The King & I
Kathmandu is a city that everyone should visit a least once in their lives as it has something for every taste. It is the only capital city where two of the world’s major religions – Buddhism and Hinduism – peacefully coexist and, in several instances, even share the same facilities. It is not uncommon to see statues of Buddha being worshipped on one side of a sanctuary, and various Hindu gods on the other.
It is also the port of entry for most of the mountain climbing expeditions seeking to scale Mount Everest or other peaks in the Annapurna Range. Its cheaper hotels and boarding houses are often filled with climbers who are either preparing to assault the peaks or who have returned disheartened. The latter groups fill the common bars at night searching for people who will listen to their sad tales or who might help them to buy their passage back to other civilizations.
Perhaps Kathmandu is more noted for its splendid array of well preserved temples with their wooden and stone carving on the outside and their brilliantly colored alters in the interior. All visitors to this city are attracted to these temples and none go away disappointed.
Sandra and I visited Kathmandu in 1965. We left our three children with close friends in Dacca who also had kids about the same ages and booked a flight on Royal Nepalese Airline’s double-prop Faulker Friendship – the airline actually owned two of these 30-passenger airplanes, but usually only one would be in service at any given time. We flew to Calcutta on PIA’s jet to Karachi, and after a brief wait, transferred to the small plane for the four-hour flight to Kathmandu. The flight becomes spectacular as it approaches the northern frontier between India and Nepal and begins its ascent over the lesser Annapurnas. Kathmandu is actually located in a valley between two ranges. It is completely surrounded by majestic mountains, and the plane descends rapidly as it nears the city.
Friends had recommended the Hotel De L’Annapurna. It was centrally located and a hangout for climbing expeditions. It was also in the midst of the hippie area. In those days, many European and American drug addicts flocked to Kathmandu as drugs of all description were openly available and very cheap and legal. The streets around the hotel were littered with youthful addicts – it was a parent’s worse nightmare – most of them openly begged the passing tourists, or well -dressed Nepalese, for food and drug money. Many of them were excellent musicians. They would often play and sing beautiful haunting melodies as they huddled on the sidewalks … songs which would never be published or known to the outside world.
As fascinated as this may seem, one night in the hotel was all we could take of this scene. Food in the restaurant was mediocre at best; drinks in the bar were made with the cheapest liquors; ice was scarce or non-existent; and room serve was a joke. Actually, if you wanted something in your room, you went downstairs, got it, and brought it back yourself. All of this would have been tolerable and even considered a part of the local flavor – compared to Dacca, this was almost paradise – if only we had been able to finally sleep a bit during the early morning hours. But the cacophony of raucous noises from both inside the hotel and from the streets never ended. Drunken mountain climbers crawled up and down the narrow dimly lighted stairwells all night long. Some of them re-living disastrous events they experienced on the slopes. Others practicing maneuvers they anticipated making if they ever got enough courage to actually approach the major peaks. The street musicians sang and strummed louder and louder, while the throngs of passersbys gradually diminished. For a few rupees they could share a room in a hostel and get a bowl of rice soup. The alternative was to spend the bone-chilling night in the streets huddled together for warmth.
Early the next morning, a sympathetic front desk clerk recommended that we go to the Soaltee Hotel on the outskirts of town. It had recently opened and was owned by the royal family. We quickly packed, hailed a passing taxi, and were delighted to find this excellent hotel after our sleepless night at the De L’Annapurna.
The Soaltee was a large modern hotel complete with a Las Vegas style casino, a first-class coffee shop and an immense dining room with live entertainment, a shopping complex, several smaller restaurants with ethnic foods (Mongolian, Chinese and Indian) and over ten acres of beautiful manicured gardens. Every room had a wide balcony with unlimited vistas of the spectacular mountain ranges. The hotel’s brochure in our room also advised that just off the parking lot were game rooms at the disposal of the guests. Included in this facility were pool tables, card tables, dartboards, and a steam room with massage tables.
