Remembering Des-la at Shangri~la

1,000 recollections of Desmond Doig at the hotel’s Shambala Garden that he designed in Kathmandu

Sir Ed's signed photo hangs in a third floor corridor with Elizabeth Hawley and Boris Lisanevitch pouring over Desmond Doig’s Shangrila Hotel plans 1979

As befits a celebration in the time of coronavirus, the party in the Shangri~la Hotel’s Shambala garden is muted. Hugs and handshakes are replaced with knuckle taps, elbow embraces and even jazz hands, but I prefer the good old namaste. Numbers are limited to just a few key staff and contributors gathering on the lawn in the unseasonal afternoon chill.

“Oh no, I even forgot to invite my sister!” groaned Kunda Dixit our host, clasping a large bunch of chrysanthemums presented by a guest to honour the twentieth year and one thousandth issue of the Nepali Times.

Kunda was in a reflective mood, and not just about contagion and the longevity of the newspaper. “Being here in the Shangri~la garden reminds me of Desmond Doig who was pivotal to my early career. Desmond’s letter of recommendation got me accepted into Columbia – so kind of him, as he didn’t really know me much, but that was his way.”

Forty years ago, owner Shyam Bahadur Panday cleverly charged Desmond with the task of building the perfect Kathmandu hotel. Embarking late in life on a career as architect and landscape gardener, the Shangri~la is a living tribute to Desmond’s skill, style, taste and, along with the Malla Hotel, the culmination of his talents. Celebrated as a writer and artist, ‘Des-la’ had retired to his ‘emerald valley’ of Kathmandu from a lifetime of journalism in Calcutta.

Dubby Bhagat, Robert Powell and Chino Ronchoroni all made special contributions to mould the Shangri~la over the years, and many more designers and managers have come and gone. The Panday family, father and sons, maintained a watchful eye, and are now expanding beyond Pokhara into Begnas and Chitwan. But the enduring spirit of the hotel, firmly imprinted at its inception by Desmond Doig’s sure hand, is still with us today.

I glance around the terraces and fountains in the gathering March twilight, a haven of tranquillity remarkably little changed over the years. It does not seem four decades ago that Desmond Doig was striding through the Shangri~la building site, clipboard in hand, pointing imperiously, and issuing strings of instructions to the attentive acolytes in his wake.

Utpal Sengupta, the curly haired member of his original entourage, carried on the legacy and ran the Hotel with flair and imagination for 20 years since its opening on 1 July 1979. Desmond hosted Utpal’s marriage to Caroline amidst the marigolds, one of the first of many remarkable events in that soothing oasis of a garden.

Desmond’s ‘Shang’ was a fixture for many of us local expats. Lingering in the al fresco café, lounging at the hiti pool, or enjoying a hot rum punch by the roaring fire in the lobby bar, one might have run into Tony Hagen the Swiss development pioneer who walked the length of Nepal, Dudley Spain long-term British Embassy implant, UNICEF’s Gordon ‘Golden’ Temple before he decamped to Bhutan, Jim Edwards the indefatigable owner of Tiger Mountain, or Col. Jimmy Roberts with his floppy-eared spaniels, the founder of trekking in Nepal.

The legendary Boris Lisanevitch regularly graced the kitchens as a special guest chef, bearing bones with which to make his famous borscht, and of course Des-la held my 30th birthday party there amidst the newly planted flowerbeds.

The burra sahib himself, Sir Edmund Hillary was feted at a garden dinner by a group of Sherpa friends to mark the Everest Golden Jubilee. Suites are named after him and Tenzing Norgay, and a photo hangs in a third floor corridor showing Sir Ed poring over Desmond’s hotel drawings with Boris and Elizabeth. He and Lady June would have preferred the Shangri~la for the main 50th anniversary on 29 May 2003, but only the Hyatt could accommodate the thousand-plus mountaineers, dignitaries, friends, media, well-wishers and hangers-on who turned up.

The Prime Minister attended the reception honouring the Himalayan chronicler, Elizabeth Hawley, with 35 years of service to Reuters. Kunda had survived as her youthful intern. Always a stickler for accuracy, to our embarrassment she kept interrupting the regional boss’ laudatory speech with factual corrections. Ten years later in 2004, under an elegant white awning in a peaceful corner of the garden, Bernadette Vasseux and I hosted a small lunch to mark the New Zealand Queen’s Medal that Elizabeth received after 20 years as Honorary Consul and mainstay of Sir Ed’s Himalayan Trust.

Desmond could sometimes be prevailed upon to guest-escort tour groups, being especially susceptible to posh Brits with ancient titles. My favourite story was during a sightseeing of his beloved Kathmandu, the tour bus paused in the heart of the Durbar Square to admire the exquisite temple-scape. A fruity British voice boomed disapprovingly from the back seat: “Awful lot of people hanging around doing nothing.”

Freya Stark, writer, Arabist explorer and eccentric, was one of the first to stay at the Shangri~la. Already in her 80s, and a little forgetful she declared vaguely "I feel we must be somewhere east of the Euphrates"  as I helped her check-in. We arranged two treks for her in the early 1980s, with her favourite hill pony named ‘Red Balls’. She much admired the muscle-bound legs of the Nepali porters, and professed a desire to die in the Himalaya. Thankfully, she was not successful. On leaving Nepal for the last time, Dame Freya wrote in the Shangri~la guest book: ‘This is the finest hotel I have ever stayed in with the nicest people in it.’

Desmond Doig left us in 1983 but he lives on in his gardens, in our memory, in his books and in his paintings which adorn the hotel walls. I was leading one of the first treks permitted in Tibet that October day when Desmond succumbed to a massive heart attack on the road from Pokhara.

I lit oil lamps for him, finding solace in the dim, musty prayer halls of all the surviving monasteries from Rongbuk to Lhasa, knowing how these powerful places would have appealed to him. My group of intrepid European clients included Roman Polanski. It was a stressful trip for me amidst the victim mentality and fragile egos, travelling together in an old truck grinding along the dusty tracks to the north side of Everest, perched precariously on our luggage, food supplies and heaps of camping equipment. Once back in Nepal, I relished introducing Roman to the American Ambassador.

Lisa Choegyal


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