Once off-limits, the Himalayan hamlet of Jomsom is Nepal's new luxury destination

Mustang village offers fine-dining, mountain views and an immersion into indigenous culture

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I first saw the Himalayan village of Jomsom on a 14-inch television set in the mid-1990s while watching a Nepali series that had been filmed there. The far-flung hamlet in the Mustang region seemed distant – back then there were no roads that cars could drive on and the only options to get there were a day-long trek from Pokhara or a tiny Twin Otter aircraft.

Nearly 30 years later, Jomsom is connected to scenic Pokhara by a 20-minute flight or via a scenic six to seven-hour drive through dramatic landscapes – including one of the world’s deepest gorges. It's also home to one of the most upscale resorts in Nepal: the Shinta Mani Mustang – A Bensley Collection hotel.

Once a place solely for backpackers or pilgrims, Jomsom is carving a space for itself as Nepal's luxury destination. Shinta Mani Mustang is far from the regular tourist grid in a part of the country where foreign citizens were prohibited from visiting until 1992, and it offers a sense of unrivalled seclusion in the Nepalese high-end hospitality market.

Arriving at the hotel for my five-night stay, I'm warmly welcomed with a hot apple cider and what turns out to be even warmer hospitality. It’s almost dusk as I stand in the hotel’s sprawling stone-paved courtyard, admiring the almost eye-level view of the majestic Nilgiri North peak standing at 7,061 metres. It’s so quiet that I can hear my breath, that is until the howling wind interrupts.

The views only get better throughout the stay, which entails daily activities curated with a dash of luxury. The purpose of the resort seems to be to encourage travellers to explore the region’s nature and culture during the daytime and then retreat in comfort afterwards.

My butler Dawa, a Mustang native, meticulously explains my itinerary every evening by the bar, where I’m in awe of the life-size replica of the holy shaligram, the fossilised stones available in Mustang’s riverbeds.

Life in the mountains

My journey in this sacred valley starts in Lubra, an 800-year-old village and Nepal’s last settlement practising Bon Buddhism, the indigenous religion of Tibet. Sonam Lepo, whose family is a caretaker of the ancient gompa, gives me a quick lesson in spirituality at an ancient cave monastery, before we venture to enjoy a home-cooked meal at the rooftop of local hotelier, Yangchen Lhamo.

The table and chairs are set against the mesmerising backdrop of barren hills, which almost looks otherworldly. But when the food arrives, I feel right at home thanks to a comforting helping of dhido, a thick porridge-like staple made of buckwheat, served with rice and vegetables.

Back at the hotel, Dawa has already scheduled a spa appointment for me, which I’m told will be a daily pampering session post excursions. After a relaxing massage, I plunge into the hotel's private pool which comes with an unbeatable view of Nilgiri.

In fact, the mountain range barely leaves my sight throughout the trip. It is visible from almost all corners of the hotel thanks to its positioning on a secluded hill around 2,800 metres above sea level.

The hotel exterior is mostly made of Baglung stone, which is also used to build local houses in the region, and there are floor-to-ceiling glass windows making the most of the scenery.

American designer Bill Bensley has draped the interiors in traditional Tibetan motifs and yak furs, fused with his vibrant signature style. Each of the 29 rooms has polished wooden floors and comes with a plush bed, handmade woven stools and cashmere blankets.

There’s a fully loaded minibar where I discover sweet and sour titaura made of native hog plums; and the bathroom has bricks made of pink Himalayan salt, along with crushed ones for putting in the bath.

The hotel lobby is cozy and makes good use of upcycled furniture, including its comfy leather couches, Tibetan-designed cabinets and lamps, all of which reflects regional aesthetics. The low hum of Buddhists chanting is enough to cast a meditative spell.

“It’s good to have a luxury property showcasing our culture and traditions,” Dawa tells me, while talking about the hotel which opened last August. “It puts Jomsom on the international map.”

And Shinta Mani Mustang is raising Jomsom’s profile globally, acquainting guests with unexplored places, mixing spirituality and adventure.

One day I’m trekking to Cheema Lake, with the stunning Tilicho Peak in the backdrop, and the next I’m driving to Muktinath, the famed Hindu temple of Lord Vishnu, at an elevation of 3,800 metres, where devotees bathe in the 108 water spouts to attain mukti, or nirvana.

At Cheema Lake, I’m stunned by the view and also the glamping-like picnic setting – the hotel staff set up a table with cheese platter, chilled drinks and a warm bowl of thukpa or Tibetan noodle soup, before my arrival.

After my visit to Muktinath, I tuck into a four-course meal on the terrace of the 16th-century Dzong monastery in Jhong, where the meal is served with 360-degree views of the brown hills and white Himalayas.

The apple capital of Nepal

One evening, before my regular spa session, Dawa has booked a session for me with the hotel’s resident amchi, the traditional healers of the region practising the Sowa Rigpa system of medicine dating back 2,500 years. It’s part of Shinta Mani Mustang’s wellness programme, and I’m astounded by the near precise diagnosis of my health that I'm given, just from a check of my wrist.

As my departure draws closer, I have one last stop, in Marpha – a quaint village with stone-paved alleys and whitewashed houses, also known as the “apple capital of Nepal”.

Here, Kamala Lalchan Adhikari welcomes me at her Apple Paradise bakery. She is chatty and offers a bowl of traditional Thakali thaali – rice, vegetables, fermented gundruk pickle, and optional yak meat curry – named after Mustang’s indigenous people.

For dessert, Adhikari offers an apple crumble, made from fruits collected in the orchard. She also owns a small factory that produces apple jams and juices, which she sells to the chefs at Shinta Mani. The hotel is invested in contributing to the local economy, sourcing everything it can from the region and employing locals where possible.

“Women in our village were mostly domesticated before,” says Adhikari. “We had to step in when men started leaving for cities and foreign countries. But now, many women here are financially independent and running our own businesses.”

Before parting, she shows me videos that give me a glimpse into her daily life and interactions with some of the hotel guests, all shared on her Instagram account. And like a good salesperson, she grins and asks me to follow her account.

As we depart in a four-wheel drive, I see similar glimpses of the Jomsom that I first saw on that 14-inch television set three decades ago. But now, the destination is no longer a remote outpost that's difficult to reach, and its new luxury resort with a five-night minimum stay, $9,000 price tag speaks volumes about how it has changed.

I pull out my phone, now filled with images showcasing a changing landscape, both geographically and metaphorically. And I realise I'll be swiping the memories of this unforgettable trip on my six-inch screen for a long time to come.

Updated: May 30, 2024, 11:31 AM