I sang “Katmandu” in Kathmandu. And I’m excited to be able to say that. However, of the pair of songs that share the name of the city, I kind of wish I’d gone with the other one.
So how did I come to find myself in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital? Well, I was alighting there on my way to Bhutan, during an excursion to Asia in May 2017. Kathmandu is merely one of several cities from which you can fly to Bhutan’s international airport, which is in the town of Paro; but if Kathmandu is your point of departure, your flight path will include a segment during which you can enjoy a view of Mount Everest from above. So I availed myself of that flight option, reasoning that it might be the only time I would ever glimpse Everest from any altitude.
Monkeying around in Nepal
Now, Kathmandu itself is not the easiest of metropolises to reach — at least if you’re coming from North America. My itinerary was as follows: from my home base of New York City I flew to Beijing (which I had visited, and karaoked in, about a year earlier), and then after a couple of days there I proceeded to Bangkok. From Bangkok, I winged my way to Kathmandu.
Prior to my arrival, my preconceived vision of Kathmandu was of an exotic and mystical city, although admittedly I knew little about the place. When I got there, I found the streets to be dirty and dusty, and the traffic chaotic. I wasn’t a fan. Maybe I didn’t give Kathmandu enough of a chance; I’m not saying I wouldn’t return there if the opportunity arose. But it didn’t make a stellar first impression on me.
Incidentally, although Nepal contains some of the highest points on the planet (such as Everest — which straddles Nepal’s border with Tibet — as well as other portions of the Himalayan range), Kathmandu is situated in a valley called Nepal Mandala, and its elevation is a relatively pedestrian 4,600 or so feet. So I didn’t need to carry an oxygen mask around with me in Kathmandu. 🙂 Nor did I need to worry about falling prey to the altitude sickness that I succumbed to in Cusco, Peru in 2013.
A few highlights of K-k-k-k-k-k Kathmandu
Due to the transitory nature of my sojourn in Kathmandu, my itinerary allotted only about half a day for sightseeing. The attractions that I managed to check out during that brief interval were the Boudhanath Stupa, the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet; and the Swayambunath Stupa, an ancient temple popularly known as the “Monkey Temple” on account of its many simian residents.
Also in Kathmandu is a rather macabre yet sacred destination that my abbreviated schedule didn’t permit me to swing by: a temple where tourists can watch corpses being cremated. The Pashupatinath temple complex is an amalgamation of Hindu holy sites on the banks of the Bagmati River. Open-air cremations occur on pyres on the temple grounds along the Bagmati, and the ashes are then cast into the river. (Non-Hindus are not permitted access to the main temple, but can view the cremations from across the river.) More information on the site can be found here. I imagine that witnessing the incineration of cadavers would inspire deep thoughts about the nature and meaning of death — a subject about which Westerners tend to be squeamish and often prefer to avoid contemplating.
Whilst passing through Kathmandu I sought out the life-affirming activity of karaoke — aiming to make Nepal the first new country on my World Karaoke Tour since the United Arab Emirates had become no. 46 during the preceding January. The venue was a karaoke bar called Beta House. Accompanying me to Beta House were Manhendra, the Director of a company that runs tours in the region, whom I had met at the annual New York Times Travel Show in New York City several months earlier; and Manhendra’s friend, whose name I unfortunately have forgotten. (That’s what happens when it takes me 8 months to get around to writing about one of my karaoke appearances. 🙂 ) It was Manhendra who located Beta House for me; without his intimate familiarity with Kathmandu, I might not have found a karaoke joint in Nepal.
It turns out that there are 2 different songs called “Katmandu” (each without the “h” in the song title) – one by Cat Stevens, and one by Bob Seger. The 2 songs are completely unrelated to each other, having only their title in common. Impulsively, I opted to sing the Cat Stevens one in the Beta House. Here’s how my rendition of Cat Stevens went down:
And that is how, on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, Nepal became the 47th country in which I’d karaoked.
