Annapurna in the Monsoon Day 1: An Expedition of Three Sisters
My female trekking guide hefted my backpack with one arm, testing the weight. She glanced at my red hiking day bag, which I would carry myself.
"You can move more things into the backpack," she said. "It's still light." Mildly astonished, I decided to shift a change of clothes into the backpack, but otherwise I didn't really have anything else that made sense to move. Wasn't it close to 10kg already? Besides, some space needed to be left for my porter to put her own things in.
My female porter peeped in at the door. My guide spoke to her in Nepali. She considered the backpack and seemed satisfied with it. She began adjusting the back straps slightly to suit her frame, and finished up the packing.
I bid goodbye to the people at the Cherry Garden, and we went on our way.
To begin my first trekking experience - a 10-day hike up to Annapurna Base Camp.
- 1 Mermaid in the Mountains
- 2 Nayapul - The Start of the Trek
- 3 The route between Nayapul and Hille
- 4 Tikhedhunga, Hille
Mermaid in the Mountains
I made the decision to trek the Annapurnas, before knowing precisely how I was going to do this. I simply trusted it will all come to me.
I had a vague notion that it was possible to hire guides and porters. But I had no idea how to choose a trip that didn't mean I had to do the trek with intimidatingly experienced trekkers. I don't think I could deal with that type (and I know that type), on my very first trekking attempt.
And yet, how comfortable would I be, to be on a trek for days with just my guide and porter? Wasn't it going to be awkward? Especially if I am injured, or suppose unspecified embarrassing things happen - given I am a trekking novice?
I didn't even know what to pack for this, that would fit in a single backpack. I mean, I know what I need for an island. But what's normal for trekking in the mountains?
Funnily enough, the way was made easy for me, because at about the same time, I also began writing this blog.
I came across blogging networks - most especially ones specifically for female travellers and bloggers, such as Female Travel Bloggers. The trip became a lot less intimidating to prepare for, because of the wonderful outdoorsy women who share their experience in these networks.
3 Sisters Adventure Trekking
It was another travel blogger there, who told me about 3 Sisters trekking company. I had asked for recommendations, and was almost settled on a local guide that a different female blogger recommended highly.
But then it occurred to me, I should try to make this Nepal/India trip as sustainably as I could. Just to see how much sustainability value I could pack into it. So I asked again, for recommendations - this time with an emphasis on sustainability.
I went with 3 Sisters. They are the first to train female guides and even porters, and so give a livelihood option for women in Nepal, hence increasing their empowerment.
It blew my mind. It seriously had never occurred to me to ask if a female trekking guide was even an option. And a female porter as well? I was intrigued. I was sold.
It was my first time in the 'real' highlands, so I was prudent (Cameron does not count, and I think neither does the Peak District). I was going to give myself the best chance to avoid altitude sickness. So I settled on the longer of the trek options - 10 days Annapurna Sanctuary Teahouse trek, all the way up to Annapurna Base Camp.
Nayapul - The Start of the Trek
I don't know what I imagined, trekking in the Annapurnas. But the beginning of the trek kind of fits my imagination.
Nayapul was clearly a trekker's gateway to the mountains. We descended to it, after the car dropped us off at a restaurant near the top where we utilised the restroom. My guide and porter - for some inexplicable reason - acquired for themselves large bin bags, which they carefully stowed away in their backpacks.
I don't know whether it always looked like this, or whether this was Nayapul as rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake. It was a hodge-podge of shop rows, separated by packed gravel streets. Most of the shops offered food and trekking-related supplies, for last minute buys.
In one or two locations, roadworks were in progress to pave the street. I observed these signs of re-construction throughout the time I spent around Pokhara. Bridges and roads, even dams for hydroelectric power. Effort.
Yes, people who go to Nepal usually report back on its exoticness, its spirituality, yoga and monasteries. The very name - Kathmandu - evokes Shangri-La images of a mountain avalon, safely veiled from our defilement by the highland mists.
But although I don't identify as one, I am technically an engineer. So, who else but a travelling engineer, ought to report back on the effort that Nepalis are making in the more practical aspects of infrastructure?
After taking care of the paperwork at a trekking registration station, my guide Devi got some bananas and offered one to me.
The Asian (non)trekker - medical supplies
One of my misgivings about trekking had been around medicine.
