Like Buddha, like son

Kathmandu singing star - aka Sting - writes of his four man expedition to the heart of a lost Himalayan kingdom. Here he tells how he came close to drowning, walked with monks, talked with a king - and resolved some pressing family issues

The strains of Kenny G's Christmas album waft innocuously enough through the breakfast room in the basement of the Shanker Hotel, a charmingly run-down colonial palace in the centre of Katmandu.

Coffee arrives. 'Dhanyabad,' I say, 'thank you' being my sole word of Nepalese. The waiter gives the 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', 'Chechnya', '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 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 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 fucking "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire'?" Simon demands. Simon Astaire is an old family friend, the elegant best man at my wedding and now a PR guru advising, among others, members of the royal family on how best to navigate the egalitarian commercial waters of this twenty-first century. While sophisticated in many of the ways of the world, I don't think he's ever been east of Sloane Square.

'Sleep well, did you?' I enquire.

'No, I fucking didn't. Is that Kenny G?' he says 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 ended up with the most palatial room via the luck of the draw, my son Jake ending up with something a little less grand, and me 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 another 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 10 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 ageing 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 might 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 of 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 10 years since 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, 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.

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, waiting 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 10 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, as we sit beneath a Shiva shrine on the opposite bank, a shroud of white smoke drifting towards 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.

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 a 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 only be described 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 has made his entrance, and even the crows are transfixed.

'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.'

I met this cyclone of a man four years ago in Brazil. He wanted me to help him get deep into the interior of the rainforest, 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 had 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'.

'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 some food in my mouth by 5pm I'm gonna kill somebody, ya hear?' The staff takes it all in good part. Clearly used to this treatment - as Bobby's been coming here for more than 15 years - they run giggling into the 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 scatter 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 and 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 drummer, 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 the fingers of my left hand is throbbing painfully.

We reflect on the interesting day we've had, whitewater rafting on the swollen 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 10-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 10, 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 may have fractured a finger during the incident, although I managed to wrench it straight when we got back into the boat, before any feeling came back. I knew it would be sore tonight.

There has been a buzz of recognition building in the club since we arrived and ensconced ourselves at a discreet corner table, but the buzz has now percolated to the band. I'm a practised 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 a 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 favorites.'

'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 occasion 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 ...



The GuardianTramp

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