Poon Hill! I suddenly remembered, once my sleepy brain processed the knock on my door. I leapt out of bed and opened it. My guide Devi was on the other side. She would have gone out of Ghorepani before dawn, to check out visibility at the lookout point for Poon Hill. By this time, she would have finished her reconnaissance. Are we headed out or not? Poon Hill view in Ghorepani during the monsoon Devi came inside to give me the news. She told me it was a very foggy morning. Instead of lifting from the previous day, the monsoon fog had thickened. There was no view of the Annapurna peaks at Ghorepani's famous Poon Hill viewing point. Oh well. On the bright side, it was kind of cold in the pre-dawn hour. And I really was beginning to ache from the exertions of the day before. A little bit more sleep would be very welcome, actually. I was secretly not entirely unhappy. Back to bed before breakfast! My Poon Hill view during the 10-day Annapurna Sanctuary trek! In one of the villages where we stopped the previous day, there was a little mural that I had taken a photo of. Over breakfast, I looked at the photo again. It was a mural of the Poon Hill view, and it labeled the different peaks that a trekker would see. Who knew, that was the only Poon Hill view I would have! Disaster!! Our third day of trekking began with a wander through Ghorepani. I needed to stop by the pharmacy and get some Tiger Balm before we left the village. But, after ranging slightly ahead, my guide returned with bad news. The shop that has the over-the-counter medications was closed. It was the off season. So... we have to go to the one in Tadapani? Tadapani was where we would spend the night. I clung to a shred of hope. "Tadapani is just a small village," said Devi regretfully. It didn't have such a shop. But Chomrong, our stop for Day 4, would have it. Chomrong was a central village for the Annapurna folk, Devi explained consolingly. The shops there were for the locals, not tourists. So the 'supermarket' there would be open even in the off season. But I'd have to last for another two days. Oh well. There's nowhere else to go but forward. Leaving Ghorepani Just as we left Ghorepani, we met up again with the English couple, Bill and Sophie, and their guide Kim. For a while we trekked in a loose group, as the clouds began to spill with rain again. Looks like the furnace-dried socks from last night wouldn't stay dry for long. But at least it meant I didn't have to use another dry pair, this early in a monsoon trek. Carry on, carrying on. Nonetheless, the route from Ghorepani to Tadapani felt fresher, somehow. There were more stretches that were fairly level, and Nepali wildflowers dotted the sides of the path. Devi still asked me, on occasion, whether I was feeling all right, checking me for signs of altitude sickness. But she asked less on this route, since we were in fact slightly descending this day. Kim, Bill, and Sophie gradually distanced from us, as I grew increasingly distracted by the flora. I had forgotten to unpack my clip-on macro lenses the previous day, but I remembered this time. So I was keen to take close-up photos of the flowers, especially as some of them had charming ladybugs perched on top. As we hurried after our companions after one such distraction, Devi remarked that she loved ladybugs herself. It was one of her favourite photography subjects. The Annapurna monsoon, worse than both Malaysian and British rains I resigned myself to being rained upon all day. All hope that perhaps the rains of the second day was an anomaly, was lost. The rain at the start of the day grew gradually heavier, making me glad that I did not skimp on my waterproof jacket. My pants, however, were proving somewhat less waterproof than advertised. Bear in mind, I'm used to heavy monsoon rains, being from Malaysia. We have fierce downpours on a regular basis. Our rainstorms pour obscene amounts of water in great torrents - but the heavens are mercifully spent in about a couple hours. I'm also used to the miserable pissy British rain. I studied there for a time, and then I lived there off and on during my marriage. The British Isles famously has a kind of rain that isn't really that heavy, and yet never seems to be done - for weeks, and weeks, and weeks. But the Nepali monsoon, is the worst of both. It's torrential rain, that never seems to ever be done. I was extremely glad that I took my brother's advice to buy an Otterbox for my phone. Because of it, I was the only one who could take pictures in the damp and wet. I promised Bill and Sophie I'd share the photographs so that they would have images of their honeymoon trek in Nepal. I'm not at all astonished that the monsoon is the tourism off season. The perks of having a waterproof camera phone How to get leeches off, the Nepali way. It goes without saying that the continuing rain meant that leeches continued to menace the trail. Since I had been creeping about taking photos in the bushes in spite of my guide's warnings, I found that I had to stop often to search out stray leeches upon me. Sometimes I thought I had checked myself sufficiently, but later felt a wriggling inside my sock or under a sleeve. At one point I think there was one that somehow made it under my t-shirt and was happily feeding itself on my tummy before being discovered. The leeches weren't painful, only icky. At most, the bites might itch a bit. However, they're very sticky, and can stubbornly cling to your finger as you're trying to flick it off into forest oblivion. The chore slows down the trek. I was curious when