I travel with a reasonably kitted out medical kit anyway, for typical travel ailments. After all, even small ailments could make a trek a lot more difficult, ruining the experience. I just needed to add altitude sickness pills, maybe electrolyte sachets and an extra course of diarrhoea meds (yes, I'm Malaysian and we tend towards the cautious side!), and I should be all right.
But I could not convince my doctor to give me a course of antibiotics. Even though I know not to abuse it*! If you get a bacterial infection, first come down from the mountain! Do not keep going! Then the doctor there will prescribe the antibiotics. Sigh.
I complained to my friend of my doctor's unreasonable opinion. He listened to it, and then said (and I remember because I was irked by its sensible truth) "Damn straight". Sigh.
[Cue tragic telenovella music] Yet I imagined myself up in the mountains, just like my mom probably imagines it... bereft in the lonely mountains... and once I left civilisation behind in Pokhara... all that I had to defend myself against injury and illness ...is contained within the precious blue backpack that Seema was carrying...
oh hello, is that a pharmacy in Nayapul?
It's really a no-brainer. Of course there would be a pharmacy selling all kinds of over the counter medicines - and toilet paper - for the last minute trekker. The Annapurnas receive a steady stream of adventure tourism, and a great many of those visiting the Annapurnas enter through Nayapul.
The female (non)trekker - shiny rocks and butterflies
It was a warm August day. The beginning of the trek was an uninspiring trudge along gravel road. There were other trekkers on the road, all headed into the Conservation Area. The sole point of interest was the glittery, silvery stone pieces strewn along the path, that I had already marvelled at during a hike the previous day.
But at least it was warm. So warm in fact, that I was glad I saved my long sleeves for another day. I packed my jacket away. Even having it tied around my waist was too warm.
Something caught my attention on the bright silver-gray path. A lone butterfly, winking with its wings. I stopped, and watched the light green spots on its wings flash in and out of sight. I learned from a friend once, to catch those flickers with slo-mo. Devi and Seema came over to watch the butterfly with me, until it finally flew away.
I'm not a particularly feminine woman - at least, by Asian standards. But that was the first of many instances, when I was truly glad of making the trip with both a female trekking guide, as well as porter.
We were trekking up to the base camp, but we stopped to coo over a butterfly together.
The route between Nayapul and Hille
The trail passed into light wood at a sign marked 'to Ghorepani'. We entered gratefully into the more shaded paths. It really was a hot walk thus far.
We passed in and out of the wood, skirting around terraces of green, young shoots of hill rice. Why, this was not so very bad. Not intimidating whatsoever.
But before that, of course we had to coo over more butterflies! A courting pair, at that!
The cremation by the river
We trudged onward along gravel paths, with occasional stretches paved unevenly with blocks of stone. Devi was usually ahead, with Seema bringing up the rear.
The trail hugged the slope of hills, green with farming and copses of trees. Homes of farmers perched on the hillsides, remote.
Down the valley we could see - and hear - the slender Modi rapids roaring beneath the gaze of the high forest, its waters foaming fast.
Yet, even lounder than the river, were the cicadas. Ringing loud from around the hills, from the dense wood.
It reminded me of the jungles of Malaysia - except louder.
The trail descended to take us more level with the river. Near a bend, thick smoke rose from the riverbank near a rudimentary roof structure. There was a throng of people around.
"It's a cremation," Devi explained, when I asked her. The river was a headwater of the Ganges far to the south, the holy river of the Hindus, where believers yearn to surrender their ashes at the end.
My guide hailed a passing villager and asked after the cremation. The man who would be scattered in the water was 60 years old.
The Mom of the Asian (non)trekker
This Nepal trip was my first 'real' solo trip, and within this solo trip was my first 'real' trekking experience.
Of course I had gone trekking before, when I was undergoing navy reservist training. But I had at least one whole platoon with me, and it was only in my own country. My mother felt emotionally just about capable of dealing with that. (I think she secretly kept the phone number of the Admiral of the Navy, though.)
But she fretted over this trip, even though I was not only going with a guide, but also a porter. Both of them all to myself. However, it's far away, and I think she couldn't work out how to obtain the phone number of the Nepali army chief, and demand helicopters to be sent after me in an emergency. (It's not just you, Mama! Don't be shy!)
It didn't help that her friends pass on stories about trekkers perishing in the Nepali wilderness (usually the unfortunate soul in question left his guide to wander off on his own - and yes, it's always a 'he'). I think we sort of imagined it to be like trekking in Canada - a sort of you vs the big outdoors.
