The morning mist turned into a blanket of fog over breakfast. In the space of a night, the warm humidity of the previous day shifted to thick damp. It was my first hint of Annapurna in the monsoon season.
We would trek to Ghorepani that day. My guide hinted that it would be a harder trek than the previous day.
Nonetheless, I recalled my colleague Karina’s counsel, when I had wondered aloud to her, whether I could do the trek. “I used to be intimidated too,” she said. “And then I realised, trekking is just walking for a really long time!”
It kind of made sense.
Still, I felt some leg muscles aching already. It’s ok, I thought, as we prepared to move. When I reach Ghorepani, I’ll dig out the muscle relaxant cream. Just as a preventive measure for tomorrow. There were many more days to go.
Despite the foggy damp, we set off in good cheer.
- 1 Annapurna in the Monsoon Season
- 2 Safe Drinking Water in the Annapurnas
- 3 It’s an Upward Trek
- 4 Nerding Out on the Annapurna trek
- 5 The Home Stretch to Ghorepani
Annapurna in the Monsoon Season
The hike quickly turned steep. But the mists kept the day cool and so it was not unpleasant.
Before long we came upon another river crossing, one with a tall waterfall pouring what seemed to be endless water into a rushing stream. I had never seen so much water falling so fast, since watching the falls of Milford Sound.
As we walked past, I noted a kind of rustic arch and some signage pointing… down?
I went closer to examine it. The signs pointed down a steep slope, advertising the waterfall as a swimming spot, and … boulder hopping.
More signs on the arch itself marked the spot as a party scene, probably in the peak season.
Hopefully there’s a lot less water then, and the boulders not so slippery.
The heavens opened…
It was not long until the rains began. Drizzling in fits and bursts at first, so that you could hardly decide whether to keep your waterproof jacket on or off.
Seema unpacked the waterproof cover that my backpack came with, and fastened it. Devi came over to make sure that the smaller one that I borrowed from the 3 Sisters was properly covering my day pack.
But as we moved onward, I was confronted with another characteristic of trekking Annapura in the monsoon.
They were everywhere. The green verge by the paths were infested with them, sticky tendrils reaching blindly out, blindly stretching into the path. Any brush with the undergrowth, any meander to investigate a curious plant, and you must check yourself. Pull off the inevitable stowaway.
I made sure to secure my pants and socks.
…And a mystery resolved.
We went onward. About midmorning, Devi called a break at a teahouse halfway up a steep slope.
There, the mystery of the bin bags was solved.
As the sky opened wide, pouring buckets down all around us, we finished our tea. Then, both my guide and my porter unpacked one big, blue bin bag each and proceeded to make a face-sized hole at the bottom.
To my stupefaction, they put the bags on themselves, and over their backpacks, making a perfect rain shield. The water would slide completely away and drip down. There would be no chance of the rain slipping down in between your back and the backpack.
A much more complete protection than the backpack covers – albeit much less fashionable.
And I had thought I got my secondhand waterproof North Face jacket at a steal.
Safe Drinking Water in the Annapurnas
One of the things that I researched beforehand was about securing a supply of potable water during the trek. I read that availability of safe drinking water was a potential concern in the Annapurnas. Most trekkers apparently bring chlorine tablets, and I observed bottled water being sold.
But after my Plastic Free April attempt, I was determined to avoid water bottled in plastic on this trip.
Sustainable trekking tip: bring a portable water filter
Fortunately, among the last things that my outdoorsy ex-friend gave me before he was no longer allowed to have ‘risky’ female friends, was an extremely well-researched portable water filter solution. So I was well-equipped with a Sawyer Mini filter during this trek.
It’s very lightweight, small, and extremely easy to use.
With a couple of squeeze bags’ worth of water, I could fill two medium size water bottles, and that would do it for a day. Gravity drop is usually sufficient to filter the water for me, taking less than 10 minutes overall.
I used this method throughout my time in Nepal, and even subsequently through Uttar Pradesh in India. Yep, I put my money (and gastrointestinal tract) where my mouth is!
I had no bowel issues related to water throughout the entire trip.
Water, water everywhere – is there any drop to drink?
In every village or hamlet, we passed by at least one public faucet within a stone masonry construction. These seem to be the water sources for all the people living in the Annapurnas.
