Day 5 of the trek roused itself as from the fog of slumber. The sun rose over Chomrong muffled by cloud all over the peaks, and the balconies of the inn were damp with the night's moisture. Gradually, the mists lightened somewhat, shifted apart and back again as if the mountains were undecided about throwing off its blankets to greet the day. But I dragged myself out and down to breakfast, knowing I had another solid day of trekking ahead. We would leave the normally inhabited areas of the highlands that day, and enter the Annapurna Sanctuary zone. Slow trekking benefits from fitness and preparation One of the biggest downsides of insufficient preparation and fitness, is that you would be forced to expend all your willpower simply to keep going. This limits your ability to reach slightly further out and learn while on the trek. Ironically, the loss is a bigger deal for fans of slow trekking, than for trekkers who just want to reach the peak. So it was that by Day 5, I still managed to notice curious things as usual, but either forgot or were simply too tired to follow up with someone about them. Like this sigil, for example, often affixed on doors of the guesthouse rooms. It was on the door of every room in the Chomrong inn. I had wanted to ask what they meant. What does this sigil mean? Incense remains And the morning ritual that some innkeepers practice, which seemed to involve incense burning and prayers. I missed the chance to learn about that, because I was simply too tired. If anyone knows, do let me know on my social channels if the comments field has been disabled. The market village of Chomrong At the edge of Annapurna Sanctuary lies Chomrong, a large Gurung village that begins at the top of a hill and meanders in a sprawl of guesthouses, shops, and cafes all the way down the valley. Wait, did you say cafes? Inside Annapurna Conservation Zone? The cafes in Annapurna I reckon that Chomrong was probably already a market centre in the Annapurnas even without the trekking. The slopes of the valleys are well-farmed, and a significant part beyond it as well. But since Chomrong is also the last regularly inhabited settlement before the sanctuary precincts begin, naturally it became a congregation point for trekkers heading to the base camp as well. All the trekking routes would pass through here, because the way into Annapurna Sanctuary was across a river gorge at the edge of the village, via a long, slender cable bridge. So, and I think even more so than in Ghorepani, there are businesses here that cater for the foreign trekkers. In fact, even as far back as Ghorepani and in all the stopping points through Tadapani, there are signs advertising organic coffee and baked goods in Chomrong and Ghandruk. I don't have to mention that Chomrong would also have bakeries - and of course they would be German! Yes - the ubiquitous GERMAN bakeries! Yes, the far building is advertising hot pizza My inn even offers hot pizza, although not in the off season. That's the caveat of trekking the Annapurnas in the monsoon - the more 'foreign' offerings are more likely to be available only during peak periods. And... get this: of all the bizarre things... you can also get chocolate cake in Chomrong! And it's supposed to be really good! I think maybe trekking companies should offer trekking packages that pause a little bit in Chomrong. As a Malaysian I felt as if I let my food-mad nation down by finding out about the unexpected food options in Annapurna and yet not sampling any of them! Chomrong's 'shopping centre' We made our way down through the village after breakfast. I want to say 'briskly', except that the cold and my tired muscles would not allow that. But this was the day when I would finally see if I could get some Tiger Balm. And of course, the shop that sells it had to be all the way at the bottom of the hill. To be honest, by this time I had fallen into a state of indifference over the matter. Certainly the remainder of the trek - an ascent of nearly 2000 metres over the next three days - would be much easier if my muscles had some help tonight. But the exhaustion and the damp had become normal, even though it has only been a few days. Indeed, just over a week ago, I had found it hard to will myself to embark on this journey. Now, Malaysia and my desk job and my urban routines that had been so hard to leave already seem like distant memories of a different life. We finally arrived, at the shop that the locals call the 'shopping centre'. The most successful brands in the world? Chomrong Shopping Centre was not so very big, but it did seem to have the best range of any of the shops I'd seen on the trekking route so far. It seemed to cater both for the