographing children in the village and teaching Jake some of his secrets. He has a breathtaking series of what he calls "children in conflict" portraits, of children in Afghanistan, in refugee camps in Pakistan and Rwanda, of Tibetan refugees in camps in Lebanon.
I watch him at work. Sitting just outside a group of youngsters, he begins an animated conversation with a mischievous glove puppet, a bright yellow duck. He whispers to it to be quiet and well behaved, the duck nods in obedience and then proceeds to attack Bobby, who only barely manages to control his tiny adversary. The children begin to stare at the strange sight of this big man and his recalcitrant duck, laughing uproariously when the duck gets the better of him. They move closer, and the duck starts to tease the children. Some of them run away giggling; others get closer.
"Never start taking pictures immediately," he tells Jake. "You've got to engage them, make them laugh, get close." Without looking through the lens he casually takes some shots of the children laughing. "The closer you get, the better the pictures, but don't ever lose eye contact."
I watch as my son engages with the children, making them laugh, coaxing the shy ones to break out of their shells, until Bobby starts chasing the entire gaggle of children around the town square like an overgrown kid, whooping and roaring as the children scatter hilariously and hide behind their mothers long skirts.
A young man attempts to give Bobby some soft drink, saying something in Nepalese.
"Pema, what the hell's the kid saying? Why's he trying to give me this can?"
Pema talks to the boy, who is about 12. "He says you saved his grandmother's life last year, Mr Bobby. She needed an operation in Katmandu, and you put her in the helicopter. He says the family wants to thank you, and this is all they have to give you."
The big brash guy from Boston is suddenly quiet and clearly touched by the gesture. My two abiding memories of this extraordinary and complex man will be him chasing the village kids like the town fool one minute, and the next reduced almost to tears by this simple gift.
My days here have fallen into a routine. I wake early and walk to the monastery to sit with the young monks during their morning prayers, and at the end of each day, just before sundown, I walk in the fields and listen to the women singing as they gather the rough grasses from among the barley and the wheat to feed the cattle. Their songs are carried by the gentle evening wind, and I try to understand why this singing fills me with such emotion. How many in our own society sing while they work, apart from people like me who are paid to do so, and where is the joy in our labour? Where is the poetry in the rhythm of our daily lives? And how do we ever regain it?
It is our fourth and last night in Lo Manthang. Simon's cooking has really hit it off with the king and queen, and although he is still feeling unwell he agrees to do the honours again. At this rate he's going to find himself with a job in the last forbidden kingdom.
We are all in the smoky kitchen, the entire royal family, Jake, me, Simon the chef, Bobby and Captain Sabin. When the cooking is done Simon and I are given the places of honour on either side of the old king. Only a few forkfuls have been swallowed when Simon stands bolt upright and runs unceremoniously for the door, all but tripping over the queen's pet Pekingese. Everyone stares in astonishment as he disappears into the darkness. But the spaghetti is too good to delay any further, and we carry on eating regardless. By the end of the meal Simon has returned, looking a little ashen. He sits down at my side, and I whisper, "What's wrong? Why did you run off?"
"Listen, I don't know what happened to the last person who threw up on the reigning monarch here, but I didn't want to take any chances. Come and help me clean up the mess, will you?"
That night, tucked up in my sleeping bag and trying to read by the flame of a guttering candle, I hear Jake turning restlessly, unable to sleep.
"Dad, this has been the best trip of my life. It really has." There is a small silence in the dark room, as if a hidden treasure is being taken down from a high shelf. "Thanks, Dad".
"Thank you, son."
And now out of the silence, out of a box of male secrets, the treasure we share has found a voice.
"I love you, Dad"
"I love you, Jake."
The Kawasaki is filled to capacity, with Captain Sabin and me in front, Jake and Bobby behind, and Simon, the flight engineer and the protocol officer in the back, as well as a monk and a local official who want to hitch a ride as far as Pokhara.
The crown prince and a lot of the town have come to see us off. I see Khukri at the back of the crowd, still smiling and nodding, as well as the usual crew trying to sell family heirlooms at outrageous prices. Bobby, of course, is negotiating up until the last second, as Captain Sabin starts up the rotors.
The circle of well-wishers and last-minute salesmen widens to a safe distance from the blades and the dust storm that has them all holding their hats and shielding their eyes.