In retrospect, I wished that I’d chosen Bob Seger’s version of Katmandu instead of Cat Stevens’s. Exhausted from my extensive travelling of the previous several days, I hadn’t put much thought into my song selection, and had taken little time to compare the Cat Stevens song with the Bob Seger one prior to heading out for my evening of karaoke. Nostalgia may have been a contributing factor to my decision; during my university years, I had frequently listened to an album of Mr. Stevens’s greatest hits.
But the Seger tune is much more upbeat and fun. Even though I was singing to less than a packed house in Kathmandu, Mr. Stevens’s ode to the city was probably just a bit too mellow (a quality that applies to most of the tunes in Mr. Stevens’s oeuvre).
Here’s a video of Mr. Seger performing his own tribute to Kathmandu:
I still intend to sing Mr. Seger’s “Katmandu” when the opportunity presents itself, although doing so outside of Nepal — a country to which I probably won’t have the chance to return in the near future — won’t feel quite as meaningful to me.
I flew over Everest because it was there
One of the most rewarding aspects for me of hitting up Bhutan was the journey that brought me there. As advertised, my Druk Air flight from Kathmandu to Paro, Bhutan provided a unique aerial vista of the world’s tallest mountain. On the day of my flight, as is common for the time of year when it took place, extensive cloud cover obscured much of the Himalayas. But the jagged summit of Everest, which soars to a height of 29,029 feet, jutted up through the clouds. Here’s what I saw from my window seat:
Paro is only 252 miles from Kathmandu as the crow flies, and soon I was landing at Paro International Airport, which is a reasonable candidate for the superlative of “most beautiful airport I’ve ever seen.” (In contrast, Kathmandu’s airport is among the worst I’ve encountered – and not only for aesthetic reasons. But I digress.)
I had entered the mysterious land of Bhutan.
Dragon my way to Bhutan
Nicknamed the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” Bhutan is a landlocked nation in the Himalayas that’s home to fewer than 800,000 people. It’s also visited by fewer than 60,000 tourists per year. That number isn’t restricted through any specific quota, but via a policy that requires tourists to arrange their stay through a licenced tour company, and to spend a minimum of the equivalent of either $200 or $250 US per day (inclusive of lodging costs) while within Bhutanese borders, depending on the time of year of the visit. (The official Bhutanese currency is the ngultrum.) Of course, the resultant expense of a holiday in Bhutan discourages many budget-minded travellers. Tellingly, you won’t find any youth hostels in Bhutan.
Similar to Nepal, Bhutan’s topography features numerous Himalayan peaks — the highest of which tops out at a staggering 24,840 feet. The portions of the country that are most frequently visited by sightseers tend to have elevations ranging from about 3,900 feet to about 7,700 feet.
The real “happiest place on Earth”
Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy whose royal family since 1907 has been the House of Wangchuck. The country is perhaps best known for its official policy of promoting the Gross National Happiness (GNH) of its citizens, with GNH defined as “sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; environmental conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance.” But the national commitment to GNH is also emblematic, more generally, of a chill vibe that pervades Bhutan’s 14,824 square miles. So laid-back are the inhabitants — even when behind the wheel — that there’s not a single traffic light in the entire country. Even the capital city of Thimphu is devoid of traffic lights. In fact, Bhutan claims to be the only country in the world whose capital city boasts this distinction. The only traffic signal of any kind in Bhutan is a solitary kiosk in a roundabout in Thimphu; from that structure, police officers direct traffic via hand signals.
(Admittedly, the uncontrolled intersections are feasible partly because of the dearth of both personal and commercial motor vehicles in the country. An article in August 2015 reported that there were fewer than 75,000 motor vehicles in Bhutan – equating to less than 1 vehicle for every 10 people. The same article did note a surge in the importation of automobiles into Bhutan and concomitant worries about traffic congestion – a trend that, if sustained, could perhaps necessitate the installation of one or more traffic lights. In any event, the lack of traffic lights is surely also a consequence of the national attributes that would tend to render the citizenry less susceptible to road rage than drivers in other nations. As the emphasis on GNH reflects, the Bhutanese people are just really happy and nice to each other. This also explains why, for example, the rate of violent crime in Bhutan is extremely low.)
