Nepal has brought many wonderful memories, but it is also the place that perhaps more than anywhere has reminded me of the fragile nature of life and that all things are transitory.
This was brought home to me last month when I was shocked and saddened to learn of the early death of Michelle Pradhan.
Many visitors to Kathmandu will fondly remember Michelle and Pujan, the welcoming proprietors of the Courtyard Hotel, a tranquil palace tucked away among the bustle of Thamel, the tourist heart of Kathmandu.
The hotel was what is commonly described as ‘boutique’ – small, low key, but high quality, with only around 20 rooms on four levels arranged around a front courtyard. It felt like staying in a Newar palace. Every room was different, but all of them seemed to have intricate wood carvings and eclectic furniture.
The focal point was the outdoor courtyard – that was the place where everyone seemed to gather – but there was also a large reception area, a breakfast room, and a small bar and lounge-cum-library off to the side where we would retreat if it was too cold or wet to sit outside.
These were just the rooms, but Michelle and Pujan were just as much a part of the character as the hotel itself. They met in Seattle, Michelle’s family home, during a brief period when Pujan, a Nepali, was living in the US and working in the fashion industry. Perhaps it was my imagination, but this may be one of the reasons why Pujan seemed to speak perfect English in a slightly camp American accent.
They were married and moved to Kathmandu to take over the running of the Courtyard Hotel in a building that belonged to Pujan’s family. Their style was unique, and they complemented each other in a way that made the Courtyard by far the friendliest hotel I have ever stayed in.
Michelle was the hostess, who chatted with her potential customers and vetted them by email before allowing them a room. If someone didn’t feel quite right, too pushy or demanding, she would say they were fully booked. But if you were lucky enough to have stayed there before, then there were no questions asked.
You would often find Michelle relaxing in the courtyard with her laptop. She would make a point of getting to know her guests personally, treating them like family and introducing them to each other. The hotel had many repeat guests; we would all go back again and again. We became her friends. I even have a handful of friends on Facebook whom I met in the Courtyard, and have little else in common with other than shared memories of a place we once stayed.
Meanwhile, Pujan was the fixer, and the one who would keep things running behind the scenes. He was a great cook who made some famous steaks, right up there with the Everest Steak House as the best in Kathmandu. Occasionally he would relax and sit down with the guests, playing the court jester with his rapier-like banter.
Finally there was Tibby the dog, Michelle’s hirsute canine, who would usually be sleeping on the best chair in the courtyard. Occasionally Tibby would hide under the tables; you would have to be careful when standing up in case you received a nip on the ankles. There aren’t many of us who stayed in the Courtyard regularly who hadn’t been bitten by Tibby at some point; it was a mark of acceptance.
I first came to know Michelle and the Courtyard Hotel in 2008 through my erstwhile trekking and climbing partner Mark Dickson. Mark liked to party, and we would often find ourselves in Sam’s Bar at closing time, wondering what to do next.
‘Let’s go to the Courtyard,’ Mark would say. He had been a previous guest, so felt entitled to invite himself over.
The Courtyard was about a three-minute walk from Sam’s Bar, so it was a good solution. Michelle would always be there, sitting outside with her laptop and glass of white wine. She was always welcoming, and never begrudging of the pair of drunks who were staying in another hotel, and had turned up in search of a late drink.
‘Nice to see you. Help yourself to beers from the fridge,’ she would say.
So we did. And sat outside for another hour, drinking beer and chatting to Michelle. This happened several times, over two or three treks in different years.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I actually stayed in the Courtyard Hotel. With so few rooms and no opportunity to vet her guests, Michelle didn’t allow group bookings by travel and trekking companies. But she made an exception for the mountaineering operator Altitude Junkies, owned by her close friends Phil and Trish Crampton.
In the autumn season of 2011, I climbed Manaslu with Altitude Junkies. We stayed in the Courtyard Hotel, and on the eve of our expedition Mark Dickson emerged for breakfast with a large scar on his forehead. Neither Mark nor anyone else knew how he had acquired the scar, but as we had been out in Thamel the night before, we assumed it must be alcohol-related.
In 2012, Mark and I climbed Everest with Altitude Junkies, and again we stayed in the Courtyard Hotel. Again, Mark emerged for breakfast with a scar on his forehead and nobody knew how he had acquired it. We assumed it must be alcohol-related. We stayed in the Courtyard Hotel again after we returned from that expedition. Mark went out celebrating, and later that evening he awoke in the middle of the night on the bathroom floor. His forehead was bleeding, and as he slowly came to his senses, a picture emerged.