we stopped to rest at a sort of lodge. Seema had gone to the back and was absent for some time. When she returned she had a piece of cloth, tied to make a ball at the end. When we came back on the trail, and the leeches were at us again, the white cloth-ball revealed its purpose: it was filled with salt. The rain and damp was enough to keep it wet. All we needed to do was apply it to the leech, and it fell off as if by magic. Trail markings in the Annapurnas Since we're talking about practical things, here's another one that's handy to know. Although I did this trek with a guide, which has its advantages especially in the coming days, you could trek in the Annapurnas without one. One advantage of that, is that you could vary your trail and itinerary as you prefer. Maybe you want to stay a bit longer in one village before moving on. Without a guide, you would be limited only by your budget for room and board, and it would not affect the length of time you had hired the guide for. Now, not being a seasoned trekker myself, and not exactly known for my navigation skills, I can't say whether it is easy to find the Annapurna trails. Indeed, as we ventured higher, there were junctures where I would not have known which way to go, if I didn't have a guide with me. Nonetheless, the trails are marked. In the lower area, the marking is a white and red strip, like an upside down Indonesian flag. As we ventured higher, it changed to white and blue. Different territory, my guide explained. The elvish forest trail to Tadapani Nonetheless, the incessant rain is what yields the verdant summer version of Annapurna, its elvish mists and fairy forests. The third trekking day was the day when I was truly awed by the beauty of Annapurna. Sure, we have lovely views of the green dales and river valleys in the previous days. But the beauty of those scenes compared to the Ghorepani-Tadapani route, was like comparing the Shire with Rivendell. The elvish wilderness was left to her own graceful devices, generating a profusion of viridian life that leapt into mysterious fog, or rose to a white sunlit brilliance at the top of dramatic waterfalls. I felt heavy, splashing and squishing through the water constantly running along the ground. But I imagined agile elves fleet in the woods, hardly rustling a leaf, ever watchful and elegant. The vale of fog Fairy waterfall Trekking through Rivendell Can I get a hitchhike? As agile as a deer (not!) Indeed, picking my way carefully on the wet steps, I thought back to what my guide on the day hike in Pokhara had advised. He had wanted me to get boots with better grip. I could see why. The way was slippery. I still wasn't sure though, if it would be better overall than my existing boots that I was used to. Climbing up steps was not as concerning. But stepping down is the issue, what with the film of water constantly flowing anywhere it could flow. I gingerly made my way down, very carefully... ...and was nearly blindsided by an umbrella held by a local man running down the steps, feet clad only in wellies! Fortunately, I had asked my guide to video me walking down the steps to show the insane amounts of water. So the whole incident is on camera, complete with Devi and Seema's laughter! The lovely streams of Annapurna The Ghorepani-Tadapani stretch also has the loveliest streams of the trekking route, in my opinion. We crossed several along the way, ranging from small rivulets to streams and creeks. Some bridge crossings came with rushing rapids and grand waterfall drops, whereas others were shallow flows where we picked our way across the rocks. Flowers sometimes edged the sides, leaning towards the break in canopy shade. The steady rain left them with jewel drops of water that caught the sunlight. Glimmering and dripping with liquid diamonds. Fairy stream Memorial cairns in the Nepali highlands It was not too long before the landscape of Annapurna brought a strong sense of familiarity to me. Strangely, it brought strongly to mind the hills and woods of Derbyshire. That is, if the angles of the hills were steeper and craggier, and with the wilderness and habitations a few centuries wilder ago. The dirt trails that merge and recede into flagstone steps, bring to mind remnants of the Roman roads. And there was another thing: the memorial cairns on widened ledges. When we stopped and laid our backpacks down on yet another one of these ledges, I asked Devi what they were for. She said, they commemorated people who used to live there. Perhaps they died in a landslide, and so their farm holding is now swallowed again by the forest. There were many of these, all along the way. Some looking newer than others. Not all of the cairns would have messages in written script. But they would typically have a recessed triangle where offerings would be left - flowers, perhaps, judging from the dried remnants within the little alcoves. Always with the recessed triangle Yet another cairn @ resting ledge for trekkers Some are right in the path I wondered, just how many deadly landslides happened in these mountains? And I thought, though the symbol is a triangle rather than a cross, is it really very different from the old cairns dotting the English countryside? Or for that matter, the memorial benches so common along the cliffs and piers of English coastal towns? Rock stacking in the Annapurnas Incidentally, I saw my first rock stacks on one such widened ledge, on top of a crest along the trail. I had seen them online, but up until then I had not seen rock stacking in person. This particular ledge was photogenic - I would say, Instagrammable - due to the Tibetan prayer flags that hung streaming over it, white, red, green, yellow, blue. Swinging slightly from a mountaintop breeze, the frayed bottoms flicked like tassels with a kind of wabi-sabi charm. Rock stacking in the Annapurnas I looked around, and saw more rock stacks on the ground further ahead. "Who made them?" I asked Devi. "What does it mean?" My guide shrugged. "The trekkers," she said. I wasn't sure what to think of it then. I guess they were kinda cool - though I can't say why. Some were boring, but others tilted in odd angles that showed off a fine balancing of the stones. Devi asked if I wanted to stack another rock. Instead, I pretended to push one over with a finger! But there was more. High density high rise We caught up with Kim's group at the next river. It was an incredible sight. There were many, many rock stacks clustered on the riverbank. Bill and Sophie wandered among them, awestruck, trying to capture photographs of the surreal landscape. The shallow rapids raced by quickly, swirling past a rocky bank where previous travellers had constructed little towers of rock slabs and chips. At the far end, the rock stacking was so dense, you could not walk between them without toppling one. Is rock stacking responsible? For a time I simply stood and gazed at the field of rocks. How long had the rock stacks stood? Were they from the last high season? Would they usually be washed away by high water in the monsoon? I wondered idly whether there was such a thing as too much rock stacking. These were not, after all, naturally occurring arrangements. And if so, what amount would be too much? Later on, I did read up on it and found that yes, there can be such a thing as too much, or irresponsible, rock stacking. But, it would depend on the extent that local creatures' habitats and normal behaviour relies on enough cobbles and boulders remaining undisturbed for their use. Trekkers' reunion on the way to Ban Thanti We were meant to stop for a tea break at Ban Thanti, closer to Tadapani. However, as we came upon a restaurant after the rock stacks, the rain intensified immensely. So Devi decided we should stop and wait it out. After all, this particular restaurant had a stove, and we could dry out a little. Coming in, we found that Kim et al. had decided the same. Boots were already set to face the furnace, and socks and jackets hung all over the top. So we all had some hot tea together. It emerged in the conversation that Sophie had thought exactly the same thing I did the day before about where the fog ends and the cloud begins! So I told them how the landscape so far reminded me strongly of the Peak District in Derbyshire - and it turned out that that's where Sophie and Bill were from! They simply had not said so earlier, assuming that I would recognise Manchester more than the Peak District. Which was fair enough, given a random Malaysian. But serendipitously, I was a rare one whose favourite spot in England was, in fact, the Peak District! As we conversed, who should drop by but Madge and Anna? The two Italians came in from the rain, and promptly joined the circle of warmth. Why there are so many German bakeries in Annapurna Before the rain let up, we were joined by yet another trekker, a German man trekking solo. He cleared up a mystery that had piqued my curiosity ever since I saw the many signs advertising 'German bakery' in Ghorepani and Chomrong, in the villages we passed through. How strange. I mean, why not a French bakery? But apparently, 20 years ago during the Nepal civil war, many Nepalis fled to seek asylum in Germany. And that was why Nepal and Germany have these social ties today. Bathroom breaks along the Annapurna circuit The rain finally let up some, so we geared back up and prepared to go. Before setting off, I took a bathroom break. Bathroom amenities was one of the things I fretted about before embarking on the trek. Especially since you were supposed to drink water often, to alleviate the altitude effects. Of course, worse comes to worst, there was always the 'wilderness toilet', but fortunately (unless you were particularly diuretic at the time), I found that this was not actually necessary in the Annapurnas. Even a trekking day that mostly passes through wilderness would come across a guesthouse, restaurant, or home eventually. Given the information I read on the internet, I was actually surprised that the bathrooms in the Annapurnas were generally of a reasonable standard. At least for an Asian, for whom bidets/water washes and squat toilets are already perfectly normal. Even those attached to local premises along the trails normally had cemented floors and walls, and sometimes are even tiled. They were invariably clean, and those expecting foreign (Western) guests would have waste baskets for toilet paper. Guesthouses would often even have sitting toilets - can you imagine carrying that lump of ceramic up the trails?? Even the dogs are civilised here The way to Tadapani We resumed the trek. Our companions had gone ahead, and we had the trail to ourselves again. It was elven wilderness once more, all through to Ban Thanti where we briefly encountered the German guy again. He was hurrying on at a run; he meant to reach the base camp in only a couple days. But I - I was still distracted occasionally by wildflowers and vegetable plots that looked like it came to life from a video game. The trek felt like it began to ascend again. Or at least, we stopped skirting by and crossing streams, and began to hug the sides of