local farmers, as well as for the passing trekker. I looked over the choices for confectionery and drinks, chocolate and cookies, things as far apart as instant noodles and toilet paper. These must be the things in demand by the outsiders, when they are far from home in the remote highlands of Nepal. In fact, a few of those items - and I'm talking specific brands of chocolate bars and potato chips - were so much in demand, they are frequently offered right in the food menus of restaurants and guesthouses. I reckon you could say, they won the brands competition! Locals call it the 'shopping centre' The most successful brands in the world? Relief!!!! The shop's OTC medication section did have Tiger Balm. It seems that all Asians everywhere are united in our belief in Tiger Balm as the sacred remedy for all manner of sores and ills. One way you could tell that you're in an Asian airport, is if the airport shop has a whole shelf for Tiger Balm. In fact, if the Illuminati were Asian, the initiation ritual might very well involve Tiger Balm. And so my epic quest in search of muscle relaxant cream that began three days ago was concluded. I had found my holy grail. I picked out the larger jar, and bought one. My epic quest is over. No, I don't mean the ABC trek. Entering Annapurna Sanctuary The precincts of the plateau forming the Annapurna Sanctuary area is sacred territory for the Gurung people. In fact, from almost the first day I checked into Pokhara, it was apparent that Machapuchare (the 'Fishtail' mountain) was particularly special to the local Nepali people. Its peak is always pointed out and admired. At first I thought it was merely because it had the most distinctive profile, and hence was the most recognisable peak. But later, I found that Machapuchare is a sacred mountain, and associated with the Hindu deity Shiva. Thus the area within the sanctuary is not normally inhabited. What I mean by this, is that there are no villages per se, like those along the trekking route thus far. There are still guesthouses, but these exist only for the trekkers that come visiting. No beasts of burden towards the sacred mountain Devi told me that if I needed anything - whether amenities or supplies, snacks or treats - I should buy them here in Chomrong. Beyond, they would be much more expensive. Why? I asked. She explained that all goods in Annapurna Sanctuary are brought in (or back down again), entirely on the backs of people. No donkeys or mules, no ponies or horses cross into the sanctuary bearing loads. It was one of the rules of the sanctuary, that beasts of burden are not used within the sacred ground. Everything? But, how do they kit out the guesthouses?? I thought of the beds and the blankets, the tables and the chairs, the gas canisters for the hot showers and the kitchen. "Nepali men are strong!" replied Devi proudly, flexing a bicep. And indeed, as we left Chomrong to start the trek, I saw two Nepali men trot past us towards the long cable bridge, bearing loads on their backs. I felt that I was cheating by having Seema help me with my load, going into the sanctuary. No animals may be used Keep vegetarian within the Sanctuary Near to Sinwa, I came across a sign explaining another taboo of Annapurna Sanctuary. It is a vegetarian zone. Well, technically the sign only listed 'chicken, pork, and buffalo'. Did that mean other meats were allowed? Or is it just because those were the sorts of meats that people commonly eat locally, and it simply didn't occur to them to prohibit any other kind? And what about fish? Devi did not think beef was exempted (probably obvious). In any case, it seemed that the intention was to be vegetarian. Fortunately, I was staying vegetarian on the entire trek anyway, which is the easy way of keeping halal. That said, in the coming days, I saw that not all the trekkers respected this taboo. Respect the taboos of the sacred precinct Reflections concerning sacred ground I was on this trek to Shiva's sacred grounds (although I didn't know that when I began), at the same time as many of my co-religionists were preparing to make pilgrimage to our sacred grounds in Mecca. It was the holy pilgrimage that would end in the 'Bigger Eid', when the faithful would donate a livestock animal for slaughter. Indeed, that part is perhaps what sticks to mind for non-Muslims. Nor is it perhaps widely known, that in the sacred precincts of Mecca itself, no living thing may generally be harmed. Throughout the rites of haj, pilgrims may kill nothing, nor harm any living thing - not a branch of a tree nor an insect - save only for defence. The context is often missing, that traditionally livestock are foods eaten during special occasions due to its