Mark always stayed in the same room in the wing above the bar when he visited the Courtyard Hotel. The room had a small step about an inch high on the way into the bathroom. You had to be careful entering the bathroom, because if you tripped over this step, there was a high chance you could fall over and bang your head on the toilet bowl directly in front of you. Mark found this out the hard way, but at least the mystery was solved.
These were happy times, but alas the Courtyard slowly faded away. It started in 2014. We stayed there for many days in the spring, when our Everest and Lhotse expeditions were cancelled following a strike by Sherpas.
But when I stayed there again in the autumn 2014 season, the hotel had changed dramatically. A family feud had caused the hotel to be partitioned in bizarre fashion. Half of it was still owned and run by Michelle and Pujan, but the other half was now owned and run by Pujan’s mother and sister.
Most of the downstairs, including the main courtyard, reception and breakfast room were now owned by mother and sister. We had to pass through reception in awkward fashion to get to our rooms on the third floor.
But the friendly atmosphere of the old courtyard had now been transferred to a second courtyard in the corner, where we also sat, chatted and celebrated just as we had in the old days.
On one occasion, I remember a guest of mother and sister coming into our area to find out why we were having so much fun. She was welcomed by Michelle and Pujan without a grudge, even though she wasn’t their guest. She asked whether it was possible to switch sides, and move into Michelle and Pujan’s half of the hotel instead. I don’t know whether this happened, but I can’t imagine it would have helped with the feud.
The Courtyard suffered further damage in the Nepal earthquake of 2015. Edita stayed there for several weeks when she was based in Kathmandu working on the disaster response. By now the walls of the hotel were crumbling as the aftershocks continued. Edita slept in her room, but many guests, as well as Michelle and Pujan, slept outside in the courtyard, fearing another quake during the night.
The hotel never recovered. When Edita and I stayed there during our Langtang trip in 2017, we were shocked at the state of it. We knew that it was no longer a working hotel, but rooms were lying empty and Michelle and Pujan were our friends. We wanted to show our support.
It was like a haunted house. Everything, both structure and furnishings, seemed to be crumbling. The chairs and benches in the second courtyard area, which used to be party land, had now been taken over by a number of stray dogs that Michelle had decided to take in and look after.
Despite the changed circumstances, Michelle and Pujan were optimistic and full of plans. Pujan, had just had a Hindu star chart done, and it had been very positive. It looked like they were about to reach an agreement with his mother for his share of the hotel. They were going to sell up and start another hotel project elsewhere.
We took them out for a meal at the Blueberry Café, and we even enticed Michelle down to Sam’s Bar for a drink, the only time I had ever seen her down there.
But the feud was still ongoing. Ten minutes before I was due to leave the hotel to catch my flight back to Rome, there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find Pujan’s brother-in-law and four or five police officers.
This isn’t a hotel; I shouldn’t be staying here. It’s no problem; we’re just friends. I wasn’t angry; I could see the funny side. When I told Pujan about the incident as we were bidding goodbye, he also saw the humour.
Later that year, Michelle came to visit Edita and me in Rome to coincide with a family holiday. I believe it was the first time she had left Kathmandu in many years. She had lost a lot of weight by then. Outwardly she was as cheerful and optimistic as ever. We were both working, so unable to entertain her as much as we would have liked. The sights of Rome were on our doorstep, but she seemed content to spend her days in the peaceful garden we had there, which felt like the countryside.
A year later, we were back in Kathmandu. We learned that Michelle had gone to Sri Lanka. She and Pujan had split up, but were still close.
It had been clear to us that Michelle was going through difficult times and was putting a brave face on it, but we didn’t suspect the truth – that she was in the later stages of lung cancer. It was possible that she didn’t know herself.
It came as a complete shock to learn that she had passed away on 25 April, the anniversary of the Nepal earthquake. I don’t ever remember her smoking a cigarette, but the polluted atmosphere of Kathmandu can’t have been a healthy place to spend all her days.
Our thoughts are with Pujan and her family – her father and sister whom we met when they came to Rome. She was back in Seattle with them when she died. I know it’s not much, but this will be some comfort, as will the memory of those few happy years when the Courtyard Hotel was enjoying its prime. They were happy times indeed and we remember them fondly.