It is quite obvious that Annapurna in the monsoon is bursting with water. The rivers gush it, the skies pour it, enough to flow in sheets about our feet. But these were not quite what I might consider safe potable water, necessarily.
I know a bit of something about supplying safe water, because of my training and my day job. The water could easily be contaminated before it gets piped to the faucets. Perhaps the locals were inured to it, but it may not be suited to outsiders.
I asked Devi about the faucets.
They were watered by a spring, she said. From far up the mountain. The pipework runs all over the mountain, from that source. Locals use it as-is, but sometimes outsiders have trouble, she said.
But if the water comes straight from a spring… why then, it means that it should be all right! Yeah, my guide said. Some trekkers use it like we do.
But because my filter was so easy to use, I kept filtering anyway.
The safe drinking water initiative
If that was not enough, as I trekked through the Annapurnas, I noticed yet another comforting sight.
There were signs marking certain teahouses or guesthouses as safe drinking water stations. These host purified water. However, the sign suggested that they are bottle refills, so these would have had to be carried all the way from the towns.
All in, the most sustainable potable water option is still either the local supply, or local + portable filter (or similar, such as a Steripen).
It’s an Upward Trek
Yes, I’m aware that I was trekking up a mountain, which was in the Himalayas – the mountain range with the highest peaks in the world. Hence it should come as no surprise that the trek was… an upward climb.
But for some reason I kind of didn’t think about that as much. I figured we’d somehow meander our way up through forest trails and such, and I wouldn’t really notice so very much the ‘upness’ of the trek.
After all, the first day was sort of like that.
It was just as well too. If I had really done the math and worked out the necessary inclines to gain the required height every day… I might have talked myself out of this!
The stone steps of Annapurna
But the trek to Ghorepani quickly disabused me of such notions. There are steps in Annapurna. Great, big, stone, steep steps. And on the second day, there were many such stretches of steep, big stone steps.
Just when it seemed that a particularly onerous stretch was it, we rounded a bend and I was confronted with yet another super-steep series of these steps… It’s not just like walking, Karina!! It’s not!!!
I remembered reading that the best way to prepare for Macchu Picchu was to take lots of steps as a primary form of exercise. Annapurna too. But they wouldn’t have been enough, I think. Because many of the steps along the Annapurna trek were higher than the standard staircase rise. Not to mention they’re irregular as well. You’d have to randomly take some steps two at a time, to come close.
My little 5′ Asian frame used to mainly flattish terrain certainly noticed.
It’s a school day
Up ahead, we heard the sounds of boys rough-housing and splashes. A group of children in already-disheveled uniforms on the way to school, distracted by a little spring by the steep steps. Splashing in the puddles and teasing each other in sing-song.
Devi strode up to them, and stood over them, arms akimbo. Shooed them on their way to school.
“Where is the school?” I wondered. Devi made a vague upward motion with her hand.
I stood, my legs already aching, and gazed at the receding figures of the children scrambling up the mountain. I took a photo. Over lunch, I sent it to all my teacher friends at home – and we Malaysians (especially the ladies) are not an athletic nation – and wryly asked what they would do if they had to climb a mountain every day to go to work.
“We would be thin!” Liza announced to the Whatsapp group.
It’s not all leeches and horrid steps…
Still, in spite of the spatters of rain and the punishing steps, the enveloping fog rendered a fairy charm to the trail. And at times, when the mist cleared, we could see that we were high enough to see that we would be somewhat at cloud height soon.
The tops of the slopes were often rendered mysterious by a veil of fog. And fog, gliding between and wrapping around the forested slopes cast an eeriness to the highland wood.
Even the stretches through farmland scenes were made ethereal by the touch of fog on the hilltops behind.
Annapurna in the monsoon wears a billowing shawl of fog.
And though I found the day more wearying than the first, there was still time to enjoy some play time with my companions.
Stopping by a patch of wildflowers, my guide showed me a game that Nepali little girls would play with the seed pod. Just like how Malaysian girls would, with the keembung* (pronounced ‘KE-em-bong’). Basically it involves searching for seed pods nearly ripe to burst, and then popping them.