expense, and it also forms repositories of wealth for many rural societies. Thus, aside from its scriptural significance, its donation for general public festivities carries the meaning of the rich taking the greater share of supporting the community, and enabling food inclusivity. So I understood the taboo of Annapurna Sanctuary. It was not that there is a double standard between one location and everywhere else. Different from modern Western vegetarianism, it is not a philosophy that comes from man's own opinions about what is appropriate for all mankind everywhere. As I've observed in my travels before in Oman and the Maldives, there are places in the world where it simply isn't feasible to be vegetarian, and unnecessary. Rather, the taboo was a matter of respecting the permission to kill for food. That it is not an inherent right of man, but a grace from the divine. Hence the concept invariably comes with values of temperance, and frowns on excess (sadly, not always lived up to in many cultures in these prosperous times). And in the grounds where the divine has withheld the permission, it is a test for the faithful to submit to His authority. All religions have more in common than is apparent. But only those who understand can see it. Hijra into Annapurna Sanctuary Looking back at Chomrong We began climbing once more, soon after crossing the cable bridge. Although my legs were no better than they were that morning, the fact that I had Tiger Balm in my baggage somehow unlocked willpower reserves, and I trudged upward with greater spirit. That, and maybe also the fact that the sun had decided to shine upon us, warming us with its rays. Funny thing, psychology. At one point I looked back across the gorge. Perched small and high atop a shelf that ended in a precipitous drop, were tiny buildings. Was I really just there? Chomrong, confirmed Devi. Was I really there just this morning? All the way atop there? I could hardly fathom it. If that morning's trek looked as impressive as that, I wonder how I would feel to see from afar what I had achieved getting to Ghorepani. Beautiful insects along the Sanctuary trail Birdsong in Annapurna Sanctuary The warming sun was welcome not just to us trekkers. Butterflies chased each other along the trail, and birds began singing around the hills. Devi whistled back at them, causing some of them to call - perhaps confusedly - back. Colourful beetles roused themselves to movement, creeping over leaves in their bright exoskeletons. It made for a pleasant morning hike. I found many reasons to pause that morning. There were so many tiny things to appreciate in the mountains in the summer. The more so if you slow down, stoop low, and learn to look upwards! Slow trekking as a naturalist By this time, my guide and porter had gotten used to my diversions to examine insects, spider webs and flowers. They worked out that I was not their usual trekking client. In fact, I was not the trekker type at all. I was journeying to the base camp like everyone else on this trail. But my eyes were not only on the mountain. Although I did not have the science to identify the alpine life I found, this not being my favoured ecosystem, I still enjoyed finding them. And I particularly enjoyed discovering how lovely even the tiniest, plainest flowers look close up. Before long, I was sharing my clip-on micro lens with Devi, who proved to be much more competent with it than me. There were many ladybirds photographed in the Sanctuary for the remainder of our trek. Devi was also much better at creeping close to butterflies and birds to take photos of them. She pointed out the orchids, but told me they bloomed only in the March-April period. Even Seema began to relax and enjoy the flowers of summer, stooping and clucking over them every so often. It was her first expedition outside of the peak season. She herself was seeing the mountain and her summer blooms with new eyes. I felt glad to be that different kind of trekker for them. This one took many tries to get the focus right One of the singing birds. Photo credit: Tuldevi Paija The amazing language skills of Nepalis We stopped at Sinwa for lunch. It was just as well, since it began to rain. As we rested, other travellers came and sheltered as well. I was content to sit sipping my after-lunch tea, listening quietly. A Singaporean trekking with Caucasian companions, asking their reassurance that his trekking speed was 'correct'. A group of Nepali guides and porters arriving ahead of their party, laying down their loads. Speaking to a client in... Italian? One thing I discovered quickly once I arrived in Nepal, was that many Nepalis are multi-lingual. Aside from Nepali, they would invariably also