mountains. Devi pointed to the horizon, past the deep river valley, and said that if the fog was not there, we could already glimpse Annapurna mountain peaks all along this way. The bride keeps herself veiled Annapurna monsoon trekking hazard: landslides There was a crashing sound at one point. My guide listened close. Landslide. Excuse me what? Indeed, we passed by a section of trail where a little bit had slid down the slope. I thought back to the memorial cairns, suddenly finding it of personal relevance. I was not enthused about witnessing the reason for their need. Guides are a good idea in the monsoon The pilgrim's life Though the route was not as difficult as the second day, I was relieved to finally reach Tadapani (and the guesthouse's hot shower). It's funny. Only three days ago I basically still had a town routine, still thinking about sightseeing and amusements. But just three days on the trail in the mountains, and I've completely switched over. Days spent out in the wilderness and the rural highlands, journeying, resulted in a me that cared for nothing more than food and warmth and a cosy place to sleep. Every other drama and concern, all other kinds of insecurity and discontent, quickly appeared contrived and unimportant. I travel quite a bit. But it was only in travelling this way - similar to the way people had to travel between places in the old days - that I finally understood the difficulty of being in a state of musafir (travelling). And the people of Annapurna understood very well. There aren't amusements offered in these mountains, not even 'cultural shows' which are so often common in highly touristed locations. But the mountain folk are exceptional at providing guesthouses that are warm and cosy, efficient and inclusive, with piping hot food, and dining halls that are inviting to everyone from all over the world, all without being anything other than their own mountain folk selves. Tadapani Guesthouse accommodations in Annapurna The plus for trekking solo in the off season is that you often would get a room all to yourself, even if it's normally meant for two (or even 4, as I enjoyed in Ghorepani). You would also be likely to get not just one, but two blankets that you could pile on top of yourself, thus amping up the cosiness level to the max. These aren't just any blankets either. They're the thickest blankets I'd ever seen, and very warm. In Tadapani, I also had the great fortune of getting the room with the stove pipe in front, coming up from the dining hall downstairs. So I had the luxury of literally wrapping my trekking pants etc around the pipe, trying to siphon every bit of warmth from the pipe. Later on, I resorted to wrapping everything around the pipe! Guesthouses in Annapurna are typically not very well insulated, and there is no heating in the rooms. Essentially you would spend your time in the dining hall, which would either be heated in some way, or would at least have the heat from other people together in the room. Sometimes there would be blankets for you to drape over your lap. In Tadapani, I was warm enough that I still didn't find a reason to unpack the thermal sleeping bag I rented from the 3 Sisters. Perhaps, I thought optimistically, my thermal liner would suffice even at the base camp. (No, it would not.) A warm evening in Tadapani I went back down to the hall after sorting out my damp gear. The guesthouse in Tadapani was my favourite, because it had a somewhat maternal vibe in its cosy Annapurna welcome. Like Ghorepani, it also had a stove, so I went back up, picked up a couple things and added them to the laundry hanging all around the heat. Unlike Ghorepani though, the hall was smaller, long and narrow. And of course, everyone was bunched at the stove end. We were three from my party, as well as Kim with Sophie and Bill. I can't remember now what we talked about, but the time was easily filled. At some point, Bill taught us a string puzzle so clever, that we video'd Devi and Kim learning it. The point was to remove a string wound around a finger, without ever lifting it over the finger! I wonder if any of us could still pull it off! What is this magic? Warmth and food and shelter and... a smartphone. I have to correct myself. There was still one thing that I cared about, aside from the basics, and it was my camera and data-enabled phone. Why? Couldn't I just switch off? Just be in the moment? Unplug? No, not entirely. And the reason was that I was travelling in a way I had not usually travelled before. In a way that my peers do not usually travel. For some of them, it was not that they were not interested, but that they are unable, whether by family, work, or physical constraint. So I found I couldn't bring myself to travel like other adventure travellers do. Heading off to the polar ice caps, or motorbiking across continents, or whatever, and then coming back victorious. The stories and the sights, the lessons and all the world's randomness? Buried in silence. I did take a trek that aimed to reach the base camp, yes. But I quickly realised that my real target was not the base camp. My interests were the things and people crossing my path all along the way up, and then all along the way down. My aim was to share it with the people who stayed behind, and the people who might come after. Not to show them how to conquer the mountain - but to introduce them to all that is sheltered by her, and the things that connect us across time and space. Do you explore and travel mainly to challenge yourself? Or do you also feel compelled to carry wisdom back home?