Trekking is normally depicted in the masculine image of a single-minded goal of reaching peaks as fast as possible. Indeed, many (if not most) of the trekkers along the way were aiming for the base camp, and passed us quickly by. But I liked that we stopped to pop flower seed pods.
And I have the suspicion that this is the more local way of being in the mountains!
The church in Annapurna
Lunch was a welcome break from the morning’s exertions. We watched as more children rushed across the small village square and upward (yes, yet more steps!). Different school session, perhaps?
I asked Devi whether the school was in this village. It seemed quite a distance already since we last saw the bunch earlier. But no. The school was even higher than this.
Thinking about having to make that trek of unknown proportions for school… no, I can’t think about it.
I’m not sure which village this was, where we stopped for lunch. But aside from not being the one with the school, it has a curious trait. In this Hindu and Buddhist land, there is a chapel here.
Pit stop: the Italians who would turn water into wine
In a way, you could say that trekking in the Annapurnas is easy.
You don’t need to make camp and pack up afterwards, since there are guesthouses all along the way. I’d venture to say that it’s even more sustainable to stay in a guesthouse, because your presence in the Conservation Area would then provide a means of livelihood for the people who dwell there.
There are restaurants along the way too, between guesthouse villages. The restaurants reminded me a great deal of the ones back in Malaysia – simple, rustic, and unassuming. You could stop for a very welcome hot cup of tea, even a snack. Or for a bathroom break. Or to shelter from particularly torrential rain.
If I didn’t have a trekking schedule to keep, the Malaysian in me would certainly have eaten more along the way. For no reason than because it is possible!
In one such stop we met Madge and Anna, two Italian women trekking together in Annapurna. I can’t now remember why we stopped by there. But they were seeking to buy bottled water – except that in their tiredness, they asked the lady at the counter for wine!
How Italian! They remarked of themselves, as we laughed together over the mistake.
Nerding Out on the Annapurna trek
You encounter a party…
Your party encounters a band of travelers halfway up the hill. The leader hails you and asks where you’re from. You tell him.
Roll d20 against Charisma. Success!
They adopt your party into their caravan.
One of them gives you provisions. [Meal +1] Another gives your leader a Graduated Walking Stick (+2 Endurance; -1 Dexterity unless used with Skill: Walking Stick).
Translation for non-players of Dungeons & Dragons
We were hiking across a stretch that was more farmland than forest. Maize grew in terraces whose stone sides were draped over with green creepers and highland weed. The drop to the right of us was almost completely lost in fog.
Trudging through the mist up a hill, we came across a group of Korean trekkers. They were friendly, calling out to us curiously. An older man among them asked me where I was from. Malaysia, I said.
He beamed with obvious pleasure – he’s been twice! It turned out that his daughter had studied in Malaysia, in Monash University.
Unanimously, we took an unspoken break on the trail at the brink of the Annapurna fog. The man excitedly told me all about his good memories of Malaysia, and his companions came over to talk to my guide and porter, one of whom gave us some candy. Giving me his business card, he insisted I should call him if I ever needed a host in his country.
The gift of the alpine walking stick
Well, well! My mission of acquiring 1000 homes is proceeding more easily than I anticipated! I had just acquired a Nepali and a Kashmiri home in a single encounter a mere two days ago, and now a South Korean one!
As we picked up our gear to move on, Devi came over with a new accessory – an alpine walking stick. It was length-adjustable, and graduated too so you could measure the exact length to be extended. She pointed to one of the Korean party, who had given it to her. I was amazed by their easy generosity.
Devi offered it to me, but not being a mountain hiker, I had never used one before, and couldn’t appreciate the point. So she used it herself. Nonetheless, when we came upon the Koreans at a later point, she returned it. She didn’t need the aid.
Fleeing Nazgul in the rhododendron forest
We were high enough now, and the fog thickened enough, that I could no longer tell where it ended and the clouds began. At what point, I mused to myself, would you say this is no longer fog, but is now cloud? After all, they’re both water vapour…
We left the highland farms behind, and entered the forest trails. The fog lay always above us – or was it low cloud? – and gave a fairy tale touch to every photo. Soon we came upon the rhododendron forest, which was mentioned in the trek itinerary.
To be sure, I didn’t actually know what a rhododendron forest looked like. I had notions that perhaps there would be flowers, but then again, it could have been the wrong season.
