Annapurna in the Monsoon Day 4: Glimpses of Machapuchare
Perhaps the goddess took pity on me. But the fingers of fog parted from about the Annapurnas in the morning of the fourth day. For a lingering moment in the cold early morning, she showed me a little teasing glimpse of Machapuchare peak - the Fishtail mountain.
This was a peak I had seen before, from my guesthouse in Pokhara. But the fog had obscured the view of the Annapurna mountain peaks on my trek thus far. And this time, I could see the notch of the fishtail clearly.
- Waste Collection Along the Trekking Trail
- Buffalo in the Mountains
- Entering Gurung lands
- Farming in the Annapurna Highlands
- Chomrong: The Village on a Slope
We said goodbye to Kim as we set off on our journey. Sophie and Bill would make their way back down after Tadapani. They were not going up to the base camp. Quite right - it would not be a great honeymoon without some leisure time.
As for me, I really needed to get to Chomrong today. My whole body was truly aching, and I needed to get some Tiger Balm if I was going to last all the way up to Annapurna Base Camp. The market village of Chomrong was the only place where I could get medical supplies.
The Fey Woods of Tadapani
We re-entered the lush elfin forests around Tadapani. The beginning of this route was reminiscent of parts of Day 3, except somehow even more fairylike.
I ruminated on the route the day before, Ghorepani to Tadapani. I asked my guide, what 'pani' means. Watering place, for horses, she replied.
The trails were flatter, and moss grew all over the tree stumps, boulders and fallen trunks. The grasses and flowering creepers clinging with a dryad's charming fetters. Dark leaves lay along our path, wet with the rains overnight.
We picked our way down slopes beneath the gaze of the moss-clad trees.
"You know what this area is perfect for?" I said to my guide, who had confessed to me a passion for photography. "Wedding photography." I told her about the kind of photography that is all the rage in more idle societies, with the fantasy billowing dresses in magical dreamy forests just like this one.
"I'm not kidding. You would not believe the profit margin." Although, you'd have to get the bride and groom, and the equipment, all the way up here in the first place, I suppose.
Waste Collection Along the Trekking Trail
Before long though, we left the forest and came upon lands that look to be more cleared. I reckon this meant that soon we would come upon habitations.
In the past couple days I noticed that there would be a large bag nailed to a tree, along the trekking trails. Of course, the primary waste were plastic water bottles and food wrappers.
I asked Devi whether they were placed there on purpose. She affirmed it.
"By whom?" I asked. The youth of the villages, my guide said.
"And they come along these trails to empty them?" I questioned further. She affirmed it again.
I saw another example the next day, down in the village of Chomrong. Young Nepali men out in the morning, trimming weeds from the flagstone steps near their own holdings.
I reflected on the relatively tidy trails of Annapurna and brought to mind the hiking route to the wind turbines of Perhentian Island. What accounts for the difference in waste? Nothing but the people. The people living there, and the kind of people who are tourists there.
What is civilisation? The community wealthy enough to make the waste? Or the community united enough to organise and remove it from common spaces?
Community organisation in Nepal
I observed this from the beginning of my arrival in Nepal, actually. Amidst the chaos of Kathmandu, yet I still saw while wandering around Boudhanath, entryways and arches leading to community organisations of all sorts. Even one for the welfare of monks.
In Pokhara, the adventure tourism providers - the parasailing and whitewater rafting etc. - mention an association that they belong to, which seems to assure the quality of service provided. By Lake Phewa, even the boat operators belong to an association which regulates the prices they charge to customers.
In the Annapurnas, the villagers also organise. There are signs in every village providing a map of the trails, along with the altitude at every point. They look maintained. At waypoints, there are also frequently signs estimating the remaining walking time to the next village, such that it helps the independent trekker decide whether to press on or not.
And the community organisation extends to pricing as well.
When free market capitalism is not the better choice
My guide explained that it is so that there would not be disputes in the community. This is why you would find that, for the same restaurant menu item for example, the prices in the same sort of area would be identical.
The capitalism purists might argue that it is competition-unfriendly. That would be true. But it is also an isolated, rural community's priority that tourism dollars benefit everyone and do not engender disharmony. Unity and co-operation are what such communities depend on to remain independent and tranquil.
