Returning to Kathmandu, Nepal, after two weeks of hiking in Bhutan, a friend and I enter the lobby of the five-star Hotel Regency Kathmandu.
In contrast to the rough-and-ready guest houses we’ve been staying at in Bhutan, this place screams sophisticated luxury: the bar area has upholstered sofas and chairs, soft rugs cover the floor, and a long table is stacked with newspapers from all over the globe. It’s twelve days before Christmas and the lobby is festooned with holiday decorations, including several oversized Christmas tree ornaments suspended from the ceiling and a display of gingerbread houses. Five chefs in sparkling white aprons and traditional French toques proudly parade around carrying fancy layer cakes.
All photos provided by the author
Western holiday cheer seems a little jarring in Kathmandu, especially as the hotel is within sight of the Boudhanath Stupa we visited before leaving for Bhutan. This stupa has a gilded dome and eyes painted to see in every direction. It is a major pilgrimage stop for Tibetan Buddhists. Regardless of when you visit, there will be people circling the stupa, sometimes stopping to pray and turn prayer wheels.
We were easing back into the softness of civilization, which came in sharp contrast to several of the guest houses we’d stayed at in Bhutan. One had repeated power failures, another often ran out of hot water at peak shower hour, and two offered a DIY approach to heating with wood stoves that the guest was expected to feed every twenty minutes to maintain a semblance of warmth in frigid rooms. We had a fascinating time, but one of the few things we missed was a pre-dinner cocktail. As drinking can increase the likelihood of altitude sickness, we had steered clear of alcohol during the trip as neither of us wanted to risk feeling ill.
Still, my friend and I had clandestine chats on our trip about martinis which we both enjoy. Now, on our way home, we can finally relax and indulge.
Approaching the bartender, we explain exactly what we want – two martinis, one straight up for her; the other on the rocks for me with olives all around. “Please use dry, not sweet, vermouth,” we add. The man nods and repeatedly assures us that he understands.
A full half-hour later, our drinks emerge. My friend’s looks as a martini should, although she notes that it has an odd taste, like very sweet licorice. I’m handed a large cocktail glass with a tall mound of pulverized ice and little straws sticking out at angles. I sip and taste mostly water with the tiniest hint of vodka.
“Exactly what you ordered,” my friend says, “a vodka slurpee!”
Just then we hear a roar and look up to see Santa zipping through the lobby on a motor scooter.
He circles the room three times before exiting to cheers. On the far side of the room, a largely Nepali group of guests bursts into Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree followed by Joy to the World, entirely recognizable, although the melodies and rhythms are slightly off. I check out the singers to see who’s participating: mostly parents and kids, including a few babies. The adults drink mulled wine and everyone seems to be having a great time. Teen girls fluff each others’ hair while showing off fancy dresses that could have come from an American mall.
Near the singers, a group of monks in traditional crimson and orange robes enjoy the music, tapping their sandaled feet to keep time.
I return to my friend and we burst into laughter. Forget the royal palaces in Durbar Square. Never mind the Boudhanath Stupa, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1979. We were experiencing the –slightly unreal— joys of Christmas in Kathmandu. For the moment, Namaste had given way to Old Saint Nick.