The excitement of flying in and out of an airstrip in Lower Mustang, particularly when the flight is late, the wind is up and there are clouds about…
They were all on the tarmac, an assorted group of locals. Standing around, chit-chatting, shaking the hand of a passenger here, patting someone else good-bye there, or exchanging the last word with a relative climbing into the small aircraft. They were assembled as casually as any group seeing off friends or family on a railway platform or bus terminal. They remained on the airport tarmac for the 20 to 30 minutes it took us 15 passengers to board and settle ourselves in the small plane.
I could not believe the scene: that this was happening in an airport after 9-11. I could never have imagined, after 11 September 2001, that this would ever happen again given the nightmarish paranoia that air travel and airport security have become the world over.
Yet it was happening. And happening in a country at war; where a besieged government’s armed forces were waging one of the bloodiest military campaigns against insurgents; where 20 months before 9-11 terrorists had hijacked a civilian airliner; and where ‘terrorism’ was still a real enough danger for the government to clamp down an emergency and declare a formal suspension of the formal freedoms of formal democracy.
Welcome to Nepal! Where domestic airports are still what we remember of international air travel till some years ago. In the first anniversary month of 9-11, I cannot think of a more uplifting experience; an experience that is the stuff of dreams in a security-stricken world where faith in man’s humanity is fast fading.
This was my passage to a different Nepal. A Nepal where my boarding card was delivered, around 6 am, with my bed tea in my hotel room. These came with the advice that I could take it easy because there was little chance of the flight leaving that day. In fact, it was unlikely if the flight would be able to even come in from Pokhara.
I was in Jomosom, a rain shadow area several thousand feet above sea level on the ‘other side’ of the Annapurna mountain range. This is ‘Lower Mustang’, where the Thakali culture of the Kali Gandaki Gorge (renowned as the ‘deepest in the world’) slowly merges with the Tibetan culture of the principality of Mustang proper, which lies just to the north of here. Within sprinting distance from the airport is the Royal Nepalese Army’s famed School of Mountain Warfare, a school which must be straining every resource to put down the Maoist rebellion that is sweeping the Nepali countryside. The school is located where the famed Khampa insurgents from Eastern Tibet once (in the late 1960s) received CIA support and ran a camp to conduct raids into the Changtang plateau across the Nepali border.
Jomosom is more famous for things other than the School of Mountain Warfare, and the Khampas are only a memory, other than in the forests that they denuded which have yet to grow back because of the low growth rates in this cold desert. Jomosom is the staging ground for treks in and around the valley of the Kali Gandaki. Once a ragtag frontier town by the banks of the river, its ticket to prosperity was its flat real estate, which got converted into an airstrip (which used to be dirt but received macadam a year ago). Jomosom, incongruously, seems to have benefited from the Maoist war. Or, at the very least, it has taken the tourist traffic diverted from what is known as midhill Nepal, wracked as it is by the Maoist bloodbath and the government’s and army’s response. Perhaps the reason Jomosom remains free of Maoists is also the forbidding presence of the School of Mountain Warfare.
Down-valley from Jomosom is the country of the Thakalis, who make up a community of no more than 30 or 40 thousand, but are among the most accomplished entrepreneurs of Nepal and have by now fanned out all over the country as mercantilist traders. A day’s walk will take you to well-known Thakali settlements such as Marpha and Tukuche, which are known to host some of the best mountain restaurants and lodges in Nepal, also serving the famous Marpha apple brandy. This was also where Ekai Kawaguchi, the famous Japanese spy-monk, lived as he sought access to deep Tibet a century ago.
Up-valley from Jomosom, up the Kali Gandaki and through the barren mountainscape, the terrain and culture is both ‘Tibetan’. Starting with the riverside settlement of Kagbeni, these Tibetan-speaking villages of Nepal lead up four days of walking past the villages of Chuksang, Gemi and Charang, all the way to the seat of the principality of Mustang with its own raja, in Lo Manthang. Just above Kagbeni is the 3800-metre high tiered-pagoda temple of Muktinath and the adjacent Tibetan-Buddhist place of worship where devotees confront tongues of flame shooting up from beneath the rocky ground, where water flows in an unending stream above and underground. Beyond Muktinath, many trekkers go over the high Thorung La pass to enter the other Tibetan-speaking area of Nepal known as Manang. From there they go on down to the midhills, thus completing the two-week (at brisk pace) trek that is titled ‘the Annapurna circuit’.
Jomosom Valley, overhung by the fluted ice ridges of Nilgiri (a minor peak of the Annapurna range, going by elevation), actually allows you a stupendous view of the distant Dhaulagiri to the west, at 8167 metres the seventh highest mountain in the world. It is a standalone massif whose glaciers tumble down to the Kali Gandaki Gorge deep below. There is certainly no road up here from the midhills of Nepal, although the locals continue to dream of a motor link down to the town of Beni, which is connected by road to Pokhara. For the moment, people either have to trek the four to five days that it takes to make it to Jomosom, or fly in. Incongruously, the motor vehicle has arrived in Upper Mustang, with Chinese trucks making deliveries across the flat plateau. This is said to be making Thakali traders nervous, for they have historically controlled trade and access to the Tibetan-speaking regions of the north.
Currently, this area of Nepal is truly cut off from the world. The Maoists have blown up the telephone tower in Jomosom and Nepal Telecommunications Corporation seems to have decided not to rebuild, for the moment at least. Asked why they could not restore the demolished links, an official said that it would serve no purpose because the Maobaadi would blow them up again. There is one satellite phone in Jomosom which can be used in the event of an emergency.