So could they have exploited their control over shelter and food against trekkers? Well, yes. But they have not. The prices are, by and large, fair. Especially if you consider that many of the items not typically demanded by locals, have been borne up thousands of metres by mules and sometimes by people. Just for you.
So why haven't they jacked up the prices? Of course, it's sensible not to drive away the trekking tourism. But that common sense has not stopped it happening in other tourism spots in more free market purist locations.
I don't know the answer. Maybe these mountain people are simply not afflicted with the disease of greed. Maybe it's that simple.
Buffalo in the Mountains
It was the buffalo herd grazing in a field of yellow wildflowers. That was how I deduced that we were coming near to farmland again.
I had seen them a few days ago, on a day hike out of Pokhara. The buffalo were wallowing in a pond, just like in Southeast Asia - except they were high up in the mountains, where it's cold. It cracked me up.
But this herd was even more amusing to me. I kinda associate buffalo with brawny exploits of ploughing, getting all muddy and grubby from work. But there they were almost traipsing all over wildflowers, looking so girly and fancy!
If a buffalo is on the steps with you, who has right of way?
We came across a stray one later on, on the narrow flagstone path going down a hill.
It was grazing at some verge as I came upon it. I stopped short.
Seriously. Will I always be harassed by bovine creatures in my wanderings??
But the creature looked up, and appeared mildly startled to see me there. Devi and Seema came up behind me, probably wondering why I stopped. I was about to explain, but the buffalo turned and trotted down the stone steps and away into the grasses.
Animals in Annapurna
Indeed, while trekking in the Annapurnas you would be sharing the trail with the animals of rural mountain life.
There would be mule trains carrying loads up the narrow steps and trails. These would often wear bells to warn you that they are coming. They always have right of way, since if the mules are spooked, it doesn't end well for the trekker.
There would sometimes be ponies as well, hired by the occasional trekker. Although serious trekkers consider this 'cheating'.
Annapurna for the mobility challenged
That said, I could see a case for having it available for elderly people. There was an elderly pair that looked either Korean or Japanese, passing us on ponyback the first day. I told my mother this, when she 'wished she was able enough to go' upon seeing the photos I sent over on Telegram. (She didn't take to the ponyback idea).
I suppose this also means that it may be feasible for mobility challenged people to come up into the Annapurnas.
I did wonder how truly old and weak people move about in the mountains, with the long steep steps. But then I remembered that in Nayapul, I observed a young woman literally carry a little hunchbacked old lady on her own back, as they descended down a steep slope between the buildings.
Dogs in Annapurna
It is also very likely that you would acquire a dog groupie while on the trail. One stray dog followed us after the first night in Hille, in fact. At least, until Devi shooed it away.
It's not entirely clear why they do. It's not like we were carrying food, aside from fruit. Perhaps the mere hope of food was sufficient.
Now I am not a dog person. I find the excessive enthusiasm too extrovert and tiresome. And if they are strays, I get anxious in case they're bad tempered or possibly rabid. (Hence why I'm immunised for rabies for life - it seemed like a good deal).
But dogs in the Annapurnas are different. They keep a distance, and let you have your personal space. They just follow behind, and even if they want to come close, it's in a way that I can only describe as 'politely'.
Even the dogs have zen here.
Entering Gurung lands
The lands we were passing through felt a little bit different, even though I really couldn't say why. My guide informed me that we are now passing through Gurung territory. A different ethnic group in the mountains. Chomrong was in in Gurung lands.
One difference I could say was that here there are often gardens with flowers. Great big huge lilies and roses, and peonies and all sorts - perfect and large and vibrant enough that I knew my avid gardener mother would half die of envy.
The trail began to skirt the slopes again here, and were it not for the fog, we would be able to see the mountain peaks.
Yes, the fog had returned. Thick and white, completely obscuring view into the valleys.
In fact, at one point along the trail, I saw what must be the longest cascade I had ever seen. My eyes could make out the top of the mountain where the fall began, and follow its track down, down into the valley.
But the fog obscured the top part of the cascade and in a photograph it doesn't look as long as it truly was.
No bottled water beyond Ghandruk
It's worth mentioning here, the signs at a hamlet we stopped to rest in along the way. These alert trekkers that it was the final point where they could purchase bottled drinking water. Beyond Ghandruk no bottled water is sold.
Yet another excellent reason to carry water independence with a portable filter.
