Bobby can hardly contain his excitement on the phone. It is 6am. 'Look out of the window, motherfucker. That's a patch of blue sky out there, and that means one thing: we're going to the lost forbidden fucking kingdom of fucking Lo Manthang.'
The helicopter is a nine-seater Kawasaki BK117, the pilot a young Nepalese, Captain Sabin. He trains the Himalayan rescue pilots who push these fragile machines to their structural 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 Captain 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.
Bobby is raving behind me, The Chemical Brothers blaring from his oversize Sony headphones. Simon is silent and stoic, taking in the vastness of a 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 than here. The town of Jomsom, now below us, is literally the end of the road. Beyond that, if you 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 aeons 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 the 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. We have landed on the moon.
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 a corner as we find ourselves in the town square. A young girl is washing pots and dishes under a running tap 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 low front door.
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're still feeling light-headed 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.
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.
On this first evening 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 folk 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 a fancy to my son. Bobby and I end up dancing together, and Simon takes some horribly incriminating photographs.
6am. There is a sound almost like a distant flock of birds, a murmuration growing gradually 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, so 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 sit 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 aluminum 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 focus and discipline in the room - no adults are 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 in 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 where 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. However 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 a practical as well as spiritual leader.
'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 ... '
Simon and Jake are still sleeping when we get back to the boarding house. We don't disturb them, and head 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 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 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 light 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 might see in the Uffizi or the Prado.
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 guest house 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 us this morning while we were out and invited us to stay in 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 a second floor balcony.
The palace is a warren of dark stairways and inner courtyards connected by long corridors. Built of the same mud as the rest of the town, it is an imposing and intimidating structure none the less. 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 generous 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 are used to. Two large windows overlook the town and the surrounding countryside. We're definitely on the up. A poster of the Dalai 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.
The next day we ride on horseback to the abandoned caves from which the Tibetan resistance carried out guerrilla raids after the Chinese invasion. We dismount and gaze upward at an 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 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 has recommended a diet of plain rice and a course of Tibetan pills. Poor Simon spent the night hallucinating, throwing up, and sleepwalking. 'One of the longest fucking nights of my life,' he moaned in the morning. 'Do you think I should keep taking those pills?'
'I don't think you have much choice, old son.'
The king has returned from a trade mission to the Tibet border. He speaks no English. He is extremely devout, meditating for 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 the 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.
My days here fall into a routine. I wake early and walk to the monastery to sit with the young monks during their morning prayers, and 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 final 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 yet 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 Pekinese. 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.
By the end of the meal Simon has returned, looking a little ashen. He sits 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.
'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 the 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.
The crown prince and a lot of the town have come to see us off, and there's 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 has them all holding their hats and shielding their eyes.
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.