The angle of the rotors is altered, and we start to lift off, suspended only a foot above the ground. But we go no further. The captain looks worried, shaking his head and rocking the joystick from side to side. There's clearly something wrong. Captain Sabin lowers the craft back to the ground.
There's too much weight. Bobby jerks a thumb at the local official. "You, out! C'mon, we haven't got all day. The weather's changing."
The official beseeches with praying hands. "Please, please!"
"No way, buddy. That gorge is dangerous. You getta get the f*** out of here."
Reluctantly the official climbs over the back seats and finds himself forlornly back on the ground. His bags are thrown after him.
"There's a mule train leaving next week," shouts Bobby, not too convincingly, out the window. But the captain looks happier as the helicopter takes off, and we wave goodbye to Le Manthang for the last time.
We fly noisily over the crumbling cathedrals of windswept canyons, the desert wastelands, and the isolated camps of nomads. What a strange and magnificent place this is.
As soon as we reach cruising height we see Annapurna on the horizon, looming larger and larger as we head south. The mountain's northern flank rises to a wall of vertical black rock, three miles high and more than five above sea level. I can't stop staring at its vastness as we get closer. I must be tripping, for at about 20,000 feet, up on the sheer face, there are two distinct oval-shaped snowfields. I swear I am looking at the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha, and he is looking at me.
We are close to Jomsom, and the tower there informs the pilot that although another helicopter has just gotten through the gorge, the weather is closing fast. We press on, hoping to get through the small window that the weather has granted us.
Annapurna is now to our right but obscured by high cumuli, and we get as far as the hamlet of Lete, where we come up against a solid white wall of cloud. We circle a few times, but there is no way through. We have no choice but to land. The captain finds a soccer field in Lete as we descend through the rain to a temperate zone of dripping pine forest. The town looks empty, but we find a trekker guesthouse, order breakfast, and wait for the weather to lift.
An hour later we are aloft again and encouraged by a patch of promising blue sky. But as we head south, following the winding of the river through its narrow gorge, the clouds begin to build again. There are some tense moments. The rain has violently started again, and the windscreen in front of us is leaking. My unspoken fear is that the cloud will not only stop us from moving forward but will close in behind us. Where would we go then? And is that a bead of sweat on the captain's brow, or some rain from the windscreen?
I look back at my fellow travellers, all of them looking anxious, apart from Bobby, who is oblivious, eyes closed and listening to 'The Rising' by our friend Bruce Springsteen on his headphones. I reach behind and give Jake a reassuring squeeze of the leg. He reciprocates with a firm hand on my shoulder. The boy is becoming a man, and I couldn't be in better company.
It is a long and tense hour of staring into white clouds and the ghostly edges of the valley sides, until we finally see Pokhara in the distance, where we land, kiss the ground, than the gods, for our safe journey, and take on more fuel for the final stage to Katmandu.
All four of us are in the back of the white pickup truck, Bobby playing a version of 'Wipeout' on the roof of the cab, and there it is in front of us like a mirage, a hazy dream, a distant memory of civilisation: the famous white colonial palace, resplendent with the promise of toilets you can sit on, wonderfully noisy air conditioning, telephone, and 25 appalling TV channels. Bobby is now exclaiming at the top of his voice, "Welcome my brothers! Welcome to the warm embrace of the Hotel Shanker!"
"Yes, " we repeat in unison," the warm embrace of the Hotel Sankerrr," holding on to the last syllable like drunken carnival rousters.
The staff is all there on the steps to greet us: the commissionaire, the porters in their little forage caps, all saluting madly, the manager, the smiling owner, Mr Shanker.
"Welcome back, Mr Bobby, Mr Sting, Mr Jake, Mr Simon. Namaste, namaste!"
We enter the cool of the lobby, and a mirror by the front desk shows us how filthy we are, our clothes encrusted in dirt and grime, our hair matted with sand, and our tanned, unshaven faces wrinkled from squinting in the sunlight.
"What time is it?" shouts Bobby to no one in particular. "Can someone tell me why I haven't got a beer in my hand right now?"
"Shush, Bobby!" I say. Listen!" From the breakfast room I can hear a single plaintive alto saxophone: Kenny G playing 'We Three Kings'. We all join in, "We three kings of orient are, Nah na nah, nah na na na nah."
And as we sing. The girls behind the reception desk stare at us with fixed and bemused smiles, as if we are all aliens from a strange and distant planet, with our quaint and unusual eccentricities.
© Men's Journal