The stone steps are back!
The valleys were steep and deep and wide here. Although it was not as wet as the previous day, there was moisture all around. It was, after all, the monsoon season.
To my dismay, although we are on a downward trek from Tadapani to Chomrong, the trail doesn't gradually just descend. No. There are steps, all over again.
Up, up, up. Then down, down, down. Up again, those infernal stone steps. And down, down, down. Interspersed with periods of slender tracks hugging tight the sides of sheer slopes.
I had thought the cliffside route in Katoomba was awfully 'cliffside', but Annapurna takes the cake.
Along the way we saw a crack in the narrow trail, the edge of which dropped away into a ravine. My guide advised me to hurry across. I did not stop to take a photo of the crack.
The long cable bridges
Unsurprisingly, here we began to encounter long bridges, spanning the river gorges. A particularly long one (I thought) was stretched out across a fiercely rushing river. It roared and hissed its way through, deafening to the ear.
It would not do to fall in. Not at all.
But the bridge is sturdy, with sturdy footing and good cable. New, Devi said. Because the old rope one was swept away by river and storm.
My guide pointed to its remains, swaying lightly in the spray from the river. A limpid skeleton in the shape of a bridge.
It's not a school day
Trudging on the trail, we suddenly come across a building all by itself. It was fenced and had a field of sorts, looking for all the world like a... school?
It was. A primary school. There was a collection box appealing to trekkers for funds to carry out earthquake damage repairs. According to the sign, the school had received relatively little aid, owing to its isolated location in the Annapurnas.
Wait, was this the school the kids were rushing off to on the second day of my trek? Devi seemed to indicate yes, but my mind just couldn't compute that. Surely, surely there was another school nearer than this. Perhaps there was a junction that led off to another trail, where the other school was.
Surely the children didn't rush along the whole way, that took me two days!
I checked with my guide that the appeal was above board and left some rupees in the box.
Random Fact: Nepal watches a lot of Indian TV
Some of the best things you learn from travelling, are entirely random. I think that's why I am especially partial to these - it's not just the unexpectedness of it, but the whole experience of finding out.
So while we stopped for lunch on the way to Chomrong at a little restaurant perched against a hill, we watched a little bit of TV. It was all in Hindi.
Nepal watches a lot of Bollywood. Basically for people there, it is like Hollywood for much of the rest of the world. It's not that Nepal has no TV channels of their own, but apparently the choice of programs are more limited. And the cultural influence of their neighbour is strong. In fact, as far as I can tell, most if not all Nepalis can speak Hindi.
As I mentioned, the soap opera playing on TV was in Hindi. I understand almost zero Hindi. And I don't normally watch soap operas. But there's something about the most over-the-top soap operas, that makes them inexplicably watchable. And even without understanding the language, you could work out that there is some kind of excessively convoluted soap opera storyline, that justifies the overly dramatised close-ups.
So I asked Seema and Devi to explain it. I was not sorry.
The plot revolves around a man whose wife died, and who then re-married. One day a woman came to his house claiming to be his dead wife, only not dead. He is unsure whether or not to believe her, but allows her to stay in his house - to the understandable resentment of his current wife, who firmly believes the newcomer is lying.
How long has it been since he had to decide if it's really his wife? I was curious.
8 years. And counting. I think our Malaysian cerekarama* can learn from this.
And don't even get me started on the anti-public defecation PSA music video.
Farming in the Annapurna Highlands
Soon after leaving the school, we came upon the farmlands.
They look very like the rice terraces that I had already seen in the earlier days. But as I walked on, I thought it didn't look quite right. Rice was a staple food for Malaysians too, and I ought to know what its seedlings look like. This was a different sort of grass.
I asked Devi what they were.
"Millet," she said.
Ah, so that's what millet looks like.
My guide explained that in these regions they did not grow rice, but grew millet instead. However, they still grew maize, just like in the lower altitudes. I remember seeing some maize fields earlier in the day, near the place of the tall cascades.
It was also around there that I saw a smoking shed.
It was just a shed with a woven roof, and a smoking fire. There was nothing else there as far as I could tell.
I wasn't sure what was being smoked - was something being dried? Or was the smoke meant to drive away pests?
But Devi said it was just a place for the farmer to shelter in, and it was just a fire he kept burning.
