Annapurna in the Monsoon Day 3: The Rock Stacks by the River
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. By this time, she would have finished her reconnaissance.
Are we headed out or not?
- Trekking in the Rain
- The Elvish Forest Trail to Tadapani
- Rock stacking in the mountains
- Pit Stop before Ban Thanti: Trekker Reunions
- Approaching Tadapani
Poon Hill - fogged in the monsoon or not?
She told me it was a very foggy morning. Instead of lifting from the previous day, it had thickened. There was no view of the Annapurna peaks at the famous Poon Hill viewing point.
Oh well. On the plus 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.
In one of the villages where we stopped on Day 2, there was a little mural that I took a photo of. Over breakfast, I looked at the photo. It showed the Poon Hill view, and labeled the different peaks that the trekker would see.
Who knew, that was the only Poon Hill view I would have!
The three of us wandered through Ghorepani that morning. I needed to stop by the pharmacy and get some Tiger Balm, before we left Ghorepani to begin the day's trek.
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 was hopeful.
"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. The shops were for the locals, not tourists. The 'supermarket' there would be open.
But I'd have to last for another two days.
Oh well. There's nowhere else to go but forward.
Trekking in the Rain
As we left Ghorepani we met up with the English couple, Bill and Sophie, with 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.
Nonetheless, the route from Ghorepani to Tadapani felt fresher, somehow. There were more stretches that were fairly level, and Nepal wildflowers dotted the sides. 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, as 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, Devi remarked that she loved ladybugs herself. It was one of her favourite photography subjects.
The Nepali downpour: worst of both worlds
I resigned myself to being rained upon all day. All hope that perhaps 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.
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, having studied there for a time, and lived there off and on during my marriage. The 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. Torrential rain that never seems to ever be done. I'm not astonished that this is the off season.
Nonetheless, the incessant rain is what yields the verdant summer Annapurna, its elvish mists and fairy forests. And 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.
The leech-be-gone device!
It goes without saying that the continuing rain meant that the leeches continued to menace the trail. As 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.
Sometimes I thought I had checked myself sufficiently, but later felt a wriggling inside my sock or under 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, it was a pain trying to flick them off; it slows down the trek. They're very sticky too, and can stubbornly cling to your finger as you're trying to send it off into forest oblivion.
So I was curious when we stopped to rest at a lodge of sorts, and Seema went in the back for quite a while. She came back out with 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 could 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 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 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 said.)
The Elvish Forest Trail to Tadapani
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.
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.
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. 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 could be slippery, 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 it, so the whole thing is on camera, complete with Devi and Seema's laughter!
The lovely streams of Annapurna
This route also had 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 instead.
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.
The memorial cairns: between England and Nepal
The landscape of Annapurna brought a strong sense of familiarity to me. 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 temporarily on yet another one of these cairns, I asked Devi what they were.
She said, they were to commemorate people who used to live here. 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. I wondered, just how many deadly landslides happened in these mountains?
Not all of the cairns would have any messages in written script. But they would have a recessed triangle where offerings would be left - flowers, perhaps, judging from the dried remnants within the little alcoves.
And although 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 donated benches along the cliffs and piers of English coastal towns?
Rock stacking in the mountains
I saw my first rock stacks on one such 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 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 flicking like tassels with a kind of wabi-sabi charm.
I looked around, and there were 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!
By the rushing river: is rock stacking unsustainable?
We caught up with Kim's group at the rock stacks by the river. It was an incredible sight.
The shallow rapids raced by quickly, swirling past a rocky bank where previous travellers had constructed 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. I could see Bill and Sophie trying to capture photographs of the surreal landscape.
For a time I simply stood and gazed at the field of rocks. I wondered, how long the rock stacks had 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 is 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 the cobbles and boulders remaining undisturbed or left for their use.)
Pit Stop before Ban Thanti: Trekker Reunions
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 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 German bakeries everywhere
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 major villages we passed through. I mean, why not French?
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.
Considering how many Syrians they are absorbing today, I guess Germany has a track record of humanity after repenting from the World War. Although, the scale of the refugee crisis in the present day is certainly testing that compassion commitment greatly.
Bathroom breaks along the Annapurna circuit
The rain finally let up some. We geared back up and prepared to go. Before setting off though, I took a bathroom break.
Toilet 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) this was not actually necessary. 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. (Bear in mind I speak as an Asian, for whom bidets/water washes and squat toilets are already perfectly normal).
Even those attached to 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??
We resumed the trek. Our companions had gone ahead, and we had the trail to ourselves again.
It was elven wilderness again, 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.
Annapurna monsoon trekking: there may be landslides
There was a crashing sound at one point. My guide listened close. Landslide.
Excuse me what?
I thought back to the memorial cairns, and was not enthused over witnessing the cause for their need. Indeed, we passed by a section of trail where a little bit from the curve had slid down the slope.
I was glad I came with a guide.
Arriving in Tadapani: 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 often common to highly touristed locations. But they are exceptional at providing guesthouses that are warm and cosy, efficient and inclusive in piping hot food, and dining halls that are inviting to everyone from all over the world, without being anything other than their own mountain folk selves.
The guesthouse in Tadapani was my favourite, because it had a somewhat maternal vibe in that cosy welcome.
Accommodations in Annapurna
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.
The plus for trekking solo in the off season is that you often would get the room all to yourself, even if it's normally meant for two (or even 4, as happened in Ghorepani).
You would also be likely to get not just one, but two blankets 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 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, my thermal liner would suffice even at the base camp.
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.
Well... warmth and food and shelter and... the camera phone.
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 did not usually travel. For some of them, it was not that they were not interested, but they are unable whether by family, work, or physical constraint.
I found I couldn't travel like other adventurer 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 target was 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.
A warm evening in Tadapani
I went back down to the hall after sorting out my damp gear. Like Ghorepani, our guesthouse in Tadapani 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 to the stove end. The 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. And 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!
To go to the complete Annapurna Sanctuary Trek Series, click here.