During the monsoon period, flight arrivals and departures are iffy. The only air connection is with the tourist town of Pokhara, and clouds regularly prevent flight and strand passengers, tourists and locals alike. That perhaps explains why the atmosphere in Jomosom is so festive and celebratory when a flight takes off or lands. Because it is an event even if it is routine, it is an exception even if it is the norm. Now if that sounds contradictory, try taking in the fact that unless the flight from Pokhara lands, there would be no aircraft to take off from Jomosom.
The 20-minute flight in airlines with names such as Royal Nepal, Skyline, Shangri La and Cosmic, sometimes as many as four or even five of them during the monsoon (and more than a dozen during ‘peak’ tourist season), are rarely scheduled after 9 am. This is because the battering winds that blow through these parts start picking up by mid-morning and by mid-afternoon they reach gale force. The Kali Gandaki Valley is like a sluice which carries the air from the Subcontinent into the low-pressure regions of the Tibet plateau.
While Jomosom is a rain shadow area and the skies tend to be clear throughout the year, the Pokhara region to the south bears the full brunt of the monsoon and receives the most rainfall annually in all of Nepal. The flights that come in to Jomosom and leave for Pokhara therefore have to be careful as they tackle the Kali Gandaki terrain in cloudy conditions. True, accidents are rare because of the high caliber of flying, but just a few days previously a group of German tourists flying down from Jomosom died together with the air crew when their Twin Otter failed to clear a ridge on approach from Jomosom to Pokhara airport.
The ‘mountain flight’ from Pokhara to Jomosom is one that stays in memory. Soon after departing the Vale of Pokhara and its Seti River Valley, the aircraft hops over the Ghorepani Pass, famous for the challenge it poses to trekkers, and enters the Kali Gandaki Valley to turn north. On both sides, the ramparts rise, from the midhills to alpine meadow and headstraight up to the mountains so well known in mountaineering lore – Dhaulagiri and its smaller cousin Tukuche to the left (west), and the peaks of Annapurna lining up to the right (east). They include Fang, Annapurna South, Roc Noir, and the broad peak of Annapurna One. So real and so frighteningly close, these mountains part as we pass over Tukuche, and before long looking through the pilot’s windshield up front you can see the airstrip of Jomosom come up to greet the aircraft.
It was on my return trip that I woke to how much the flight schedule depended on the wind up here in Jomosom and the rain and clouds down in the midhills. Having checked into the lodge hotel in Jomosom on the way back from Muktinath, I felt no anxiety about my departure the next day for Pokhara. The brother-in-law of the lady in charge of the hotel told me to leave my ticket with him for reconfirmation of the flight, which was to leave at 6:30 am. He said, “This morning the flights did not go. If the flights are likely to arrive tomorrow, I shall wake you up in time”. The airline office was next door, next to which was the airport itself.
Next morning I was woken up around 6 am and served my tea, and on the tray was an envelope with my air ticket and the boarding card. The boy announced cheerfully, “The flight is late or it may not go today because it is raining and there are clouds on approach. You can go back to sleep”. Unable to do as advised, I came down to the foyer where there was an animated conversation underway about the uncertainties of flying. Would the flights come in at all today? Remember that time when planes did not come for 12 days? And that other time when the wind blew so hard the plane nearly landed up in the Kali Gandaki?
It was getting to 11 am and the possibility of evacuation from Jomosom that day had receded to nil. There was no whine of turbo props overhead, nor was the siren of the control tower showing any sign of life. A local elder insisted, “The flight never leaves after 11 am. But today the flight have not even come in”. Then he proclaimed jovially, as an afterthought, “All flights cancelled”
Just then, a gentleman from the airline rushed in to announce that his aircraft had just left Pokhara and that I must hasten towards the airport. No one took him seriously and he became irritated. He left, telling the hotel owner’s brother to ensure that I reached the there on time. I walked across with my backpack and saw from the hustle and bustle around the airline counter that the possibility of departure was serious. I went through baggage security, but just as I was about to be frisked, an uniformed chap came running to say that the flight had gone back because it could not descend through the cloudy atmosphere.
This was just before noon. Surprisingly for Jomosom the winds had held off, but the rain clouds were conspiring. After announcing cancellation of the day’s flight, the airline official told us to come back at 2 pm with our boarding cards, to have our tickets reissued for the next day’s flight. We would be waitlisted behind those who had been waiting yesterday. I was walking back stoically to the lodge when I met the hotel owner’s wife walking briskly the other way towards the airport terminal. “Go back, the flight is coming. The armyman has told me”
By now the atmosphere at the airport was that of a full-fledged meta, with excitement running high. It was the kind of atmosphere of air shows and gliding contests in other continents. After another couple of false alarms, the aircraft appeared around the bend in the mountains, dipped, and landed with a burst of reverse-thrust roar. There was cheering and applause from the gallery, as if the pilot were a conquering hero. Which in a way he was. And as we moved towards the aircraft, so did many others who had come to the airport. They stood near the aircraft as one stands near a bus before it leaves the terminal. And I could see them waving amiably as our aircraft taxied out and rushed down the runway.
As the plane climbed, banked, and made its way through the blinding clouds, I remember wondering why the only thing I was looking forward to had been a seat in a plane that would take off. Meanwhile, it was a privilege to have flown out in the latest flight that had ever arrived and taken off from Jomosom. Or so they told me.