Chomrong: The Village on a Slope
We were not yet done with hiking up and the seemingly endless flagstone steps. Chomrong was not far, yet seemed forever away still.
We passed through more forest shrouded in ethereal mist, slender spines rising from slopes closely overgrown with shrubs and ground cover. And then out of the forest again, climbing paths that edged close to blossoming mountain slopes.
Then descending again, steeply, such that I began to be concerned about my knees.
The fog lay upon us always, and so I did not see Machapuchare peak again that day.
It was not very wet, but there was wind on the exposed trail. I was glad for the windbreaking layer.
Before long, Devi called a short stop at a guesthouse.
Architecture in Annapurna: then and now
The guesthouse was not blue like most of the other buildings in the Annapurnas. It was, in fact, mostly stone and dark timber.
I remembered something Devi told me on the first day, when I asked her about the blue metal sidings that were prevalent in building construction. The newer buildings, especially the ones built after the earthquake, were made with lighter wood and sided with the blue material as protection against the weather. Maybe with cemented bricks too.
The old? Those were made of stacked stone and good wood. Like the guesthouse where we stopped.
Checking in at the TIMS checkpoint
I was weary by the time we finally entered Chomrong. My legs were wobbly. It was evening and I hoped that our guesthouse was one of those really near the start of the village precincts.
Devi instructed Seema to walk onward with me, while she dealt with the TIMS paperwork. Chomrong was a trekker's checkpoint, like Ghorepani. She hurried onward, revealing reserves of strength that was otherwise hidden.
That's the thing with a real trekking guide. Unlike 'serious trekkers', they don't show off. They go at whatever pace you do, and give you no suggestion whatsoever that their own pace is far quicker. Until there's need.
Trekkers' Information Management System (TIMS)
All trekkers intending to trek in the Annapurnas need to obtain a TIMS card. The system is intended to better manage trekker safety as well as regulate trekking activities.
The easy way to do it is to utilise a trekking company, who would sort out the paperwork for you. This was what I did. This would give you a blue TIMS card, and register you as a trekker who has a trekking guide or support staff.
You could also deal with the registration yourself, and trek independently in the Annapurnas, without porter or guide. This gives you a green TIMS card, and register you as a trekker bearing all liabilities personally.
Once in the Annapurnas, you should report at all the checkpoints along the route you submitted in the system. In this way it is easier to mount a search and rescue should accidents happen.
Devi returned to us while we were still walking on to the guesthouse.
When we were settled I thought to ask her, whether the pharmacy might still be open.
"Oh, we have to go in the morning," she said. It wasn't nearby.
Wait, what? What do you mean, not nearby? Isn't it in Chomrong?
It was. But, it turned out that Chomrong village sprawls down the mountain, all the way into the valley below. I looked down from the balcony and saw what she meant.
Are you kidding me???
There was no help for it. I was certainly not in the shape to hike down there, even if the shop were open.
Guesthouse wifi in the Annapurnas
The guesthouse where I stayed in Chomrong also qualified for me as an 'inn'.
It was quite lonely when I was there. I can't remember whether there were any others besides us. The innkeeper spoke quite good English though. There was a reason why; I forgot it. But I remember that it was also the reason her inn was the only one that had double-glazed windows, the better to keep heat in.
Quite surprisingly (or not?), internet access is available in the larger Annapurna guesthouses, for a modest fee. However, because it is usually delivered by satellite, reception is unreliable in the monsoon season.
While I'm at it: phone charging stations are also common in the dining halls of the larger guesthouses, also for a fee. I brought a socket adapter that also provides multiple USB connection points. As my colleague Cristin pointed out, in case of a full house, it would likely win me priority charging rights.
But in the off season, there's no need to compete for sockets. And since the Nepalis are clever enough to fit themselves out with universal sockets, I didn't need the adapter either.
Cold and damp and miserable
The guesthouse was meant to have an incredible view of the Annapurnas. But the fog stayed thick, and soon night fell. Without companions to be merry with, we turned in early.
I ached too much anyway.
And by this time I was slowly running out of dry socks. I was beginning to feel the cold of the mountains, and had to sleep with my thermal layers.
The incessant rain was beginning to get to me.
But the next morning, the fates relented again. The mountain unveiled the mists slightly to show me - just the very tip - Machapuchare peak a second time.
'cerekarama' = telenovela
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