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First, a little background about why Nepal is so wonderful

Nepal has been described as a delicate root growing carefully between two boulders, because Nepal is flanked by the world's two most populous nations, India to the south, and China to the north. However, what really borders Nepal to the north is Tibet, considered after the invasion in 1950 by China to be a semi-autonomous region of China, but considered, by Tibetans, to be the sovereign nation of Tibet under Chinese occupation. The aesthetics and diversity of Nepal are influenced by pre-Communist Chinese art and many of the famous indigenous regional artistic traditions from India, as well as Bhutanese and Afghani artistry, the Kathmandu Valley's own indigenous beautiful Newari artistic style, and of course the incomparably beautiful iconography of Tibetan Buddhist art.

Geographically, only 15% of Nepal's land is cultivated, including the fertile, sub-tropical (though now polluted)Kathmandu Valley, but Nepalis terrace their land so exquisitely and cleverly that, although Nepal is economically underdeveloped, the country can feed itself. The southern belt of Nepal, the Terai, is hot, jungly, and malarial. The north and west of Nepal is alpine, include most of the world's tallest mountains, Everest, Dhaulagiri, and the Annapurnas.

Nepal, roughly the size of the American state of Tennessee, occupies only 1% of the world's land mass, but its geography, flora, fauna, languages, and cultures are disproportionately rich. For example, Nepal boasts 15% of the world's bird species, including the rainbow-plumed Himalayan pheasant, the noble and gigantic crested white Himalayan griffon, and the helpful, corpse-eating giant birds of Tibetan sky burials, the reliable lammergiers. Nepal is home to snow leopards, blue sheep, yaks, dzos, dzis, bears, wolves, red pandas, fresh-water dolphins, Asian rhinos and elephants, tigers, leopards, monkeys, musk deer, cobras, common mynah birds, eagles, hopoes, red-flashing lightning bugs, and legions of leeches. Nepal grows more species of rhododendron than any other region in the world, including a giant rhododendron that reaches sixty feet. Because of Nepal's elevation, some plants and vegetables exhibit gigantism, for example pumpkin-sized radishes, ten-pound potatoes, tree-sized poinsettias, and woody-stemmed marigolds six feet tall. In the Himalayan alpine regions, rare medicinal plants with powerful healing properties grow above the tree-line, and the tall, rocky high-elevation pasturelands yield the rare, cobalt-blue blossoms of the wild Himalayan poppy.

Our destination in Nepal was the village of Jomsom, along the famous Annapurna Trekking Circuit in the western region of Mustang. Jomsom has the Kali-Gandaki River region's only airstrip, where small flights from small companies such as Cosmic, Buddha, and Yin Yang Air are navigated into Jomsom from between the narrow crevices of huge mountains, and where pilots have a saying: 'Here, we don't fly our planes through the clouds, because here, our clouds have rocks in them.'

Jomsom is built along the ancient Kali-Gandaki River, whose banks yield black saligrams, the fossils of ammonites who lived in the prehistoric Tethys Sea 130 million years ago. Locals live with a geographical phenomenon that makes the gorge itself seem alive. Each day, the cold air from the Tibetan plateau to the north of the gorge is pushed and then lifted by the warmer air from the south, and in the process, the wind begins to suck upward through the village like a giant inhalation. Sometimes, in the late afternoons, walkers and horses must simply come to a stop for an hour as this inhalation lifts wild dervish shapes of dust devils into swirls of fine, blinding grit. 

Jenna and Jane now have rings made by Mr. Bhatt in Kathmandu, miniscule ammonites set in silver, the black spirals for which they found themselves a day’s walk from Lo in Upper Mustang.

Jomsom grows greens, turnips, barley, peaches, apples, and plums, and distills clear, powerful brandy and a potent barley beer. Rice, dhal, lentils, curried vegetables, roasted ground barley mixed with milk, and hearty flatbread are staple foods, and, to the Tibetans, so is yak butter tea, a salty, oily, nourishing but rancid hot drink.

On a map of Nepal, you will notice the high rain-shadow region of Mustang rising as a prominence above the otherwise generally oblong shape of the country. As early as the 8th century, records show Mustang known as Ngari, a name for western Tibet, and the great Tibetan poet Milarepa lived in the caves of the region in the 10th century. Today, Upper Mustang region's present raja traces his ancestry back 25 generations. This historic region, though once a part of Tibet, and though long feudally ruled because of its geographic isolation, was consolidated into Nepal in 1762. This political partition from Tibet has turned out to be very fortunate for the ethnically Tibetan Nepalis in Mustang since Tibetan Buddhists have not been free to practice their religion and culture in Tibet for 56 years. Mustang, then, is one of the rich areas of Tibetan cultural freedom, and, in the 1960s, after the Dalai Lama had to flee into exile in India, Mustang was Tibet's center for guerrilla resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Today, Nepal's Royal Army has a mountain training unit in Jomsom, who jog in the mornings and practice rock-climbing along the sheer cliffs just behind the village. Jomsom is the administrative center for the region, and the center for trade distribution, since flights from Mustang connect Jomson to the world, which is otherwise connected only by days of walking through other villages and Himalayan landscapes.

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