Now we could continue touring the city, viewing and photographing the temples, visiting craft and jewelry shops and artist’s studios, driving through the mountains, etc. and return to a bit of quiet elegance in the Soaltee; with an outstanding bar presided over by a wizened old Englishman who had been born in Lahore during the colonial days; and a great variety of restaurants - not to mention the exciting casino in the basement.
One afternoon, we had wearied of the tourism and wanted to just relax in this handsome hotel. I decided I would go to the game rooms ... perhaps shoot some pool .. then get a steam bath and massage before evening.
The building housing the game facilities was almost a miniature replication of the hotel. Rugged but plush. I strolled around to see what would interest me first and was drawn to the largest, most massive, pool table I had ever seen. Racks of expensive cues lined one wall. I walked in that direction to make my selection - when my path was suddenly blocked by a huge, turbaned, fierce-looking, red bearded Pathan. I was startled to see this giant who appeared to be quite hostile to me.
“What are you doing here?” He demanded .. no warmth or friendship in his voice or manner.
“I am a guest in the hotel and understood that these game rooms were open to me.” I managed to stammer.
“Wait,” he replied and pointed to a spot on the plush carpet. I carefully stepped exactly on that spot and stood motionless and almost breathless until he returned. But this time, he was smiling – a huge grin - as if I was his long-lost best friend. “Of course, Sahib, you can stay and shoot pool.” Now, he bowed deeply, as in respect; his right hand pointed towards the cue rack.
“However,” he added. I froze ... watching his face hardened again. “If the king comes in, you’ll have to leave . . do you understand?”
“Yes . . if the King comes here, I
“Yes . . if the King comes here, I will leave.”
Again the beaming benevolent smile from this giant warrior. “Please, enjoy your game.” Again the deep bow with his left arm at his ample waist and his right arm pointing towards to table.
With no further delay, I selected a cue, racked the balls and started a one-man world-championship tournament. The frightening red-bearded giant was soon replaced by a young boy in a hotel uniform who helped with the rack after each game and made numerous suggestions which, had I taken them, would have improved my game. I had been practicing for about a half an hour when I felt a meek touch on my shoulder. I turned to see a slightly stooped, frail-looking, elderly gentleman with rheumy but kind eyes. He was dressed in a conservative brown suit such as a British businessman might wear. He spoke in flawless English with more than a trace of a refined British accent.
"Do you mind if I join you,” he implored.
“Of course not,” I answered and told the hotel boy to rack the balls. The boy was staring at me . . on the brink of horror ... as if something unthinkable was about to happen. Before he could move, my jolly red giant dashed back into the room.
“I told you to leave if the King came,” he bellowed at me.
I immediately headed for the case of cues to put mine back and get out. How could I have known this kindly old gentleman was the king. I knew Pathans were a murderous group when angered - and, if one of them removed his curved knife, he would have to draw blood before he could put it back into its sheaf. I didn’t want to see his knife - so I began my retreat.
But the kindly old king would not allow me to leave. This slight little man screamed at the huge Pathan as if he was a mere slave. “Stop it.”
Then to me he almost pleaded, “Please don’t go, I never have anyone to play with.”
So, I returned to the table with one eye on the chastised giant - to be sure he wasn’t fingering his knife’s handle. My worst fears began to materialize as the Pathan slithered near me to whisper in my ear.
“You can stay because the King wants you to
stay. But make sure that the King wins.”
“You can stay because the King wants you to stay. But make sure that the King wins.” He hissed.
I nodded my head in instant agreement.
So the King and I played pool for the rest of the afternoon. Did I let him win, you may ask? No.. I didn’t let him win. However, he won every game - because, he was by far, a superior player than I. We both laughed a lot and commented on each other's game. We made small rupee bets which I invariably lost. At the end, he asked me to come back to Nepal soon and join him in other games.
“Where have you been all afternoon, “ asked Sandra on my return to our room.
“Oh, the King and I were shooting pool,” I casually replied.
I don’t think she ever believed me.