Nepali Times
Wild and free in Jomsom


Following the contour of the river bed, and perilously close to the cliffs on either side, the aircraft flies over the towns of Lete, Tukuche and Marpha. The plane's shadow skims swiftly over apple orchards, terraces of pink buckwheat, across the sandy banks of the Kali Gandaki. A tight bank on finals brings the swirling grey waters out the left window and deep blue sky out the right, then we are bouncing on Jomsom's recently-asphalted runway and roaring to a stop.

Outside, the clean and crisp mountain air seems vacuum-cleaned. Nilgiri's fluted ridges of ice tower over the deep green conifers at its base. In the morning, the sun shines from behind the mountain, giving it a hazy hue. But as the day wears on the mountain plays hide-and-seek with the clouds, and finally when the sun dips behind the tall himals to the west Nilgiri reflects its rosy light.

Life bustles around Jomsom airport in the mornings. Farmers from neighbouring villages sell apples and vegetables to the locals and to passengers flying out to Pokhara. Porters mill about hoping to find prospective clients. And then there are the locals, who just come to watch who comes and who goes. Jomsom-based civil servants throng to the airport terminal catching up on Kathmandu newspapers that come on the morning flight. By mid-morning, the legendary Kali Gandaki wind tunnel starts to show what it can do. The planes stop flying, the sand starts flying and people huddle inside homes and hotels.

A signboard at the airport alerts everyone that Mustang is a no-polythene bag district. In fact, alert police men and women in Pokhara airport will frisk and remove any plastic bags still in your possession. The streets in and around Jomsom are clean and litter free. The Mustangis' bid to free their district of the plastic menace that is plaguing the rest of the country has been assisted by the various organisations working in the area.

Every tree in and around Jomsom is heavy with red and yellow apples ripening gently under the balmy autumn sun. Exorbitant air freight costs, and the punishing mule ride to the road-head means that most of the fruits in the Kali Gandaki valley get either desiccated and candied or metamorphose into cider, brandy and wine.

The Kali Gandaki cuts the world's deepest gorge between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. Geologists say the river is older than the mountains and sliced through the Himalaya as it lifted. The gorge is a funnel linking the Tibetan plateau with the Gangetic plains to the south, and this is the reason for the fierce winds. The prevailing wind means the trees all lean northwards, with their branches pointing towards Tibet. From time to time, the "wrong" winds blow in from the plateau and that is when the elders in Thini take it as a bad omen and gather at a special chhorten above the village to pacify the wind spirits with special offerings.

Flights out of Jomsom all depend on the wind gods. The first question in everyone's mind in Jomsom every morning is: "Will the planes come in today?" Sometimes you have to wait a week, as turbulence over the Kali Gandaki, clouds or snow cancel flights. Pokhara is a 3-4 day trek away along some of the most rugged terrain on earth. But there is always the view.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)