I was hoping the flight from Pokhara to Jomsom would be a flight into a time warped zone. Instead, I found a place that seemingly took its cues for growth from Thamel, Kathmandu. But that was after I had gotten over the view from Jomsom’s airport. I don’t fly thousands of kilometers a year but I am willing to bet that there is not another airport in the world that can better the sight of Mt. Nilgiri (North) rising, it seems, from the tarmac. The airport is also the only one I have been in so far where you want to linger after you have got off the plane.
The arrival was perfect but soon after, the romanticism nosedived. Jomsom was a collection of lodges and restaurants on either side of a dirt road on which motorbikes sputtered and jeeps rumbled by. There was apple pie galore, but no yaks. To my horror, an ATM snuggled between two stores. No mule trains, no rugged traders or herders. The only thing faintly old-fashioned was Indian pilgrims dressed in sweaters and monkey caps. It was clear I was a decade or so too late for the old Jomsom.
But the legendary winds arrived on time. Soon the Kali Gandaki had a stream of dust flowing right above it. At that hour, Jomsom was the classic frontier town: wind, dust, emptiness. Lingering over coffee and pies and reading books in the sunlight seemed the thing to do here. I would have waddled in despair at having arrived in the once-forbidden region after café lattes and croissants, but fortunately I was in the company of an old timer. He told me that the interesting stuff was across the river.
Across the river was Thini, a village where houses still had stacks of firewood lining the edges of their rammed-earth terraces. But when we arrived it was deserted: alleys were empty, doors slammed shut. A man told us that there was a big ceremony at the village monastery. Minutes later we were stuffing ourselves with fried rice and chicken curry. We could see Jomsom from the monastery. It was a dreary sight, a place whose sole appeal was a runway. The walk back was lovely. Wheat plants swayed in the wind, a green sea made more appealing by the expanse of dun mountains all around.
Jomsom’s best moment is twilight. As darkness gathers, the town’s crass buildings turn inconspicuous. Only the tallest peaks retain their color, going from white to golden to inky within seconds. Romanticism (or its ghost) slinks out again as you forget that you are in a place that has several daily flights. You are among the mountains, and that is enough to make you think you are in a different world, one that is not completely in the talons of technology yet. Like any other place that has cemented its name on a tourist’s wish list, Jomsom has cast off its indigenous character. It needed to: comfort and convenience are cornerstones of tourism. And because it has, we get to withdraw money from a machine if we run out of cash while there. It’s a big loss for any romantic to arrive in a place you read about as worlds away only to find it’s a replica of a corner of your city. But at least there is a cup of latte and a slice of apple pie to munch on as you lament the change and console yourself with a view of a mountain’s tip turning into gold.