Not surprising, since most people post and share pictures of the parts where nature stares you down, or swallows you in her grandeur. The Annapurnas can be that, certainly.
But actually, a lot of the trekking looks more like this!
The villages of Annapurna
Again, it really is quite obvious. 'Annapurna' in Sanskrit means abundance - the abundance of provision from the goddess of harvests.
Why would these highlands be named 'Annapurna', without people inhabiting it, benefiting from the goddess' open hand?
Indeed the valleys are green and mild, forested and farmed. Animals wander freely, and the rivers gush fierce with the rains of the monsoon. Even with the ever-present heavy cloud threatening August rains, Annapurna was brightly verdant. At times, I felt like I was trekking through the Shire.
In the villages the people were out and about. Passing us on the trail on their summer errands with the rapidity of highlanders long used to the mountain inclines. Busying themselves about their homes and farms.
We passed by some women stripping a kind of root vegetable into thin, long, curling strands. Devi told me its name, but I cannot now remember. For lunch, she said, with a cheerful grin.
Soon we stopped for lunch ourselves, at a restaurant along the route painted and sided with blue. I had my first dhal bhat there, and fortunately I liked it! Nutritious and filling, it would be a staple for the coming days.
Before long we arrived at the guesthouse where we would spend the night.
The building was mainly wooden, painted blue and white, and it was double-storeyed. I was shown to my room, and to the shower and toilets at the corner end of the corridor. There was even hot water.
Aside from the hot water and electricity, it was the most charming place I've ever stayed. I felt as if I was a traveller like the travellers of old, coming up to an inn after a long day's journey. Just like in fantasy novels and RPG computer games.
The day had not yet waned. We had made good time. I sorted myself out, filtered some more drinking water from the bathroom, and went to sit at the balcony. There were two other trekkers there with me, English newlyweds on their honeymoon.
As I rested at the porch overlooking the green fields, Devi climbed up the stairs to bring me a snack from the guesthouse. It was a kind of grilled corn, perhaps buttered. Very simple - but quite tasty with the sauce of hunger from the day's trek.
She also asked for my dinner order, so that the kitchen could prepare ahead of time. This would be routine for the coming days. Indeed, in later days, at the bigger lodges, there are signs advising the deadline for dinner orders, especially for peak trekking periods.
Musings on sustainable living
The sun set over Hille as I waited for dinner. Lights winked into life from scattered points far on the opposite hill, marking positions of farmhouses.
Solar powered, I'm told.
Enough for some light - electric, instead of firelight. Many of the lights do not stay on for very long. After dinner, they begin to mostly be switched off, dipping the hills back into darkness. So, the day cycle of life here still tracks close to the motions of the sun. Just as the fields sprouting to life all around them, an abundant promise of food.
How heavy could the footprint of a child here be, upon the earth? Surely not very burdensome at all. No, it is not expensive to raise a child here, living in this way. Not a quarter of a million. Not 58 tons CO2 per year.
That's the cost of children, if living a wasteful, vain, FOMO, urban lifestyle. People like me, who don't feed ourselves by our own toil well within the limits of our local natural setting, and whose children probably won't either. Who pour funds into acquiring all manner of advantages because we must compete for - and afterwards cling to - the best jobs. Who cling to hopes of immortality, sparing no expense of wealth and technology to prolong life as much as possible.
We are heavy on the earth, and expensive.
But not them.
Tales of the Annapurna innkeeper
My first night in the Annapurnas was merry. We all gathered on the balcony together, after our respective dinners.
The innkeeper clearly loved people, and was in good form that night. In Nepali-style English, he kept the conversation going.
I was pretty tired. Despite the hot tea, the falling darkness relatively undisturbed by light pollution was signalling to my body clock that it was time to rest.
But I listened on because the innkeeper was beginning to tell jokes. I can't remember exactly how it went, but one particularly raunchy one involved a brother and sister, a palace ball, a jewellery box, and an open fly.
But in the end I couldn't keep my eyes open, and left the merry company.
Day 1 was a pretty good trekking day.
*Always finish your antibiotics course. Not doing so makes it more likely that the bacteria can acquire resistance to the antibiotics, potentially evolving a strain that is immune to the medicine. And then where would we all be?
To go to the complete Annapurna Sanctuary Trek Series, click here.