Nepali Times
Far and away


The high mountains around Jomsom are redolent with myth and legend that have interwoven with the lives of ordinary people. The residents talk about Manang where the poet-saint Milarepa once rested his weary body. They speak of Tilcho Tal further northwest that blazes turquoise in the sunlight where, according to the Skand Purana, Sita spent a part of her exile. Locals also say that more recent legends like Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix came their way in the heyday of hippie culture (see box).

Jomsom is a 20-minute flight from Pokhara-depending on the the whims of the weather, or the fancies of RNAC. Private airlines Cosmic Air and Gorkha Airlines also fly the route which is one of the most spectacular flights on earth. The Dornier steers northwest and threads past Annapurna South, just grazing the top of Ghorepani pass so close to the treetops that you can see trekkers waving at you from Poon Hill. Through the pilot's windscreen you can see the looming presence of Dhaulagiri. Then a sharp right turn to follow the Kali Gandaki past the snowcovered lower ridges of Niligiri.

The number of visitors to Jomsom decreased by over 30 percent between 2000 and 2002, but it remains the most popular mountain destination in the ACAP area and is second only to Solu Khumbu.

Jomsom has the newest and best domestic airport in Nepal. When you get out of the terminal you are on Main Street which is dotted with hotels, lodges-no prior reservations necessary. And there is something to suit every wallet. At the end of the main strip Sushila Gauchand has a lodge above her shop, Gauchand stores. Although tourism is not exactly enjoying a renaissance here, she continues to charge a standard Rs 150 for a double room. "We hope things will improve and I'll name the guesthouse after my daughter," she says as she deftly tosses buckwheat pancakes from a hot girdle.

Just next door is a Jomsom institution-Om's Home. Twenty years it was the first registered guesthouse. Soak in some sunshine in the courtyard where owner Bishnu Raj Hirachand remembers the salt traders who used to come down the traditional salt route along the Thak Khola Valley. They used to stop here for butter tea, later Peace Corps volunteers came. But it was only after 1976, as trekking took off that Om (and Jomsom with it) became so popular.

The price of rooms at Om's Home ranges from $5-20, and each room has a colour TV and phone. Every two rooms share a bathroom that has running solar-heated water, a luxury after a few days on the trail. To heat the sauna, Bishnu uses Shaligram rocks, or ammonite.

The entire river is full of ammonite, proof that this land was formed at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean.

Globetrotters who want luxe will not be disappointed at the eco-friendly Jomsom Mountain Resort. Captain RP Pradhan's 102-room palatial resort dominates the hill overlooking the town. It may be large and expensive, but this is an eco-friendly place. Guests dine on homegrown organic vegetables fertilised by treated wastewater. The resort, with 70 percent of local staff, utilises local materials for the interior and offers local produce on the menu. The general manager Samanta Tuladhar sees a definite advantage in promoting the entire region and working together with the people of Jomsom.

In the spirit of co-operative growth, Jomsom hoteliers and Cosmic Air have devised a scheme where any flight into Jomsom on the carrier entitles the passenger to a free night stay in any participating hotel. With 20,000 coupons at the ready, Jomsom is ready to lure tourists back. "People come to Nepal to see the mountains so this is an ideal destination because we have it all here-natural beauty, ethnic diversity and all the facilities travellers today seek," says Tuladhar. And now it is all very accessible from Kathmandu and Pokhara on Cosmic's fast planes.

Jomsom is savvy to the needs of travellers. They have safe drinking water stations (to discourage bottled mineral water), police and ACAP check posts, telephone and radio communication, a post office, banking and money changer service, porters and ponies at negotiable rates and airline offices. And Jomsom is so clean you have a feeling you are in Zermatt or Murren in the Swiss alps.

The main reason for Nepalis to go to Jomsom is because it is a stopover on the Muktinath pilgrimage. A two-and-a-half-hour walk along the Kali Gandaki with the legendary winds pushing you from behind brings you to Kagbeni. Overnight in this medieval town takes you back centuries. Next morning take the long climb up to Muktinath, admiring the awesome views of Tukuche Peak and Dhaulagiri to the west. And to the north is arid, mysterious and mystic Mustang. For anyone who has ventured so far, the magic of Mustang beckons-even with a hefty $700 ten-day permit and an additional $70 daily levy. Then there is Thorung La above Muktinath which is the hard and steep way to Manang and a solid one-day near-vertical climb to the 5,400 m pass.

For those who can't afford Mustang, the mountains around Jomsom have plenty of short day hikes with breathtaking views. Afternoons are best spent indoors, out of lashing winds that sweep through the hills. The introduction of eight noisy tractors and a few motorbikes occasionally breaks up the serenity of the recently stone paved Jomsom Bazar. It is an unnerving if apt reminder that Jomsom, for all it's legends and myths, is real, accessible and really not all that far away anymore.

They were here ...

In the hippie heydays everyone came to Nepal in search of Nirvana. Even wannabe hippies. Bob Marley is said to have visited Muktinath in the 70s, undoubtedly aided by some prime regional hash. Today, just past the temple of the eternal flame is his shrine-the Bob Marley Restaurant. A sign in Old Jomsom says guitar god Jimi Hendrix stopped there for a rest. And in a restaurant named after him is a marble plaque marking the exact spot where Jimi sat.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)