<Feature photo Kathmandu by hinducosmos.com
Late December 1977
My flight to Kathmandu, after brief stopovers in Athens and New Delhi, was uneventful until a spectacular view of the Himalayas grew visible outside my window seat. Over the intercom, the captain praised the famed mountain range along with the weather. He said December normally began the winter season in Kathmandu, but the reported temperature was seventeen degrees C (about seventy degrees Fahrenheit).
I sat back with a beer in hand and wondered how things could get any better. After a few days in Kathmandu I was off on a Christmas break in Thailand (thanks to the Comp Time RSO Roberson had authorized for me).
Despite what everyone had told me during my youth Kathmandu was in Nepal, not Tibet. Tibet was where Hilton’s Lost Horizon took place; the book of Shangri-La that they had all of us read in school.
Unlike the Lost Horizon tale my airplane landed safely. An embassy driver was waiting at the airport gate.
American Embassy Kathmandu
My visit to the American Embassy Kathmandu could be called, “In Quest of the Abominable Snowman.”
Without consulting anyone, first tour FSO J.C. Barrows had sent a series of priority messages to RCO Roberson, the first of which had triggered my boss to have me visit post after the Vance protective detail in Israel.
Bob, after replying to the latest message [I’m sure he would have used expletives if allowed], had asked me to [quote] “Find the Abominable Snowman [REF: J.C. Barrows] and determine what was going on with the radio program at Kathmandu.”
An hour after I arrived at the embassy I found that a recent power surge had blown the fuses of all the desktop radio charger units (which was very odd). Therefore, the batteries all died and the radios didn’t work. I found it hard to believe that no one would check the fuses until I learned that J.C. Barrows had never told anyone at post (at which time I came up with my own interpretation of J.C.).
The CRO, who would normally manage the radio program at post, had just returned last night from a two week R&R in Thailand. When he found out about Barrow’s radio diagnoses he was furious. I suppose because J.C. was a newbie like me I cut the young FSO some slack. I told the CRO that I had never seen a power surge blow several fuses like that.
It didn’t help Barrow’s standing when the CRO went down to the motor pool while I worked on the charger units. When he opened the trunk of the ambassador’s vehicle he found a control cable left sitting next to the MC-76 mobile radio (the vehicle had been worked on a few days ago). Once connected the unit worked fine.
All the radio equipment at post was functioning and back to normal by 3 p.m. The CRO sent an apologetic message to RCO Roberson (for wasting OC/PE’s time and money). Afterwards, the CRO turned to me and said, “You want to take a ride to the Chinese border tomorrow? It’s a spectacular two hour drive.”
“Sure,” I said without pause. I figured the CRO was going to be “straightening out” J.C. Barrows tomorrow and didn’t need any outside interference.
The Road to China
The next morning an embassy driver picked me up at my hotel in a Chevy Tahoe. I sat in the front seat and buckled up. The driver introduced himself as Ram (or was it Rom?).
After an hour of silence I felt light-headed and my ears were ringing. We must be at an altitude well over 10,000 feet. It was as if I had survived the plane crash in Lost Horizon. I kept looking around for Shangri-La, but had to remind myself that I was in Nepal, not Tibet. When I thought I heard harpsichord music, alas it was only one of the Chevy Tahoe’s fan belts singing.
The driver Ram only uttered phrases that were of significance. If I brought my memo pad I would have written them down followed by large quotation marks. Was Ram actually two or three hundred years old as were the inhabitants of the lamasery called Shangri-La in Lost Horizon? The wrinkles in his face convinced me that Ram was pretty darn old, anyway.
When I asked Ram a personal question, “How long have you worked at the American embassy?” he turned and gazed at me.
Ram answered slowly, “Look… up there.”
I lowered myself in the seat to get a better view. Was it Superman or better yet, the Abominable Snowman? My curiosity followed Ram’s long, pointed finger.
“They have lived in the side of the Himalayas for centuries,” he added, as I grappled to remember if Hilton had included this image in Lost Horizons.
Ram stopped the car and we got out. If you ever watched C.B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), you will remember the fabulous voice of Cedric Hardwick as Seti, the father of Ramses. Well, the driver Ram’s voice was reminiscent of Hardwick’s voice.
The rows of wooden dwellings jutted out of the side of the mountain high above us. I said, “Who lives up there?”
After a long pause Ram said, “They are villagers.”
I almost laughed out loud, which would have been very inappropriate. I suppose no one had ever asked him before. Whoever they were, their abodes were an amazing site to witness.
We continued our journey in silence.
Once we got to the border Ram pointed that dagger long finger once again and said, “There is China.”
I wanted to say, “Where did you say China was?” but nobody likes a smartass (or someone who doesn’t know where China is).
We sat there for a few minutes, like at the zoo when you wait for the lions to appear from their dens. All the while the Chinese soldiers on duty gave us menacing gazes. I wasn’t here to steal state secrets or give report on the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama (yes, he originally resided in Tibet).
It must have been the altitude or perhaps thinking about FSO J.C. Barrows’s odd radio experience, but I suddenly felt giddy. Ram’s stoic glance in the rearview wiped the grin off my face.
Ram raised his watch to his eyes like the bus drivers at the State Department who ferried personnel over the Potomac to Rosslyn where government annexes resided. Before I had a chance to ask one of the Chinese guards if he had seen the Abominable Snowman, Ram rearranged himself in the driver’s seat and engaged the Tahoe’s transmission. We headed back to Tibet, I mean Nepal; you know, Kathmandu.
Kathmandu was breathtaking, but pretty much a mystery to me except for FSO J.C. Barrows who, by not communicating with his superiors, had violated that sacred saying by John Donne, “No man is an Island.”
Unless that man lives in Shangri-La…