speak Hindi. But on top of that, it was not unusual - at least in touristy Pokhara - for them to also speak other languages. My guesthouse host in Pokhara, and his driver, who both appeared so humble and provincial, surprised me by conversing fluently and comfortably in Japanese with their Japanese guests. They learned it on their own. In the driver's case, he had worked in Japan and picked it up there. And the trekking guides throughout Annapurna? I have heard them speak English, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Italian, and attempting to learn Chinese from clients. You might say, 'but they work in tourism, of course they need to pick up the languages'! OK, now look into your own countries (as I did for mine), and think about whether tourism providers in any of ours could match the repertoire of the Nepali trekking guides. No? I thought so. Apparently I pass for Nepali Some of the guides struck up a conversation with mine. They seemed curious. There was a Nepali guide in particular, leanly-fit and with an intelligent face, who kept turning back to stare at me, but much too professional to leave his client to satisfy his curiosity. He was kind of cute, actually. My name in Nepali script We have attracted the curiosity before. A woman trekking alone with a female Nepali guide and a female Nepali porter? Not only that, the woman looked Nepali herself? What is this phenomenon? Yes, I realised this on arrival in Nepal, ever since the immigration officer waved me over into the Nepali line, thinking I was mistakenly standing in the 'foreigner' line. But no, it was not a Nepali client after all. Just a Malaysian woman. Which, I guess, is still a novelty! I asked Devi, whether ordinary Nepalis come to Annapurna to trek like the foreigners do. From Kathmandu, for example. Not really, she said. Although there have been some lately. I thought that sounded encouraging. Meeting fellow Malaysians in Annapurna In the background, some newly arrived guides were speaking. The language sounded familiar. Very familiar. They were speaking Malay. What on earth- ? Soon the rest of the train arrived, a group of Malay men jovially joking with each other in that very typical way they do, so familiar to me. Unsurprisingly, they did not travel light. Besides what their porters carried, they themselves carried full loads. Let me explain. Malaysians travelling to type, travel in groups, and travel with food. I knew what they would have, even if they did not open their bags. Very likely canned sardines, probably eggs, instant noodles, and possibly also serunding (spiced meat floss; hopefully fish floss, since they were in the sanctuary, after all). I remained quiet as they had their lunch. I don't remember how it happened, but they finally worked out that of the three women in the restaurant with them, one was their own. And what happened next was one of the most hilarious things ever. The Malaysian belle of Annapurna We were surrounded by a group of men seated around the table, watching us with fascination. The guys were excited. Fancy that, a Malaysian woman - a Malay one too! all by herself - all the way up here in the mountain! With her own guide and porter! Who was she? What was her name? Is she really here on her own? How long has she been in the mountain? Where is she going? Where has she been? Her guide and porter are both women? Have them come over too! The fabled lady of the wood (with more practical clothes) It emerged that they were a group of friends who did climbs like this together every so often (whenever their significant others would let them). There were indeed benefits to going solo, some of them owned, when I told them about my trekking situation. Sometimes it's really hard to get other people to confirm. It was. And even more so if you're female. Have you climbed Kinabalu then? One of them asked me, referring to our tallest mountain. Er, no. Actually, I'm not even a mountain sort of girl. Really more like a coastal sort. He paused and looked at me intently. Wow. And your first mountain, you decided to go straight to climbing the Himalayas? I actually hadn't thought of that. But he was right. I guess it was kind of climbing. And OMG I did pick the tallest mountain range in the world! What was I thinking?! Too late now. The gallant men of Sinwa Maybe we could hire women guides next time, somebody mused. What about porters? Surely not porters, said his friend. Why not? Look, here's one right here! "Tak gentle la... Takkan nak bagi orang pompuan bawak...