But you kind of knew you were entering a significant spot when you saw it. Its tall dark trunks leaning over the trail, epiphytes trailing from its dark branches into the mist.
These forests loomed large. The kind of large that makes you feel dwarfed and awed – and that’s with the tops of it shrouded in white away from full view. The hush of fog lay over the air, and it was damp upon my face.
Looking down a trail section crowded over by the leaning trees, I imagined the Nazgul in just such a forest, and wondered if I could have made my aching legs move fast enough to leap down beneath an overhang of root as the hobbits had.
The Home Stretch to Ghorepani
There were yet more steep stretches. Every so often, Devi assured me that we were coming upon Ghorepani soon. I wondered if we were hiking too slow – it was getting to be longer than the estimated 6 hours.
But at this point I knew there was no point to think about it, only to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep climbing. There was no more being distracted by scenery.
Devi began to tell me about Poon Hill, the viewpoint we would hike to early the next morning before breakfast, to see the sunrise. It would be the first sight of the Annapurna peaks for trekkers along this way, and it was supposed to be an incredible view. But would it be visible in the fog of the monsoon?
She was quietly hopeful, but acknowledged that the fog might obscure the peaks. We’ll see. She would wake first and have a look herself, and then let me know if we would hike out.
At last, at last, at last!
Really? My exhausted brain hardly dared to think it. We finally reached the mythic haven of Ghorepani at last?
I reached the crest of the slope and looked down the paved way to the yellow arch. It was true. We were there.
Hang on a sec.
I was actually relieved and well, now that I knew I’d arrived. But I was determined that this feat be commemorated with a photo that represented how it felt inside to reach it.
Devi and Seema laughed, but obliged me.
Ghorepani in blue and white
As we walked through the arch into the village of Ghorepani, just like in Derbyshire, my gamer instincts were triggered.
The town looked like it came to life from Oblivion. The stone steps, the buildings upon the ledges, down to the horses milling about grazing, which I was certain could be hired, just like in the game.
And best of all, it was entirely blue and white. In fact, I later realised that the buildings across Annapurna were mainly painted in blue – my favourite colour. Which brought my Blue Period wanderings in Derbyshire even more strongly to mind.
We made our way to the inn, where Devi sorted out my room arrangements.
It was 2855m above sea level. That day, I had climbed more than a thousand metres.
I finally stay at an inn
I had stayed at inns hundreds of times in my life. Virtual inns, that is – in computer games and gamebooks.
In real life though, while I’ve stayed in accommodations rustic and homely, in the East and the West, I couldn’t really consider any of them an inn.
I don’t know how to explain this, but walking into the guesthouse in Ghorepani, I immediately considered it an inn.
It was much larger than the guesthouse in Hille. In the peak season it would be heaving with trekkers, and some of them would have to sleep on the floors. There would be music and and merriment then, with so many people around.
There were stairs leading to long corridors of rooms, and another to the ‘local quarters’ for the guides and porters, and up to the great dining hall where there was a legit wood burning stove right in the middle where we could dry our wet clothes.
It was the coolest place I’d ever stayed at. I absolutely loved the fact that I’d journeyed in the wilderness through the day, then came up to an inn at its close, gathering around a fire with other trekkers, sharing its warmth to dry from the monsoon rains.
I was almost living out my childhood D&D games. Minus the bit about having to fight goblins in the forest.
It was not there. Confused, I checked and re-checked everything in my backpack. Did I leave out the muscle cream?
With a sense of foreboding, I remembered that I had put it together with the portion of supplies meant for the rest of the trip, after the trek. An inexplicable error.
After the exertions of the day, I was sure that my muscles would be incredibly sore the following day – especially the calves, because I had not expected that much climbing.
At dinner, I asked Devi about the possibility of a pharmacy. Fortunately, Ghorepani was a large village, and a trekker’s congregation spot. The next morning we would go further in where the shops were, and there was a pharmacy there.
That didn’t sound too bad.
I went straight to sleep after dinner, mindful that I might have to hike before dawn to Poon Hill. At that point I was so tired, I wasn’t sure whether to wish for the fog to lift or to stay.
But I dropped to sleep thinking of the Poon Hill view.
* keembung – a kind of balsam