Caught up in a Windstorm
Surreal landscapes. Stark rolling barren mountains. Desert-like basins and moraines. Massive canyon walls—carved up by the Kali Gandaki River. Eroded cliffs, redolent of giant anthills. Mysterious sky caves dug into craggy heights. That’s how Mustang stands apart as the most otherworldly.
Hang on! One more characteristic sets Mustang apart—the notorious diurnal gust. The afternoons in Mustang get ripped by a gale-force wind with a speed of 30 to 40 knots (60 to 70 km per hour)—the record-high monitored by Jomsom Air Tower stands at 80 knots, nigh 150 km an hour.
In 2018, during a cycling trip to Lo Manthang, Upper Mustang, I got caught up in a horrible windstorm with three cycling mates, Khasing, Diwas, and Shayeet.
Following a hearty breakfast of tsampa (naked barley) porridge laced with shu cha (Tibetan butter tea) and omelets at Chhusang (2,920m), we hopped into our mountain bikes, heading off to our next destination, Samar (3,660m).
The path in Chhusang led through rows of white-washed houses with narrow stone-laid alleys. We had to duck our heads in some places as we pedaled past gate-like exits built smack dab through the houses. Sheep horns and yak skulls hung on the walls in the pathways—a local religious custom and belief to ward off the village’s evil spirits.
After leaving the town behind, our eyes met arid landscapes as far as we could see. The November morning at eight had a chill, but the sun was up—no wind, though, contrary to our fear. As we gained elevation, we could see high precipices and eroded sandstone cliffs towering over the Kali Gandaki gorge.
After two hours across a desolate, treeless terrain, Chele (3,050m), a cluster of white-washed houses with neatly stacked fuel wood on flat roofs, appeared amidst a bit of greenery and barley fields. We stopped for tea and some refreshments.
To our surprise, the weather remained calm with a light wind, albeit at 11 am.
We thanked our stars since we had to grapple with high winds right after we began a day before from Kagbeni—the gateway to Upper Mustang.
Our joy was short-lived, however. Barely past noon, the wind gathered momentum and closed in upon us by afternoon. The wind had taken on a gale force as we huffed it up to Dajong la Pass (3,735m).
The grueling climb on that wind-swept incline seemed impossible, and I fell behind my junior partners. The situation turned for the worst; a massive dust storm hit hard—a fat chance to pedal against it. I dismounted and started shoving my bike.
But the wind was so fierce, and the dust and sand so blinding, I hastened to take shelter under a big rock and flopped on the ground, hugging my knees, my buff pulled over my face; still, I could feel the sand grains pelt my cheeks.
It got so ferocious I feared I might get buried under heavy dust and sand if it continued much longer; the wind carried virtually a wall of dust and fine sand, evocative of a ‘dust devil,’ visibility literally at naught.
The gale eased, though, and the dust, to my relief, settled down after half an hour. A motorbike came roaring up the incline, but as the track held ankle-deep powdery dust, it skidded and could only make it up the slope after being pushed by the pillion rider.
I dragged my bike up the rise—but with no sign of my companions.
I suddenly felt dizzy; my stomach groaned. As a diabetic, I had to replenish myself because we were late for lunch. Just when I thought and feared I would bonk out and relapse into hypoglycemia, Shayeet appeared.
Worried, he had come down to check on me while Khasing and Diwas waited at the crest. It took two small energy bars, three to four gulps of multigrain cereal, almost a bottle of electrolyte drink, and a half-hour rest before I finally felt revived to muster up enough courage to push my bike to the ridge.
A rock cairn marked the pass; prayer flags and flagpoles whipped madly as the wind lashed at them. The jeep track descended a gentle slope as we slid down a canyon into the valley of Samar.
I sighed in relief as we ducked into the comfort of a lodge, the first in sight. The intense icy windstorm outside still whistled, swooshed, and howled—sounding utterly unnerving.
Dec. 11, 2023, 2:15 p.m.
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