The runway of the airport in Jomsom is probably the only one in the world where you would want to linger after getting off the plane. The reason for that is Mt Nilgiri (north), which is so close that it seems to almost rise from the edge of the runway. The mountain’s presence at such close quarters gives the impression that you have arrived in some otherworldly place.
That notion of landing in the Shangri-La is abruptly shattered once you leave the airport. As you leave the airport’s spectacular setting through a rusty iron gate, your next step is on Jomsom’s main street. From ATMs, lodges selling fresh coffee and yak steaks to bakeries, and restaurants advertising pizzas on their notice boards, it looks like Thamel beat you to Jomsom.
Whatever image of Jomsom you carried with you gets quickly covered with sights that you thought, as a hopeless romantic, you had left behind. To me, the crunching sound that motorbikes and jeeps made as they went by on the gravelly main street felt like the sound of my expectations of Jomsom being crushed. For I had thought that Jomsom would be a wild, windswept village, its houses made of stone and earth, with horses galloping through its streets. As if to console me, a solitary yak trundled by.
One thing that hasn’t changed – and probably won’t in the foreseeable future – in Jomsom is the notorious winds that blow through it. Like in most other places in the upper Kali Gandaki Valley, the winds are punctual, beginning around eleven (although the popular song Jomsomai Bazar Ma told us it begins at twelve) every morning, stirring up clouds of dust. The winds help create a temporary backwater feel over the place, since planes do not come to Jomsom after nine due to the hazardous winds. Nature takes over Jomsom, and dust is blown into eyes and noses, a reminder that changing landscapes are a daily occurrence here: lamenting the loss of old-style houses to concrete hotels becomes silly in a place where entire hills have been continually changed for millennia.
Strong gales of tourism eroded Jomsom—or, to be more correct, Jomsom adapted to the needs of the tourists. The place is about convenience, not culture. It panders to tourists; treasuring the old is not its thing. And as distasteful as this fact is, nobody would complain about the hotels and restaurants when they are seated with a mug of coffee in one of these places and Nilgiri is visible from the dining room window, its snows glistening in the moonlight.
How to Get There
There are daily flights from Pokhara to Jomsom. A road also connects Pokhara to Jomsom. Buses and 4WD jeeps ply the route, beginning from Beni. Jomsom is around nine hours by road from Beni. Trekking is still the most popular way to get to Jomsom. It takes around four to six days, depending on your walking abilities, to trek from Beni to Jomsom.
Where to Stay
There are several hotels in Jomsom that offer clean and comfortable rooms at low prices. Hotel Tilicho is one of them. If money is not an issue, and if you want to stay in a place with a bit of history, Om’s Home is the best choice. It was here that the Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Danny Denzongpa stayed while shooting for the film Khuda Gawah. The other luxurious place in town (Internet and sauna) is Alka Marco Polo Hotel.
Where to Eat
Most hotels offer a multitude of cuisines, including Nepali, Indian, Continental and Chinese. Tilicho has arguably the best dal bhat in town. For desserts and breads, visit the bakery at the northern end of the main street.
The skin is under attack in Jomsom from the combined effects of dryness, cold, and the high-altitude sun. Carry a good sunscreen lotion. Protection for the eye is indispensible given the daily dust storms. Hats (for day) and woolen caps (for night) are needed. If you are trekking, take trekking poles; they will make walking on the undulating and crumbly trails easier. The trek to Jomsom is birding on the go; carry binoculars to make the most of the birds inhabiting the forests through which the trail passes.
While You Are in Jomsom
Mustang Eco Museum
The museum is located in Jomsom’s western end. It houses numerous articles showcasing Mustang’s natural resources and culture. The highlights of the display are the herbal medicines and a reconstructed Buddhist chapel.
Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) office
The ACAP office has all the information on the region’s flora and fauna. The office is also worth visiting for its display of photos of wild animals and birds taken in the conservation area.
Jomsom may have been lost to time, but a glimpse of what it might have looked like before concrete arrived is available in Thini village. Situated on a bluff across the Kali Gandaki from Jomsom, Thini is the archetypal Thakali village of many walls, rammed earth houses, and wood piles lining the roof. And it has the most sublime of backgrounds in the Nilgiri massif. In Thini, don’t miss the chance to see the Thini Gompa, originally a Bon monastery.
This lovely lake is an hour-and-a-half’s walk from Thini. The lake is sacred to the local communities. The lake’s turquoise waters contrast with the arid mountains around it to create a mesmerizing place. It is worth a trip if you are staying in Jomsom or a detour if you are passing through the village.
Kali Gandaki Promenade
Walking north out of Jomsom brings you to the banks of the Kali Gandaki. You can hike further upriver for the wonderful rock formations. You can also scour the river banks for saligram, ammonite fossils revered by Hindus for its association with the god Vishnu.
Walk to Marpha
If you tire of Jomsom’s arid surroundings and soulless architecture, walk down half an hour to the narrow streets, apple orchards and traditional-style houses of Marpha. The road is out of sight and vehicles plying it out of earshot in this quaintest of Thakali villages. You can spend your time here visiting the village monastery or gorging on delicious apple pies.
Special Things to Remember
You need to pay a fee to enter ACAP, which you can do either in Kathmandu (Nepal Tourism Board’s head office) or in Jomsom itself. (There are tales of trekkers being “fined” and asked to pay double the amount of entry fee for not buying the permits in Kathmandu. So it’s better to play safe and get the permits in Kathmandu.) Foreigners also need to buy the Trekking Information Management System (TIMS) permit from the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) office in Kathmandu.
Things Not to Miss
Besides warm clothes, you can also fight off Jomsom’s cold with a glass or two of the famous Marpha apple brandy. Other apple products – dried apple and apple pie – are also worth trying.