*," the friend replied. Well of course not everything! I'd carry much of it! was the defensive reply. I wasn't sure how much of it was understood by Devi and Seema. But we all laughed at their antics. They moved on first, intending to make good time. They were making the ascent and back down again in much less time than we would. It was a cheaper overall trip that way, they said. When the three of us moved on as well, I noticed an interesting sign on one of the restaurants. It was proudly advertising laundry services - with a washing machine. This far into the sanctuary - which hero or heroes carried that washing machine on their backs? The way to Bamboo The way from Sinwa to Bamboo felt different from the trails we passed through in the earlier days. We walked through forests where the trees rose tall overhead, and past high slopes. The rains began again, and the mists returned to permeate the wood. It was not so very far from the domestic scenes of Chomrong, yet the grandness of the wild space already quite easily made me feel small and insignificant. There was always water - from above, in vapour, and in many streams that fell from the tops of the mountains down every slope, and there were many bridges in Annapurna Sanctuary. Soon we began to see the bamboo forests that our evening destination was named after. And - unsurprisingly - the steep flagstone steps, always. But although there were mostly stone steps through the forests and up the cliffs, and bridges across the streams, there were points where I would not have been sure where to go. A few times, were it not for Devi picking her way up a side of stone, or down an earthen track, I'm not sure where I would have gone. The bamboo forest This is a trail?? Humbling reflections in the sanctuary It was not easy, hiking up the punishing steps with inflamed muscles. But at long last we arrived at the guesthouse in Bamboo. Partly because of the distractions of the morning, it had been a much longer trekking day than usual. So it was close to sunset by the time we settled in to our rooms. The guesthouse was set in a clearing right along the trail itself, with detached buildings for the rooms, the bathrooms, and the dining hall. I was cold. There was electricity, but there were no double-glazed windows here, and no furnace. The resident cat curled up on the cushioned bench at the dining table, oblivious to the world. He was cold too. In fact, he was so well past caring that he didn't twitch when I mischievously laid a deck of cards upon him. When the hot shower was ready, it was a gas fired one - for damn sure. And it was extremely difficult to leave the bathroom, for it meant leaving the warmth and the steam, and the delicious heat. Over dinner I reflected on my weakness, and my privilege. I did not belong in the mountain, a creature of the hot equator. The mountain folk take this chill in stride. But despite my fleece and thermals, I still craved the heat of the shower to take the chill out of me. It was a luxury only possible in the sanctuary because of the energy-dense gas fuel, which the Nepalis carried far up the mountain, on the same trail that I managed only with much labour and difficulty. And it wasn't even priced beyond my reach. I get a guardian in Bamboo I was roomed in the upper floor of the two-storey guest building. Like many of the guesthouses in Annapurna, there was a resident dog. Unlike most of the rest, which were a kind of black and white mix, this one was brown. And it liked to lie on the stairs, which made me wary until I was satisfied that it was tame, and had the manners to keep a polite space bubble. There was a small group of young Italian guys there in Bamboo that night with us. They took the room next to mine, closer to the stairs. I half wondered if I ought to make friends, but as with most people who already have travel companions, they were absorbed in each other. The dog, though, didn't quite approve of them. It growled at them mistrustfully, although it did let them pass to their room. The brown dog did, however, decide to take upon itself the responsibility of my security. It moved from its spot and settled right in front of my door. None could pass the corridor to my door without crossing it. I couldn't help but smile at that. Tired as I was, it was unnecessary but comforting nonetheless. I settled in for the night after a good rubdown with the Tiger Balm, took both thick blankets in the double room, and cocooned myself in my thermal liner under them. And only then was I warm. When I woke the next morning, the loyal little brown dog was still there. Bless his little heart Notes: *colloquial Malay, meaning 'it's not gentlemanly... surely we can't let a woman carry our load...' Do you stop to take pictures of tiny nature bits while trekking too? You might want to let your trekking company know, and ask for extra time for slow trekking purposes!