From the streets that (at least for now) lack traffic signals, you can take in some pretty amazing views. With Bhutan’s distinctive style of architecture and its ubiquitous and colourful Buddhist prayer flags, roadside tableaus like this one are common:
A very brief travelog: some top Bhutanese attractions
The most celebrated edifice in Bhutan is the Paro Taktsang, popularly dubbed the Tiger’s Nest monastery, in the Paro district. (At the top of this blog post, you can catch a photo of me in front of the Tiger’s Nest.) What makes the Tiger’s Nest especially renowned, and elevates it to the realm of bucket list entries, is the arduous trek required to reach it; that epic hike involves traversing some 2.6 miles each way, during which you ascend some 3,000 feet in altitude to the highest point of the climb. (After attaining that highest point, you actually descend some 600 steps before then climbing roughly 200 steps that culminate at the monastery.) The monastery is perched on a cliffside over 10,000 feet above sea level, and about 3,000 feet above the surrounding valley.
Among the other significant locations to which my tour guide took me was the Punakha Dzong (a dzong being a type of fortress). That particular dzong (found, naturally, in the town of Punakha) hosts royal weddings and coronations, even though it’s roughly a 2-hour drive from the capital city of Thimphu.
In Thimphu I visited one of that city’s newest additions: a giant Buddha, called the Buddha Dordenma. Fashioned of gilded bronze, it’s 169 feet tall (not including the meditation hall that serves as its base) — so in a city without skyscrapers, it really stands out. The Buddha Dordenma was just completed in 2015, and the grounds were still under construction as of last May.
Breaking bread with Bhutanese
I believe that one learns as much about a place from meeting its people as from seeing its landmarks. One of my favourite parts of my tour of Bhutan was a dinner I had with a local family in their farmhouse in Paro. Here I’m pictured with the father and mother of the family:
I liked that the Tiger’s Nest was visible from immediately outside their farmhouse. After dinner, when I was leaving with my tour guide and driver, it was cool to see the Tiger’s Nest and a few nearby buildings appearing as specks of light, high on the darkened mountainside.
Everybody Wangchuck tonight: an evening of karaoke in Bhutan
You’d figure that any country that was committed to the promotion of Gross National Happiness would offer karaoke. 🙂 And you’d be right. I sang in Thimphu one night, at an establishment bearing the delightful moniker of “The Magic Karaoke.” My song choice was Radiohead’s “Creep,” with that selection being influenced more by the limited variety of English-language songs available to me than by any considerations unique to the occasion. (I’d hoped for a second chance to perform Bob Seger’s “Katmandu,” since at least I was in a Himalayan kingdom in close proximity to the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal; but the songbook at The Magic Karaoke was bereft of anything by Mr. Seger. So my quest to find the right circumstances for a performance of that tune continues.) Anyhoo, the name of the KJ happened to be Wangchuck — the same as the surname of Bhutan’s royal family. Here you can watch me making making some karaoke magic at Wangchuck’s show:
And that is how, on Thursday, May 25, 2017, Bhutan became the 48th country on my World Karaoke Tour.
Several days later, I would arrive in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbatar, and would face unexpected challenges as I sought to make Mongolia country no. 49 on my karaoke tour. If you’ve perused the page on this website that recaps my my World Karaoke Tour, I haven’t created much suspense for you; that page reflects that I did, in fact, karaoke in Ulaanbatar last May. But my next post gets into the details of how my quest for karaoke in that city proved surprisingly difficult, and how I did ultimately end up singing there. Plus, that next post will feature photos from Mongolia!